Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois was fighting his old fights this week, the times having passed him by.
It’s commonly remarked that while evangelical elites and young people are partly trending leftward, the same Catholic demographic is shifting conservative. The former don’t identify with the old Religious Right icons now passing form the scene. The latter similarly don’t identify with the old Catholic left so prominent from the 1960s onward.
One nearly perfect incarnation of the old Catholic left is Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois. For over 20 years he’s continuously lived outside and demonstrated against the U.S. Army training center for mainly Latin American military officers at Ft. Benning, Georgia, formerly called School of the Americas (SOA). Critics like Bourgeois call it “School of the Assassins” and insist it trains oppressive militaries in dictatorship and abuse. They claim hundreds of graduates, out of over 60,000 trainees across the decades, have committed human rights abuses.
Rightist military dictatorships that once plagued Latin America are virtually entirely gone, having lost their hold as the Cold War ended and the new era of international commerce began. Today, nearly all of Latin America is democratic, and many of the regimes are left-leaning. The only authentic dictatorships are primarily of the left, chiefly Cuba and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuelan paradise.
Like many in his Maryknoll Order, Bourgeois, who’s now in his early 70s, was an activist regarding Central America during the 1980s. He still blames the U.S. for defeating El Salvador’s Marxist insurgency and for electorally overthrowing the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. (Of course, Daniel Ortega is now back in power, but his Nicaragua socialism, defanged of Soviet support, is no longer potent.) Bourgeois targeted the old School of the Americas for iconically representing U.S. backed repression of Marxist insurgencies throughout Latin America.
Bourgeois was in Washington, D.C. this week, demonstrating once again against the “School of the Assassins,” now formally called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC). Evidently a multi-tasker, he simultaneously defended his status within Roman Catholicism from the hierarchy’s displeasure with his campaign for female priests. He refused to renounce helping with an unofficial 2008 ordination of an aspiring female Catholic clergy. That service, organized by “Womenpriests,” convened at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Kentucky.
“It would be comparable, in a way, to me recanting my views on the closing of the SOA/WHINSEC,” Bourgeois recently told Catholic News Service while in Washington, lobbying against funding for his least favorite school. Last month, officers of the left-leaning Maryknoll order formally warned him that unless he recants, he will face dismissal from the Maryknollers for “publicly reject[ing] the teaching of the Holy Father,” with a request to the Vatican that he face “laicization.” After the 2008 unauthorized ordination, Bourgeois was pronounced latae sententiae, or effectively excommunicated, no longer qualified to receive or administer the church’s sacraments. Reportedly the Maryknollers also cut off their funding for his anti-military demonstrations.
Whatever the ultimate consequences from his ordination controversy, Bourgeois doubtless will press ahead against his main bête noir, like Ahab against the white whale. On April 10, he and 26 co-belligerents were arrested while staging a “die-in” outside the White House, now professing to be the celebrated “White House 27.” They were demanding closure for SOA/WHINSEC and an end to U.S. “militarization” of Latin America, however defined. Seemingly hard pressed for recent examples, absent General Pinochet or any ruling Argentine colonels, Bourgeois’ news release cited SOA/WHINSEC graduates involved in the 2009 constitutional ouster of Honduras’ then leftist president, who was trying illegally to prolong his power. Bourgeois claims support for his anti-school campaign from labor unions, civil rights groups, The Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, and “over 100 Catholic bishops.”
Bourgeois’ “die-in” outside the White House, like his larger demonstrations outside Ft. Benning, recall countless similar, Reagan-era protests during the 1980s, with the usual mock coffins and papier-mâché giant puppet skulls. It’s mostly an exercise in nostalgia, trying to resurrect the dramatic years when Central America was a central ideological and military battleground between East and West.
Doubtless Bourgeois has some young, diehard followers. But probably most are from his own 1960s generation. Much of the energy among active, young U.S. Catholics today inclines towards traditional social causes, like pro-life and defense of marriage. Impassioned debates over female ordination within Roman Catholicism also seem mostly, if not entirely, rooted in an older generation.
Even left-leaning young evangelicals of today are likely not commonly performing in Bourgeois’ street theater against villains of 30 years ago. They are likelier energized by environmentalism or liberalized immigration. And they are more routinely found blogging in coffee houses than carrying mock coffins outside U.S. military bases.
Bourgeois’ causes are mostly wrong-headed and irrelevant to the present day. But maybe there remains some nobility in a left-wing, aging priest who’s still defiantly beating his old war drums. The angry street protests of the 1960s through the 1980s, providing in drama what they lacked in coherence, will not likely be replicated by today’s yuppie, online activists.
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