Bishop Bill Morris: gone but not forgotten

Bishop Bill Morris: gone but not forgotten

Peter Westmore

For several months, the retired Bishop of Toowoomba, Bill Morris, has conducted a number of book launches of his recently published apologia, Benedict, Me and the Cardinals Three.

In Bishop Morris' words, the book "is the story of my dismissal as the Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Toowoomba, in Queensland, Australia. It relates, from my perspective, the dealings I had with various Congregations (Dicasteries) of the Vatican's Curia in Rome and with certain cardinals and officials in those Congregations, as well as with Pope Benedict XVI, regarding pastoral activities and a letter I wrote to the diocese in Advent of 2006 while the Bishop of Toowoomba."

Among other places, book launches have been held in Canberra (with Bishop Pat Power), Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide (with Fr Frank Brennan), Brisbane and Toowoomba.

Bishop Morris says that from the time of his appointment to Toowoomba, he embarked on an effort to modernise the Church's administration in the diocese, to introduce a "collaborative" model of ministry, and an ecumenical outreach.

He further claims that he attracted criticism from a small number of Catholics in the diocese who reported him to Rome, and their misinformation led directly to his removal as bishop of the diocese.

The book contains useful appendices, containing many of the most important documents which relate to the battle which took place between Bishop Morris and his supporters, and cardinals in the Roman Curia, located 16,000 km away, over about six years.

One point which Bishop Morris skates over is the responsibility of bishops, not merely to the universal Church, but specifically to the Holy Father.

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who himself retired early following disagreements with the Holy See, expressed it succinctly as follows: "Before ordination as a bishop, every candidate is required to take an oath of loyalty to the pope - not God, not the Church, but the pope." (Opinion, ABC Religion and Ethics web site, 7 February 2013)

Bishop Morris' book shows repeated disagreements with the Pope on a range of issues, including women priests, married priests, confusion of Protestant orders with the Catholic priesthood, unauthorised approval of general absolution instead of individual reconciliation, and joint Sunday worship between Catholics and Anglicans where a priest of "one denomination is absent for a period of time".

It also shows that St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI made numerous attempts to engage Bishop Morris, and authorised the heads of several Vatican dicasteries (departments) to discuss issues with him, over a period of years.

Pastoral Letter

In the midst of these discussions, Bishop Morris issued a Pastoral Letter in 2006 which claimed that within eight years, by 2014, there would be just two priests in the Toowoomba diocese aged under 65, two priests aged above 65, and the bishop, aged over 70.

(It is interesting to look at the actual situation in the Toowoomba diocese today. A quick examination of the Catholic Directory shows that there are about 15 active priests in the diocese.)

On the basis of his numbers, Bishop Morris could have tried to bring priests from countries such as the Philippines or India (as other bishops have done), or expanded Eucharistic Adoration to attract young men into the priesthood.

Instead, he said, "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

 • recognising Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church Orders."

Arising from this, in December 2006 Pope Benedict XVI asked Bishop Morris to come to Rome urgently for consultations. Bishop Morris said he could not come for six months, and wanted to be accompanied by a canon lawyer or two.

After an inconclusive exchange of faxes, Pope Benedict directed that a special Apostolic Visitation to the diocese be conducted by the US Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver.

Bishop Morris makes clear that in his discussions with Archbishop Chaput, he stood by the basic positions he had taken in his previous discussions with the Holy See, although he regretted that some parts of the Pastoral Letter had been misunderstood.

Over the next two years, the Holy See attempted to persuade Bishop Morris to take a post with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or to retire. Bishop Morris would not agree, saying that he had done nothing wrong.

Eventually, he was forced to resign in 2011, and his resignation was accompanied by protest meetings throughout the Toowoomba Diocese and in other parts of the country. Most of the diocesan clergy attended these meetings.

While many people might have hoped Bishop Morris would gracefully retire to Brisbane where he served for many years before being appointed bishop of Toowoomba, he has continued to return to the diocese.

"I have taken part in the anniversaries of parishes and jubilee celebrations in my home diocese of Toowoomba and am invited to participate in its sacramental life, especially in the far west," he writes.

Concerning as this may be, his most important legacy may be found in the structures he established to run the diocese when he was bishop, which remain in place. During his period were established the Diocesan Pastoral Council and Priests' Council "through which diocesan policies were formulated and approved".

The Diocesan Liturgical Commission, which endorsed the Third Rite of Reconciliation, is still in operation, and the diocesan web site still contains Bishop Morris' diocesan pastoral guidelines on inter-communion, "May all be One".

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