Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview
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Vatican worked for years to remove Australian bishop

May 09, 2011

The removal of a dissident Australian bishop, announced by the Vatican on May 2, came after more than a decade of conflict between the bishop and the Vatican, and almost four years after he was originally asked to resign.

Bishop William Morris reluctantly surrendered his authority in the Toowoomba diocese as of May 2. The Australian bishop—who was only 67 years old when he stepped down, 8 years short of normal retirement age—has stressed that he did not resign.

Bishop Morris, who has complained bitterly about the manner of his departure, claims the support of most of the priests in the Toowoomba diocese, including all of the members of the diocesan College of Consultors. In addition to protesting the bishops’ removal, the College of Consultors has provided a detailed report of the bishop’s long history of conflict with the Vatican. CWN has obtained copies of that report, as have several Australian media outlets.

Friction between Bishop Morris and the Vatican became evident soon after he was installed in the Toowoomba diocese in 1993. “Bishop Morris, immediately, proved to have a very different style of leadership from previous bishops,” the Consultors report. The new bishop eschewed the Roman collar, preferring to wear a necktie emblazoned with his episcopal coat of arms. Bishop Morris encouraged the practice of scheduling children to receive their First Communion before making their first Confession. More seriously, he approved the widespread practice of services at which priests would offer general absolution, despite clear canonical directives that general absolution should be used only under extreme circumstances.

“The issue of the use of General Absolution led to a dispute between the Bishop and Cardinal Francis Arinze,” who at the time as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, the Consultors report. (Their summary adds a somewhat condescending note: “Some of this dispute took on a personal aspect.”)

In 1998, the leaders of the Australian Catholic hierarchy gathered in Rome with Vatican officials, to discuss some serious concerns about the centrifugal forces within the Church in Australia. The meeting ended with a “Statement of Conclusions” that offered a blunt critique of some commonplace practices in Australian dioceses, notably including the use of general absolution. The Statement of Conclusions was not aimed directly at Bishop Morris--it applied equally to other Australian dioceses—and it receives no particular attention in the Consultors’ time-line of the developing conflict between Toowoomba and Rome. But the December 1998 document is an important element in the overall story. The Statement of Conclusions illustrates the grave concern in Rome over the liberal tendencies of the Australian hierarchy in general, and the bishops’ tolerance of general absolution in particular. Those concerns, clearly, applied with particular force to Bishop Morris’s leadership in Toowoomba.

The simmering tensions between Bishop Morris and the Vatican came to a boil in 2006, when the Australian bishop wrote a pastoral letter in which he suggested that the Church should consider ordaining women, as a way to respond to the shortage of priests. Although he only suggested a discussion of the issue, and did not openly advocate the ordination of women, Bishop Morris was flagrantly disregarding the message of Pope John Paul II in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, that the Church cannot ordain women. He was also disregarding the Code of Canon Law, which made it a punishable offense to call into question the enduring teaching of the Church that it is impossible for women to be ordained.

When he was called to Rome to account for his unorthodox statement, Bishop Morris refused, saying that he had “serious pastoral reasons” for staying in Australia rather than answering the Vatican summons. So the Vatican assigned Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver to conduct an apostolic visitation of the Toowoomba diocese, investigating not only the bishop’s statement on women’s ordination but also the teaching and liturgical practices within the diocese. Archbishop Chaput delivered his report to Rome in May 2007. (Bishop Morris complains that he has never seen that report.)

Matters came to a head in September 2007, when Bishop Morris received a letter from the Congregation for Bishops, requesting his resignation. The Australian prelate replied that he would consider the matter. In November he replied, saying that he would like to discuss the question with Vatican officials. Cardinal Re, who was prefect of the Congregation for Bishops at that time, agreed to the suggestion, and set up a meeting in January 2008. When that meeting produced no agreement, Cardinal Re against requested the bishop’s resignation.

Bishop Morris again resisted. In June 2009 he met with Pope Benedict XVI to discuss the situation. The Pope apparently thought that the Australian bishop had agreed to step down; Bishop Morris says that he made no such promise. After yet another request for his resignation, the bishop wrote to Pope Benedict in November 2009, saying that he could not in conscience resign. The Pope wrote back, reminding him that the decision had already been made, and a papal decision cannot be appealed.

Still Bishop Morris resisted. For nearly 2 more years he continued to negotiate the terms of his departure, eventually agreeing to accept “early retirement” in the middle of 2011, but adamantly refusing to resign. Finally the apostolic nuncio in Australia informed him that his “resignation” would be announced on May 2. In fact, the Vatican finessed the question of “resignation” or “retirement” by announcing simply that the bishop had been “removed.”

