The Bishop Morris Affair

His removal was a long time coming.

Twice this spring—within the space of barely over a month—Pope Benedict XVI took the highly unusual step of removing a bishop from his office. Early in April he ousted Bishop Jean-Claude Makaya Loemba from leadership in the Diocese of Pointe-Noire in the Congo. Then early in May he removed Bishop William Morris from the Diocese of Toowoomba in Australia.

In each case, a terse official announcement from the Vatican offered no explanation for the Pope’s action. But the available evidence suggests that Bishop Loemba was removed because of general negligence and/or incompetence, whereas in the case of Bishop Morris the Holy Father stepped in because of doctrinal and liturgical concerns. In each case, informed sources report, the bishop had resisted pressure to resign quietly, thereby forcing the Pontiff to take decisive action.

For Catholics who have been longing for a restoration of ecclesiastical order—longing to see bishops held accountable for their leadership, and for the welfare of their dioceses—these rare papal actions could be seen as a welcome indication of a tough new attitude in the Holy See. The case of Bishop Morris is particularly encouraging in that respect, since the record shows a long struggle between Toowoomba and Rome on doctrinal and disciplinary issues, finally provoking the bishop’s removal.

Retirement or removal?

In a letter that was read from the pulpits in all the parishes of Toowoomba on Sunday, May 1, Bishop Morris announced that he was retiring. One day later, the Vatican put a different slant on the story, announcing that the bishop had been removed from office by Pope Benedict.

“It has been determined by Pope Benedict that the diocese would be better served by the leadership of a new bishop,” Bishop Morris said in his letter. As the controversy unfolded Bishop Morris would continue to insist that he had been prepared to negotiate an early retirement at the age of 67—eight years short of the normal retirement age. But the Vatican was not prepared to negotiate on the bishop’s terms. It was important, from Rome’s perspective, to make it clear that Bishop Morris was removed from office against his will.

In his “retirement” announcement, Bishop Morris disclosed that following a 2006 pastoral letter in which he had expressed support for the ordination of women, the Vatican had organized an apostolic visitation of the Toowoomba diocese, which was conducted by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver. “I have never seen the report prepared by the apostolic visitor,” Bishop Morris said. But he indicated that Archbishop Chaput’s report was responsible for the Pope’s decision to remove him. Later revelations would show that this was a considerable oversimplification of the real story.

Having stepped down, Bishop Morris blasted the Vatican for “denying me natural justice” and conducting an “inquisition” in Australia. “I believe there is creeping centralism, a creeping authoritarianism and fallibility in the way the Church operates and discusses issues,” he said. “It is not just Pope Benedict: it is the whole Curia, with Benedict as the leader.”

“It has been my experience and the experience of others 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,” the prelate told the priests of his diocese.

At first: Sympathy

The first Australian responses to the bishop’s departure were generally sympathetic. Bishop Brian Finnigan, an auxiliary of the Brisbane archdiocese who was named apostolic administrator of Toowoomba, expressed his gratitude “for the generous and kind welcome of Bishop Bill Morris,” and praised the outgoing bishop for his work to resolve the sex-abuse scandal. The new administrator said nothing about the circumstances of Bishop Morris’ removal from episcopal authority.

The National Council of Priests of Australia (NCP) released a statement of support for Bishop Morris, protesting his “forced early retirement” and decrying the “lack of transparency and due process” shown by the Vatican in connection with his departure. “We are concerned about an element within the Church whose restorationist ideology wants to repress freedom of expression within the Roman Catholic Church,” the liberal group said. The NCP made an appeal “to the bishop of Rome in his acknowledged role as first among equals”—implicitly questioning the right of the Pope to demand the bishop’s resignation.

Archbishop John Bathersby of Brisbane said that he supported Pope Benedict’s decision to remove Bishop Morris from Toowoomba (one of Brisbane’s suffragan sees), but “felt sad about it all.” He claimed not to know “all the ins and outs of the situation,” but offered a tepid assurance to the public that “I’m sure there must be a lot of reason in the decision the Pope has made.”

Later: The whole story revealed

Within a week, however, the whole story of the struggle in Toowoomba had been revealed, showing that Pope Benedict took action only after more than a decade of wrangling between Rome and Bishop Morris. In fact the bishop’s removal came almost four years after he was originally asked to resign.

Bishop Morris, in his bitter complaints about the manner of his departure, claimed 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 provided a detailed report of the bishop’s long history of conflict with the Vatican. Catholic World News 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 First Communion before making their first confessions. 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 was 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’ leadership in Toowoomba.

The simmering tensions between Bishop Morris and the Vatican came to a boil in 2006, when the Australian bishop wrote the pastoral letter in which he suggested that the Church should consider ordaining women, as a way of responding 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.

A summons to Rome—refused

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 Chaput 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.

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 Giovanni Battista 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 again 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 left the meeting with the impression 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 resign in good conscience. 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 two 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 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.

But Australia’s leading prelate had a quite different perspective. Cardinal George Pell of Sydney told the Catholic News Agency that “Rome was very patient” before finally taking action in Toowoomba. Serious questions had been raised about the bishop’s leadership, he observed, and Bishop Morris was “unable to give satisfactory clarifications.”

In the final analysis, Cardinal Pell said, Pope Benedict was forced to take unilateral action because “the bishop hasn’t demonstrated that he’s a team player.” That weakness was illustrated, the cardinal added, by the mode of Bishop Morris’ departure: “I mean, even at the end he didn’t wait for the official Vatican announcement.”

Speaking in his capacity as president of the Australian bishops’ conference, Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide expressed “sadness” at the removal of Bishop Morris while “gratefully acknowledg[ing] Pope Benedict’s faithfulness to the Petrine ministry, even when it involves very difficult decisions.”

“The decision came at the end of a complex process which began 13 years ago and which ended in deadlock,” Archbishop Wilson said. “It was then that the Holy Father found it necessary to exercise his Petrine care for the whole Church.” The archbishop added:

The Pope’s decision was not a denial of the personal and pastoral gifts that Bishop Morris has brought to the episcopal ministry. Rather, it was judged that there were problems of doctrine and discipline, and we regret that these could not be resolved.


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