Back towards the end of my "earlier life," when I was just coming out of my reactionary-right stage, and studying, "conscience" had to do with "obeying the law." Rules were rules, you know what they are, follow them and that's all. Grace was a "shot" - something that enabled you for heroic virtue to "do the right," at any cost. Now, I'd been wondering about these for a while, and my studies led me to Aquinas. For him, the moral life was about pursuing the "good" - a quality, not a legal referent. Much more complicated and uncertain, pursuing the good means a wider role for conscience. I have to consider - seriously and thoughtfully - the "law," but I must also reflect on what my imagination, my intellect and my intuition tell me. These too are valid and necessary sources of information, and so the "informed conscience" seeks their input. What are the real possibilities for me? What is the base issue?
Fr. Roy Bourgeois obviously followed this road too. It led him to begin protests at the School of the Americas - where some of the most terrible dictator-terrorists in the western hemisphere were taught their trade. Maryknoll wasn't thrilled, I'm sure, especially when he was arrested, but they supported him. The tide turned only - and that's important - when his conscience led him to support the cause of ordaining women.
Fr. Roy sought "the good." He examined the basis for church teachings (intellect) but as he delved into this further - understanding the sources of objections to these teachings - he saw the base issue wasn't "the Gospels" but gender, and justice.
The "good," as I said earlier, is a quality. It has to do with pursuing what brings about the Reign of God on earth. That, according to Aquinas, requires justice. The "right" is a legal referent, obedience to laws. Aquinas also tells us that "an unjust law is no law at all," and has no binding power for that reason. What is "right" does not - necessarily - bring about the Reign, the good, especially when the "right" is an unjust law.
The teaching on exclusion of women from ordination relies heavily on so-called exclusion by Jesus in the Gospels. Now, Jesus ordained no one - male or female! He was a good Jew, and the Jewish priesthood was hereditary and temple-bound (hence, there have been no Jewish priests since the destruction of the Second Temple in approximately 70 C.E.). It is highly unlikely (almost impossible) that no women were part of the Last Supper; this would have taken place during Passover, and women played a role in all Shabbat and festival meals. Two biblical commissions were appointed in the late 20th century by popes seeking solid biblical support for their stand against women. In both cases the commission had to return to their masters with a report that no biblical evidence whatsoever, in fact, supports it. There is, however, a good deal of evidence outside the Bible for the practice of women priests in the early Church - as late, perhaps, as the 9th century. The Vatican dismisses it as "anecdotal," but scholars in archaeology, anthropology, history and even ancient languages don't agree (the Vatican has no such scholars). They've seen epitaphs, letters, even records of liturgical services of ordination for women priests, deacons - even bishops! Abbesses in monasteries (co-ed until the middle ages, by the way) were consecrated with precisely the same ritual as bishops, and received the same signs of their consecration - headgear, shepherd crook, ring. The Vatican likes to say that ordained women existed in "schismatic sects," but this is not only erroneous, it's anachronistic. No such sects (no such word!) existed until the second millenium.
Well, there's a lot more to the support of women's priestly ministry, but back to Roy. Undoubtedly he was exposed to a great deal of this. Perhaps he even read (or re-read) the little book by Aquinas entitled On Kingship. In this one-hour-read Aquinas tells the story of man who is unable to find work, and therefore unable to feed his family or himself. He steals food, therefore, for himself and his family. In doing so, says Aquinas, he commits neither a sin nor a crime. Rather, the community sins against him and his family by not seeing the needs of this family and providing food, and work. They are responsible to provide for basic needs of all who live in the community and failed to do so. They should both feed the hungry (hmmm, where have I read that before?), and empower the man to provide for his family through honest work.
Here, the "right" would require the man to allow himself and his family to starve rather than steal. The "good," on the other hand, involves the immediate need (food) and the source of his moral dilemma - the lack of work by which he fell into such a state.
The Reign of God involves pursuing the fullness of who and what we, as human beings, can and should be. What holds us back is unjust. A teaching that women are excluded from ordination because Jesus did not include them is not only false, but blatant sexism and injustice. Both restrict the ability of women who are called to priestly ministry to pursue the good, to become "all they can be," to paraphrase a popular military slogan. It is therefore no "law" at all, and has no binding power.
Now, if the Maryknoll community's leaders could only find in this the courage and strength to face down the Vatican and support Fr. Roy, rather than threatening to "exclude" him! Women's communities have done so - and the Vatican backed off. Earlier Maryknolls priests and sisters defied governments, religious powers and anyone else who threatened to restrict or stop their work of pursuing the good with and for their people. What happened?
By the way, FOSIL (Faithful of Southern Illinois) is sponsoring a presentation by Fr. Roy Bourgeois and Sr. Jeannine Grammick (another "renegade" who pursues the good, supported by her community) in O'Fallon, IL on Sunday, September 25. You can find all the info on this at fosilonline.com.
Forming our conscience - and the sacred requirement to follow it - might form a pretty good subject for another blog post...so would the topic of "pursuing the good" and "being all we can be"...I'll "muse" on this. :)