Frank Brennan SJ. How the Bishop was forced to resign because he played too much for the local team

I have followed the Bishop Bill Morris saga closely. My one new insight from reading Bill’s book – “Benedict, Me and the Cardinals Three” – is that he was sacked because he was too much a team player with his local church. By sacking their local leader, the Romans hoped to shatter the morale and direction of those who had planned the pastoral strategies of a country diocese stretched to the limits as a Eucharistic community soon to be deprived of priests in the Roman mould.

He was the consummate team player who planned his pastoral strategies in close consultation with his presbyterate and the various consultative organs he set up in the diocese. As the people of Toowoomba continue to live faithful lives as Catholics, they still hold Bill in high esteem; meanwhile all the people in Rome are now gone. As Peter Dorfield, Bill’s Vicar General says, it was ‘a poor decision based on poor advice’.

It’s been very difficult to work out why Bishop Morris was sacked. It’s been a moving target. At first the concern seemed to be over the third rite of reconciliation and his failure to drop everything and come to Rome when Cardinal Arinze specified. Bill pointed out that he was due in Rome four months after the specified date, so surely things could wait until then. It seems that over time Bill had mended his ways on the third rite to comply with Rome’s new strictures.

Then there was his Advent pastoral letter of 2006. We are left confused as to whether Morris was sacked chiefly for what he wrote in that letter, or for what was reported by Archbishop Chaput, now of Philadelphia and then of Denver, who was appointed Pontifical Visitator of Toowoomba in 2007. Or for what was reported to Rome by those sometimes described as ‘the temple police’. The offending section of his pastoral letter was:

“Given our deeply held belief in the primacy of Eucharist for the identity, continuity and life of each parish community, we may well need to be much more open towards other options of 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

• recognising Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church 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.”

If he was sacked for what he wrote in his Advent letter about the possible ordination of women, married priests, and recognition of other orders ‘Rome willing’, there would have been no need for Archbishop Chaput later to make his visit and his report. And let’s remember that Morris had published a clarification of his pastoral letter on his website saying:

“In my Advent Pastoral Letter of 2006 I outlined some of the challenges facing the diocese into the future. In that letter I made reference to various options about ordination that were and are being talked about in various places, as part of an exercise in the further investigation of truth in these matters. Unfortunately some people seem to have interpreted that reference as suggesting that I was personally initiating options that are contrary to the doctrine and discipline of the Church. As a bishop I cannot and would not do that and I indicated this in the local media at the time.”

But then again if he was sacked for matters detailed in Chaput’s report, we are left wondering why Chaput being apprised of the Advent letter and having completed his visit would have told the Diocesan Chancellor Brian Sparksman how extraordinarily surprising it would be if Morris were to be sacked. As they drove back to Brisbane after the visitation, Chaput told Sparksman, ‘I would be astonished if you were to lose your bishop.’

The matter is a complete mess reflecting very poorly on a Church that prides itself on a Code of Canon Law that provides for the protection of the rights of all Christ’s faithful, including priests and bishops.

I imagine it is still not possible for Pope Francis to apologise for the wrong done to Bishop Morris and the diocese of Toowoomba. The Roman Curia and its mindset would at least have that much of a hold over him. But wouldn’t it be a grace for everyone, including those who perpetrated the wrong if he did?

Bill’s book highlights especially through the process suggested by the group in Toowoomba  — that a report be commissioned from retired Justice William Carter and the subsequent canonical report by Fr Ian Waters – that Bishop Morris was denied natural justice. As William Carter said at the Brisbane launch, ‘Scripture abounds with references to justice and to our need to ‘act justly’ in our personal lives. Show me the law or doctrine that exempts the pope and the cardinals three from compliance with this same requirement in the circumstances of a case like this? This is why this book had to be written

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