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Ex-Bishop William Morris is Right

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 03, 2011

Following an unwelcome Apostolic Visitation of his diocese, Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba, Australia decided he would retire early. He was then promptly removed from office. In consequence, Morris complained that the Vatican had conducted an “inquisition”.

He’s absolutely right. The Vatican did conduct an inquisition—that is, an inquiry—into whether Morris was living up to his duties as a bishop in the Roman Catholic Church, which ordained him for this purpose. The Roman Inquisition of the late medieval and Renaissance period was established for a similar purpose; it was a patient inquiry into cases of priests and bishops who were suspected of failing to fulfill the requirements of the vocations they had voluntarily accepted from Christ and the Church. (As a rule, the Roman Inquisition was not interested in laymen who had not accepted a particular mission from the Church.)

It is true that the Spanish branch of the Inquisition came at times too much under the influence of the rulers in that region, who in turn were hard-pressed by the long history of conflict in the Iberian peninsula with the Moors, that is, with Islam. But our negative assessment of its severities, largely the result of the so-called Black Legend created by English Protestant historians, ought to be mitigrated somewhat when we realize that even the Spanish Inquisition was far more concerned with due process and fair treatment of the accused than were the secular courts of the day. In any case, the Roman Inquisition was a veritable model of late medieval and early modern jurisprudence or, as we like to say with very little sense, it was considerably ahead of its time.

Of course, technically what Morris experienced was a Visitation. Formal visitations were not operations of the Inquisition. They were (and are) conducted as a normal part of ecclesiastical administration. Thus bishops should make regular “visitations” of their parishes and of religious communities within their territorial jurisdictions, and the Holy See should make regular visitations of dioceses and religious orders. It is a routine method for assessing the health of the religious entities under one's jurisdiction, a necessary consequence of the fact that the Catholic Church covers an exceedingly wide territory, and bishops and popes neither live nor regularly work with most of those who serve under their authority in various places.

At times Visitations have been conducted on a regular schedule, much as ad limina visits are today. But for obvious reasons of time and manpower, they often tend to be performed only when a particular concern arises. In any case, a Visitation is a broader on-site inquiry, not an inquiry into some specific charge as in a legal case (which would have been the province of the Inquisition in bygone days, and would now fall either to the local bishop or the appropriate Vatican congregation), but an inquiry into the general health of the entity being “visited”. Again, Morris is correct except for a slight confusion of technical terminology. With respect to his diocese, the Vatican had conducted an “inquisition” of sorts, an ecclesiastical inquiry in the specific form of an Apostolic Visitation led by Archbishop Charles Chaput. Such things are an important part of the Vatican’s normal job.

Morris also claimed that it was like an inquisition in that the Pope “was immovable. There was no dialogue.” Here he is correct only in a limited sense, but in that particular limited sense he is once again exactly on point. There was, of course, an enormous amount of “dialogue” in all the questions raised, issues explored, and problems discussed with innumerable people on-site in order to assess the health of the diocese and the competence of Bishop Morris’ leadership. That’s the whole point of an inquisition or, in this case, a Visitation. But the purpose is not to engage in theological discussion of the Church’s teachings. Insofar as the Church’s teachings may be involved, the purpose is to determine—yes or no—whether they are being upheld and passed on, as anyone who accepts the role of bishop is bound by both logic and personal honor to do.

Now it turns out that Morris, while a bishop, was frequently remiss in this responsibility. For example, he publicly advocated the ordination of women even after Pope John Paul II taught “definitively” that the Church in fact had no authority from Christ to ordain women. But with respect to questions like this, the purpose of an inquisition or a visitation is to determine whether Church teaching is being followed, not to debate or “dialogue” over whether Church teaching really ought to be what it is, a question which is very much beyond the scope of both theologians and bishops operating alone. So in this respect, yes, Benedict XVI was immovable. “There was no dialogue.” One would be both surprised and distressed if there were, as if the Church herself could not be certain of what is a matter of faith and morals and what is not.

Ex-bishop Morris also told his former priests that “Rome controls bishops by fear, and if you ask questions or speak openly on subjects that Rome declares closed,…you are censored very quickly, told your leadership is defective…and are threatened with dismissal.” Well, I don’t know about the reference to fear. Certainly Bishop Morris had no fear about betraying his trust for many years. And it is ludicrous to suggest that wayward bishops have been “censored very quickly” or commonly “threatened with dismissal.” At times over the centuries we've seen discipline from Rome, but especially in the recent past it seems to have been exercised in inverse proportion to the number of occasions which have warranted it.

But again Morris is quite correct in principle. You may recall the ancient proverb, “Roma locuta est, causa finite est.” Rome has spoken, the cause is finished. As every bishop knows going in, the Church claims to have authority to infallibly interpret and convey from one generation to the next the details of Divine Revelation. The Church creates bishops, successors to the Apostles, to carry on her teaching office in conformity with this great gift of Divine authority, a gift which is exercised primarily by the popes in Rome. So when a bishop denies the truth of matters which Rome has declared settled, then he certainly ought to be “censored very quickly” and, if necessary, dismissed. The alternative is to permit him to undermine the Church's saving mission, her very reason for being, or perhaps even to destroy that mission altogether in his own diocese.

So William Morris is right. Moreover, he is himself that rarest of proofs, an ex-bishop. Or—more accurately—he is a bishop who has been removed from his position of authority, so as to make the public point that, owing to his own incompetence, he no longer has jurisdiction over anybody at all. If Morris is experiencing any fear at the moment, it ought to be fear for the state of his soul. As of the latest reports, he has given no evidence of renouncing his errors or repenting of his sins. But in one matter we can agree with him, for he really is right. Apparently, the proper exercise of authority is a great teacher. For Morris has finally figured out how the Catholic system is supposed to work.

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Show 7 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - May. 04, 2011 5:07 PM ET USA

    Ut videam is quite right. I used the term strictly in the sense that William Morris is the "ex-bishop" of Toowoomba, and otherwise loosely or figuratively, as I make clear in the last paragraph.

  • Posted by: Ut videam - May. 04, 2011 11:46 AM ET USA

    The term "ex-bishop" lacks accuracy. Episcopal consecration confers an indelible mark on the ordinand's soul just as diaconal and presbyteral ordinations do. He may be a bishop sinecure, a pastor nullius—but once a bishop, always a bishop.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 03, 2011 10:29 PM ET USA

    "The alternative" is still much too common, but this removal ought to serve notice that safeguarding the Faith and the faithful is of paramount importance to this pontiff.

  • Posted by: GabrielAustin9013 - May. 03, 2011 7:54 PM ET USA

    It is more correct to translate Roma locuta est, causa finita est as "Rome has spoken, case closed".

  • Posted by: kmbold - May. 03, 2011 7:26 PM ET USA

    The explanation and commentary above have made the dismissal of Bishop Morris even more satisfying. Thank you, Dr. Mirus.

  • Posted by: kathimcnamee11450 - May. 03, 2011 7:00 PM ET USA

    Praise God for strong leadership in our Catholic Church.

  • Posted by: honey_rofe19302 - May. 03, 2011 5:08 PM ET USA

    Your comment is timely and logical but I fear still able to be misquoted by mischief makers. I agree in all you argue and too, pray for the soul of our ex-bishop and for the church's replacement to occur swiftly so that the diocese can experience some growth and freshness of pastoral leadership. Kind regards Mary Rofe Toowoomba Diocese

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