Why Pope Benedict removed Toowoomba's dissenting bishop

Why Pope Benedict removed Toowoomba's dissenting bishop

Michael Gilchrist

The news that Benedict XVI had directed Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba to resign from his position seven years early has attracted media coverage across Australia and overseas. Within days some of the diocese's clergy and leading officials were stirring up opposition to Rome's decision.

In fact the Holy See had finally run out of patience, informing Bishop Morris that after four years of fruitless efforts at persuasion it would announce his resignation on 2 May. Bishop Morris, a day before this was due, had a letter revealing his position read in all parishes on Sunday, 1 May.

In his letter, Bishop Morris claimed that his 2006 Advent Letter, the main cause of his difficulties, had been "misread and I believe deliberately misinterpreted". He blamed "a small group" of people "disaffected by my leadership" for making complaints to Rome.

Bishop Morris said Benedict XVI had decided Toowoomba "would be better served by the leadership of a new bishop" and that the Pope had told him personally that Church law made clear that "the successor of Peter nominates and may remove from office" any bishop he finds unfit for the job.

2006 Advent Letter

In his Advent Letter Bishop Morris had pointed to the chronic shortage of priests to be expected in coming years due to the absence of vocations in the Toowoomba Diocese.

He said, "We may well need to be much more open towards other options for ensuring that Eucharist may be celebrated." These included, "ordaining women, married or single" and "recognising Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church Orders."

He concluded: "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".

It was this which prompted the Vatican to arrange for an Apostolic Visitation of the diocese in 2007 by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado. The report of that visitation led Rome to conclude the Bishop was indeed "unfit for his job" and therefore needed to be removed.

Bishop Morris' Advent Pastoral Letter ran counter to the clear words of Pope John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994): "[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. Lk 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."

Moreover, subsequent Vatican clarifications indicated that any future discussion of the issue, since it was a doctrinal matter, was completely out of the question.

Rather than uselessly opening up "conversations" on women priests and recognition of Protestant ordinations, Bishop Morris would have better served his diocese by sending a fact-finding mission to the small Wagga Wagga Diocese to learn the secret of its success in attracting so many vocations and having no priest shortage.

In any case, Bishop Morris could easily have resolved his difficulty by publicly retracting the offending content of his Advent Letter. But this did not happen.

Indeed, on the basis of an ABC radio interview following his dismissal, it appears the Advent Letter was symptomatic of deeper problems in the Bishop's thinking.

During the interview Bishop Morris alleged that Rome controlled bishops by fear and turned a deaf ear to the community: "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."

Opposition to dismissal

Fr Peter Dorfield, Administrator at St Patrick's Cathedral, Toowoomba, had already circulated key diocesan officials, priests and other church leaders on 29 April with a lengthy document detailing the long-standing impasse between Bishop Morris and the Vatican.

Fr Dorfield also called a meeting of "Priests, Pastoral Leaders and Responsible Leaders in Diocesan Councils and Agencies" to discuss possible action. This meeting passed a motion that the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference "initiate an open, honest and professionally-conducted study of the forced early retirement of Bishop Bill Morris ...".

In addition, the Toowoomba Cathedral Newsletter of 7-8 May urged parishioners to write expressing their opposition to the Bishop's removal to the Pope, Apostolic Nuncio and Australian Ambassador to the Vatican (with addresses provided).

Meanwhile, the Pope has appointed Bishop Brian Finnigan, a Brisbane auxiliary bishop, as Administrator of the Toowoomba Diocese until a new bishop is chosen.

Archbishop Philip Wilson, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, wrote on its behalf on 12 May to Bishop Finnegan, noting that the Pope had "judged that there were problems of doctrine and discipline" while regretting "that these could not be solved."

With six Australian dioceses needing new bishops this year, in light of the Bishop Morris saga it is more urgent than ever that in future only those men are selected who fully understand their obligation to uphold the teachings of the Universal Church.

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