Divisions Within the Church

The removal of Bishop Morris continues to expose them in Australia.

Pope Benedict XVI’s removal last May of Bishop William Morris from his leadership of the Diocese of Toowoomba in the Australian state of Queensland has caused rows within the Church in Australia and made news around the world. At the time of this writing, a diocesan administrator, Bishop Brian Finnigan, auxiliary bishop from Brisbane, continues to oversee the diocese until the eventual appointment of a new bishop.

Meanwhile, the supporters of Bishop Morris (they call him “Bishop Bill”)—including most of Toowoomba’s priests and diocesan officials—continue to campaign against the dismissal, making it clear that they expect any new bishop to maintain the status quo or otherwise face an arduous time. Sunday Mass homilies and parish newsletters have continued to talk up the “injustice” of the Pope’s action, while Bishop Morris himself has been active in Toowoomba and other parts of Australia propagating his “victimized” status.

The episode has underlined the stark contrast between the Catholic Church of Benedict XVI and a do-it-yourself liberal church with echoes of the late 1960s. The Diocese of Toowoomba is large in area, spanning more than 188,000 square miles, but small in Catholic population, with roughly 66,000 faithful served by 35 parishes and now only a handful of aging priests, and few if any new vocations in sight.

Such happenings in a small and distant diocese might seem of little significance for the rest of the universal Church, but the sacking of a bishop on doctrinal grounds is a rare event. In the past, the major causes of forced resignation have been personal misconduct or the serious mishandling of child abuse cases.

But in light of what has occurred in recent decades in not-a-few Australian (and American) dioceses, many Catholics might wonder why more wayward bishops haven’t been removed before now for failing seriously to teach and defend the faith. This year, with the retirement of bishops in several important Australian dioceses, notably Brisbane, a fresh look at the selection process is warranted. The Vatican needs to ensure that all their sources are reliable and well-informed. Here one hopes the Bishop Morris saga will serve as a wake-up call.

But whoever is eventually chosen for Toowoomba will face the daunting task of cleaning up the mess left behind by Bishop Morris, since any attempt at serious reform will face determined opposition from well-entrenched supporters of the “Catholic-lite” approach, and a majority of lay people accustomed to this as the norm after 18 years of “Bishop Bill’s” leadership style.

This approach was evident from the time of Bishop Morris’ installation in 1993, when he made it clear he would be pursuing a “progressive” agenda, made visible at the outset by the wearing of a collar and tie rather than the usual clerical attire. Before long, he was actively promoting “general absolution” (the Third Rite of Reconciliation), despite several calls from the Vatican to cease the practice, which can only be used validly in dire emergencies such as war or famine.

In 2000, a blueprint for renewal of the Toowoomba diocese, titled “Creating Our Future,” was launched. It consisted of a mish-mash of political correctness and liberal clichés (“collaborative and participative,” “enables and empowers,” “pastoral leadership models”) and a direction for the use of “inclusive language in all diocesan documents, dealings, and Liturgy.”

Recommended books underpinning the program included titles by such dissenters as Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, Monika Hellwig, and Michael Morwood. The discredited American document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, was cited as a means of promoting “Life-giving Liturgy.” Despite its lack of official status, the document has long been used as justification for vandalizing beautiful church interiors, or as a guide for designing barren, soulless, barn-like church structures.

Among the “Action Paths” for promoting “Life-giving Liturgy” in the parishes were “encouraging the use of creative penitential services in parishes,” “promoting liturgy that is culturally, spiritually, and gender inclusive,” “liturgical experiences that are more relevant” and “liturgical experiences that create more consciousness for life in the world.”


There was much more in a similar vein that would typify the “culture” of the diocese over the following decade. Had Bishop Morris gone no further than this, he would have been little different from scores of other liberal Australian and American bishops who remain in office despite their serious leadership shortcomings. What made Rome sit up and take notice (apart from the ongoing problem of defiance over illicit general absolutions) was the bishop’s bizarre decision in late 2006 to include clearly heterodox views in an Advent Pastoral Letter circulated in every parish of the diocese as a teaching document.

He would later claim that he was “misunderstood” and “misinterpreted,” and his views “taken out of context,” but Bishop Morris’ words were unambiguous, and came from a man who on his installation as bishop pledged to uphold the faith and obey the pope.

“We do face an uncertain future with regard to the number of active priests in our diocese,” he began. The estimated numbers of priests in “parish-based ministry in 2014” were six aged 65 and younger and eight aged 66-70, with another five in “diocesan ministry,” including the bishop himself, to care for 35 parishes.

He then offered the following “options” as possible solutions to which the Church in Toowoomba should be “open”:

Given our deeply held belief in the primacy of the 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. Several responses have been discussed internationally, nationally and locally:

– 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 [combined Methodist and Presbyterian Churches] orders.

