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Vatican’s sense of firing priorities appalling

June 2011

The sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church continues to reveal fault-lines in its management structures.

Consider the sad case of William Morris, the Catholic bishop of a rural diocese in Australia. For 18 years he had been a popular bishop. Then, according to a small group of the conservative critics in his diocese, he went too far.

Bishop Morris issued a letter to his diocese in which he discussed the challenge of finding church leadership in the future because Australia faces a growing priest-shortage crisis. He noted that discussion was occurring in other parts of the church regarding ordination of married men and women as a way to address the problem.

Several months later, Bishop Morris was informed that the Vatican was conducting an investigation into his situation. He concluded early in the investigation that he was being denied “natural justice and due process” because there is no process within the church to deal with a bishop in this kind of circumstance.

Eventually, Bishop Morris was summoned to Rome for a personal meeting with Pope Benedict. First off, he explained to the pope his concern about the lack of due process.

According to the bishop’s notes, the pope replied in this fashion: “And then eventually the pope said to me canon law does not make provision for a process regarding bishops, and the successor of Peter nominates and may remove from office as he chooses.”

Then, although Bishop Morris begged for more time, the pope told him that he would have to resign and his resignation would be announced May 2 of this year.

The irony here is glaring.

On the one hand, Bishop Morris is peremptorily stripped of his diocese for daring to suggest that a discussion about ordaining women might be a good thing; on the other hand, almost all the bishops who aided and abetted sexual abuse by their clergy are still sitting on their episcopal thrones. The injustice is almost palpable.

To add further to the injury, Bishop Morris explained the Vatican misread his pastoral letter. He was not advocating any of the alternatives he raised, such as ordaining women. He was merely proposing for discussion alternative ministries that others had raised elsewhere.

The brutal handling of Bishop Morris fits into a broader context involving general tension between Rome and the Catholic Church in Australia.

There was a perception of Australian Catholicism in the minds of some in the Vatican as lax in applying church teaching and overly tolerant of liturgical innovations. Of course.

Bishop Morris, the head of a sprawling and sparsely populated diocese in an area of Australia known to be politically and socially conservative, provided an ideal target for making the point that any discussion of ordaining women is absolutely forbidden.

To make doubly certain that point was nailed down, the Vatican sent an emissary to investigate Bishop Morris’s position. The emissary was none other than the archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput, one of the most reactionary and retrograde figures in the whole American episcopacy. Chaput duly made his report to Rome. Bishop Morris asked to see the report. Rome refused.

Bishop Morris wrote to his people: “I have never seen the report prepared by (Archbishop Chaput). Without due process it has been impossible to resolve these matters, denying me natural justice without any possibility of appropriate defense and advocacy on My behalf.”

The announcement of Bishop Morris’s forced retirement provoked an avalanche of support among Catholics in his diocese and priests in Australia. Hundreds of Catholics gathered for a candlelight vigil, expressing sadness and anger over the Vatican’s decision.

The National Council of Priests of Australia issued a statement that said: “We are appalled at the lack of transparency and due process that led to this decision by church authorities. 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.”

The group said it is “concerned about an element within the church whose restorationist ideology wants to repress freedom of expression” within the church and “who deny the legitimate magisterial authority of the local bishop within the church.”

In an interview, Bishop Morris said he felt sadness for the Catholic Church: “I really believe the church is at its best when it is most transparent, when the eyes of justice and the eyes of the Gospel are so clear that all rights are respected for individuals, no matter who they are in the community.”

So far as I know (at least outside of Australia) no bishop has stepped up to the plate to support Bishop Morris.

That’s understandable. No bishop wants to tangle with Rome. Leave comments at



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