A Time for Clarity

The Vatican’s removal of Bishop William Morris

“Here I stand,” said Martin Luther as he challenged teachings of the Catholic Church. “I can do no other.” The Australian Bishop William Morris sounded a similar note as news came in May that the Holy Father had removed him from his position. “You have got to stand in your truth,” he said to the press.

At the same time, Bishop Morris expected the Holy See to let him stand in his own truth and continue to serve as a trusted teacher of the Catholic faith. He and his defenders have protested his removal as an act of mystifying injustice by the Vatican, a complaint that would only make sense if bishops enjoyed an inviolable right to misrepresent Church teaching.

What is his own truth? One of them is that the Church should be open to ordaining women as priests. In 2006, Bishop Morris wrote to his flock in the rural Diocese of Toowomba,

Given our deeply held belief in the primacy of Eucharist for the identity, continuity, and life of each parish community, we may well need to be much more open towards other options for ensuring that Eucharist may be celebrated. As has been discussed internationally, nationally, and locally the ideas of:

·         Ordaining married, single or widowed men who are chosen and endorsed by their local parish community;

·         Welcoming former priests, married or single, back to active ministry;

·         Ordaining women, married or single;

·         Recognizing Anglican, Lutheran, and Uniting Church Orders.

This, among many other dissenting moments of his tenure for which he refused to answer, finally prompted the Vatican to send US Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver to the Toowomba diocese for an apostolic visitation.

Bishop Morris has said that his views have been “misinterpreted” and that they never got a hearing, even as he acknowledged to the press a private meeting with Pope Benedict XVI: “You don’t get much debate. He has a view and you have a view and you kind of part on those views.”

In other words, he did get a hearing but not a “debate.” He wasn’t “misinterpreted,” but understood all too well. He clearly regards the question about women priests that the Magisterium has declared closed still open, and the Holy Father, unable to persuade him to correct this and other misrepresentations, had no choice but to remove him from office.  

“Bishop’s firing makes pope’s priorities clear,” blared the headline of an editorial in the National Catholic Reporter. Apparently one of those priorities is that bishops adhere to Catholic teaching faithfully. Is that an eccentric priority for a pope? What’s strange is that heterodox bishops feel entitled to disregard Church teaching and still retain their offices. They abuse their position, then call it an “abuse” for the Holy Father to stop them.

Members of the Catholic left have detected what they consider a disturbing trend in Benedict’s pontificate, namely, a concern for doctrine. The removal of Bishop Morris comes as a shock to them, as they had counted on the Holy See’s post-Vatican II custom of tolerating dissenting bishops until retirement to protect them.

John Bathersby, the Catholic archbishop of Brisbane, found it all very perplexing. “I just wish it hadn’t happened and I don’t know why it happened and I would very much like to know,” he said. The National Catholic Reporter adopted an indignant tone, saying that “[e]ighteen years as bishop ended with the stroke of a papal pen,” and that the episode proves “it’s really not that difficult for the pope to give a bishop a pink slip.”

In fact, it was. Far from acting hastily and impatiently, the Holy See acted slowly and reluctantly. As Catholic World News reported, the Holy Father only removed Morris “after a decade” of conflict between him and the Vatican, and “almost four years after he was originally asked to resign.” Long before his 2006 pastoral letter, Morris had been defying Church teaching and practice in matters both large and small:

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 [diocesan College of] 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.

“Bishop Morris and his supporters have charged that the Vatican treated him unjustly,” concludes Catholic World News. “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.”

For those in the Church who complacently assume that the Holy Father will remove a bishop for gross misconduct or mismanagement but never for doctrinal error, this affair contains a long overdue and valuable message.

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