While we continue to reflect carefully on these options, we remain committed to actively promoting vocations to the current celibate male priesthood and open to inviting priests from overseas…

As a pilgrim people who journey in hope we need to remain open to the Spirit so that we can be agents of change and respond wisely to the needs of all members of the local Church of Toowoomba.

Being “agents of change” who are “open” to women’s ordination clearly flouted Pope John Paul II’s 1994 official declaration (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) that the Church cannot ordain women and his 1998 decree (Ad Tuendam Fidem) that discussion of ordaining women can be punished under canon law.

In the former document, Pope John Paul wrote: “[I]n order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Luke 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

The other “option” of recognizing Protestant orders was also contrary to Catholic teaching.

But this was no mere rush of blood back in 2006, as Bishop Morris repeated his position—plus a few grievances—during a radio interview shortly after his dismissal in May 2011.

For example, he claimed that Rome controlled bishops by fear and turned a deaf ear to local churches: “There is a creeping centralism in the Church at the moment. There’s a creeping authoritarianism. My leadership was questioned as too open…and there was the misreading of my letter of course.” Then he added: “I believe that a conversation needs to be had, whether it’s on the ordination of women, whether it’s on birth control.”


Given the public expression of such views, Bishop Morris was clearly unfit to remain in office and should have been removed much earlier. But, as would become clear, Rome’s patience seemed limitless, as was Bishop Morris’ capacity for stonewalling.

A document was prepared by two priests loyal to Bishop Morris, Father Peter Schultz, the diocese’s judicial vicar, and Father Peter Dorfield, former vicar general of the diocese, which detailed a long, drawn-out process during which the Vatican tried to get Bishop Morris to mend his ways or resign. It shows that the bishop’s sacking was the conclusion of a long and sometimes tense back-and-forth dialogue with the Vatican, not the consequence of a sudden decision, as the bishop and his supporters have subsequently claimed.

Titled “Summary History of Bishop Morris’ Dispute with the Roman Dicasteries,” the document was an addendum to a seven-page defense of Bishop Morris that was sent on April 29 to priests, leaders, and the heads of other Christian denominations in the Toowoomba region in anticipation of the bishop’s forced resignation.

The two documents were part of a deliberate campaign to discredit the Vatican’s decision and present Bishop Morris as a victim of injustice. Yet the summary document’s detailed timetable shows that, contrary to Bishop Morris’ allegations, he was fully informed of the charges against him and given more than four years to correct the abuses cited.

Father Peter Dorfield, now the administrator at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Toowoomba, also called a meeting of “priests, pastoral leaders, and responsible leaders in diocesan councils and agencies” to discuss possible action. This meeting duly passed a motion that the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) “initiate an open, honest and professionally-conducted study of the forced early retirement of Bishop Bill Morris.”

In addition, the Toowoomba Cathedral Newsletter of May 7-8 urged parishioners to write to the Pope, the apostolic nuncio, and the Australian ambassador to the Vatican (with addresses provided) expressing their opposition to the bishop’s removal.

Several days later, the ACBC, in a diplomatically worded letter to the new Toowoomba administrator, Bishop Finnigan, commented on the dismissal and responded to the outcry from Bishop Morris’ Toowoomba supporters: “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. We are hopeful that Bishop Morris will continue to serve the Church in other ways in the years ahead.”

Later in the month, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney offered a more pointed assessment: “Rome was very patient. You could say the dialogue had continued on for 13 years and unfortunately Bishop Morris felt unable to give satisfactory clarifications.” It is Catholic teaching, Pell said, that women cannot be ordained priests, not “an optional belief.” He suggested the episode would be “a useful clarification for people that Catholic doctrine is there to be followed and bishops take promises to defend the integrity of Catholic teaching.”

As Cardinal Pell said, the Holy See was indeed patient. The above-mentioned document shows that once the 2006 Advent Letter was brought to its attention, the Vatican requested that Bishop Morris come to Rome by February 2007 for meetings with Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, then head of the Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops, Cardinal William Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Bishop Morris rejected the meeting, citing unspecified “pastoral reasons.” He said he had plans to come to Rome in May 2007 and expressed his willingness to meet with the cardinals at that time.

Cardinal Arinze wrote that the matter was urgent and that Bishop Morris should present himself in Rome in February. Bishop Morris again dismissed the request, insisting he would be available in May but not before.

Then in March Bishop Morris was notified that there would be an apostolic visitation of the diocese to be conducted by Archbishop Charles Chaput (then of Denver). This took place between April 23-28 and involved numerous interviews and meetings with various diocesan bodies, officials, priests, directors of agencies, and people of the diocese representing all levels of support and opposition to the bishop.