Bishop Morris and his supporters have charged that the Vatican treated him unjustly. But the long history of this conflict suggests that the Vatican made every effort to give the Australian bishop a fair hearing, to provide him with ample opportunities to correct errors, and finally to arrange a quiet departure. Pope Benedict exercised his authority only after it became painfully clear that Bishop Morris would neither abide by the decisions of the universal Church nor leave his post voluntarily.

The bishop’s many supporters within the clergy of Toowoomba attribute his ouster to “a small number of disaffected priests and lay people”—dismissively termed the “temple police”—who have complained to Rome about the bishop’s leadership. On Sunday, May 8, the newsletter at St. Patrick’s Cathedral offered thanks “for the overwhelming expression of support for Bishop Morris,” and provided addresses at the Vatican for parishioners who wanted to voice their objections to the bishop’s removal. After 18 years of Bishop Morris’s leadership, the seeds of dissent are widely sown in the Toowoomba diocese.


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  • Posted by: hartwood01 - May. 11, 2011 6:42 PM ET USA

    Yes, Steve. This was my disappointment with JPII. Not enough concern for the sexually abused children, and a blind eye to the abusers. Too much damage done to the flock for too long.

  • Posted by: Joseph Paul - May. 11, 2011 8:12 AM ET USA

    However long it took, we in Australia are very pleased that the Pope has now removed him. Benedict gave him plenty of time to go quietly with a degree of dignity for the good of the faithful in his diocese but he dug his toes in. The person who nominated him was Archbishop Rush. He was the Archbishop of Brisbane, the major diocese in the state of Queensland and not far from Toowoomba. Rush destroyed Brisbane and his successor Bathersby has finished it off but will retire himself in 10 weeks.

  • Posted by: Lucius49 - May. 10, 2011 4:13 PM ET USA

    It should not take a decade to deal with this type of bishop. This is part of the crisis of the post-conciliar church. Wolves are left in place. The salvation of souls is the supreme law. Canon 1752.

  • Posted by: Franz10108953 - May. 10, 2011 4:03 PM ET USA

    A number of comments have wondered at the apparent concern of the Vatican for the rights of a single Bishop while the souls entrusted to him were left to decay under his negligence for years. This appears to be the fruits of "universalism" the belief that all are saved if they are people of good will. It follows that if the happy Hindu or the kind Unitarian are inheritors of Heaven, there's no need to worry about a few neglected Catholics, all people of good will go to the same end. Modernism!

  • Posted by: - May. 10, 2011 12:16 PM ET USA

    Agree with Steve214 - seems to have been a hyper-concern for the rights of the dissenting Bishop but only a lukewarm concern for the flock being led astray. The Church should take its lead from the military in these matters: if a Commanding Officer loses the confidence of his seniors in his leadership he is removed overnight. It is a privilege to lead troops, not a right.

  • Posted by: unum - May. 10, 2011 7:55 AM ET USA

    The encouraging aspect of this story is that concerns of "the temple police" got a serous reception at the Vatican. For too long only the concerns of those in positions of authority received attention in Rome and the concerns of their flock were dismissed as lacking standing. BTW, were those who recommended Morris for his position sanctioned at all? It appears that accountability in the Church is much like that of the U.S. government where the incompetent are merely "reassigned".

  • Posted by: Obregon - May. 09, 2011 11:02 PM ET USA

    This is amazing, to say the least. He was asked to resign and the good bishop simply "replied that he would consider the matter," as if he were in a position to consider anything! If this is the procedure Rome has to go through to get rid of a dissenting bishop, no wonder there are so many dissenting bishops all over the world doing as they pleased. Surely that is not what John XXIII had in mind when he opened the Second Vatican Council more than 40 years ago. He thought he was an Anglican!

  • Posted by: jimpoc8837 - May. 09, 2011 10:32 PM ET USA

    Who recommended this guy in the first place to be bishop? Something is amiss in the process. Maybe Jean Jadot was reincarnated in Australia!

  • Posted by: - May. 09, 2011 9:04 PM ET USA

    As this went on for over a decade, there does not seem to have been a sense of urgency. The pastoral concern appeared to be on the one shepherd rather than the thousands in the flock. This raises puzzling issues in light of Church teachings that each person has an immortal soul which can be lost--that would include the one bishop, but also the thousands under his leadership.

  • Posted by: JP810 - May. 09, 2011 6:58 PM ET USA

    It's amazing this has to drag on for sooo long! I wish the Church would find a way to make their decisions and follow through much more quickly than what happened. Now the Church is faced with more damage control as a result of this terrible scandal. God help us!

  • Posted by: - May. 09, 2011 6:58 PM ET USA

    't would seem that conditions in Toowoomba have reached a point of Augean stability.