Archbishop Chaput later prepared a report of his visitation for the Holy See, after which the Congregation of Bishops communicated a request to Bishop Morris, dated June 28, 2008, that he resign. When further delaying tactics ensued, the Congregation informed Bishop Morris that the request for his resignation was being made in the name of Pope Benedict XVI.

Despite this, more exchanges took place throughout 2008, until at Bishop Morris’ request an audience with the Pope was arranged for June 4, 2009. At that meeting Benedict reiterated his demand that Bishop Morris resign. Even so, further stonewalling persisted over the next two years with yet more exchanges between Rome and Toowoomba.

Finally, with Rome’s patience exhausted, Archbishop Guiseppe Lazzarotto, the apostolic nuncio to Australia, informed Bishop Morris that the Vatican would announce his resignation on May 2.


Before that date Bishop Morris convened his college of consultors, which unanimously supported his decision to head off the Vatican announcement by issuing a pastoral letter presenting his version of the long-running saga, to be read at all Masses on the weekend of April 30-May 1, 2011.

In the letter, Bishop Morris blamed everyone but himself, claiming, for example, that his 2006 Advent Letter had been “misread and I believe deliberately misinterpreted” by a “small group [which has] found my leadership and the direction of the diocese not to their liking.”

He revealed that Pope Benedict had told him Toowoomba “would be better served by the leadership of a new bishop” and that Church law made clear that “the successor of Peter nominates and may remove from office” any bishop he finds unfit for the job.

According to Bishop Morris’ version of events, he had been investigated since 2007, not for any heterodox views, but simply for being “too open” and “too inclusive.”

Predictably the secular media were mostly sympathetic to Bishop Morris. ABC Radio National reported on May 3, “Hundreds of people braved cold, damp conditions in Toowoomba on Queensland’s Darling Downs last night to give thanks to their ousted Bishop William Morris.”

Eight Toowoomba priests issued a media statement blaming a small number of “disaffected” Catholics complaining to the Vatican. They declared: “The far greater majority of priests and lay people of the diocese have found the pastoral leadership of Bishop Morris to be constructive, informed, and life-giving.”

Australia’s National Council of Priests (made up predominantly of liberal clergy) then chimed in with a media release:

We are embarrassed about the shabby treatment meted out to an outstanding pastor of this diocese, who has faithfully ministered in the Church in Queensland and throughout Australia since his priestly ordination in 1969.

We are concerned about an element within the Church whose restorationist ideology wants to repress freedom of expression within the Roman Catholic Church and who deny the legitimate magisterial authority of the local bishop within the Church…

Many of the people influencing these decisions have limited pastoral experience and appear to show little concern for the sensus fidelium.… We stand in prayerful solidarity with the priests and people of Toowoomba who are justifiably aggrieved by this pronouncement.

To the Catholics of the Toowoomba we pray for a worthy successor to Bishop Morris.

Clearly “a worthy successor” meant a carbon copy of Bishop Morris. Since then, the dismissal saga has been kept simmering, with various petitions demanding that the Morris case be re-examined, that the Australian bishops put pressure on Rome to reverse the decision during their October 2011 ad limina visit, and for numerous far-reaching “reforms” to be introduced to allow local churches more latitude.

A group calling itself “Catholics for Renewal” has formulated an “Open Letter to Pope Benedict and the Australian Bishops” and sought names of those endorsing it. At the time of this writing, several thousand names had been gathered, both online and via friendly parishes.

A committee of the Australian Bishops Conference responded to the petition on August 2:

Many people have written or sent emails to the Holy Father, the Bishops Conference, the apostolic nuncio, and individual bishops in support of Bishop Morris. The members of the Permanent Committee are aware that there are some who take a different view and they are aware of publications that are openly hostile to Bishop Morris.

The Bishops Conference does not have any jurisdiction with respect to an individual bishop or his leadership of the diocese. The reality of our ecclesial structure is that the Conference is not able to resolve the issues that have arisen. Not only do the local bishops not have access to all the information on which Pope Benedict came to his decision, but what has happened in Toowoomba is a matter between the Holy Father and Bishop Morris.

Once the dust has settled, the important questions of who will serve as the new bishop for Toowoomba, the degree of effectiveness of the episcopal selection process, and the grounds for removing errant bishops, need to be addressed. The Toowoomba dismissal highlights the urgent need for consistently strong, orthodox leadership worldwide, especially in Western countries where re-evangelization has to be an urgent priority after years of cafeteria Catholicism and the deepening inroads of aggressive secularism.

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About Michael Gilchrist 5 Articles
Michael Gilchrist is editor of the Australian religious monthly, AD2000, and author of several books on Australian Catholicism.