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Bishops sad not mad over Morris sacking

Michael Mullins |  15 May 2011

The sacking of Bishop Bill Morris by Pope Benedict XVI could well become legendary in the way that the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government by Governor General Sir John Kerr in 1975 has become part of Australian folklore.

There are surface similarities, in that they are both polarising events that evoke considerable passion. And they both represented the use of reserve powers in a manner that was felt to be out of order by people at the grass roots level.

But there is an important difference. Gough Whitlam was nothing if not angry. Bill Morris, on the other hand, declared, in one of his first interviews after the sacking, that he was not angry, just very sad. 

In so doing, he set a tone that was reflected in the media release of the National Council of Priests (NCP), and then the letter of the 40 Australian Catholic bishops, written in the name of their Conference President Archbishop Philip Wilson, and issued on Thursday. 

The NCP detailed what it found 'appalling' about the circumstances of the sacking, but acknowledged the Pope's role as 'first among equals and the source of communio within the Church'.

Similarly, the bishops stressed their respect for the office of the Pope. They explained he had 'found it necessary to exercise his Petrine care for the whole Church' (Petrine refers to the acknowledged lineage from St Peter, the first Pope, who is believed to have been anointed by Jesus Christ himself).

Notably The Australian newspaper got it wrong, and misrepresented the bishops, when it reported on Friday that they were 'locked in behind the Pope's sacking of former bishop of Toowoomba William Morris'. The bishops were undeniably 'locked in' behind the Pope (the 'Petrine' office). But that is not the same as being 'locked in' behind Morris' sacking.

The office itself has a divine lineage, and bishops would support that because it's the foundation of their own ecclesiastical authority. However positions arrived at by the Pope's advisors are humanly fallible, and often politically motivated.

That is surely the explanation for how one bishop who mentions women's ordination can be sacked while others who protect priests accused of sexual abuse priests remain in office. Earlier this month, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who would be in charge if the Pope died, dismissed church sexual abuse as 'peripheral'.

While the letter indicates that the Australian bishops accept the decision to sack Morris, there is nothing to suggest that they agree with the assumptions and reasoning on which it was based.

In fact they carefully distance themselves from the decision, and indeed disown it. Their letter reads: 'It was judged that there were problems of doctrine and discipline.' If they were 'locked in' behind Morris' sacking, they would have simply declared: 'There were problems of doctrine and discipline', without the qualification that 'it was judged'.

The Australian wrongly portrays the bishops' reaction as combative, in that it implies a censure of Morris by his brother bishops. In fact it was an exercise of religious obedience in a sense not widely understood. That is, an obedience that is humble and respectful, but not mindless.

Sister Clare Condon, leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, put it well when she wrote last week in her congregation's online publication The Good Oil. Reflecting on obedience — though without specific reference to Morris — she said it 'does not come from a battle of opinions, or a superimposing of one will over another, but from a place of profound humility and respect'.

She refers to the damage caused by medieval and hierarchical structures that can distort the true meaning of obedience.

'In such a structure of power and dominance, reinforced by a divine legitimacy, obedience can be seen to be simply saying yes to the 'magisterium' or the 'lawful' authority, in an unthinking and unintelligent manner. The Latin foundational word for 'obedience' is oboedire, which correctly translated means — 'to hear or to listen'.'

Most importantly, she says, this translation implies that the listening is mutual.

However at this stage there is little indication that Bishop Morris has been listend to. As indicated in last week's letter, the Australian Bishops intend to raise questions with the Vatican authorities when they make their ad limina visit to the Vatican in October this year. We can only hope that they will find evidence that Bishop Morris has been heard. If not, the sadness may well turn to anger.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.




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Submitted comments

Regrettably, to this observer, one member of the ACBC saw fit to distance himself from his fellow Australian Bishops by writing a separate more condemnatory letter under his own name. That letter of one-upmanship reaffirms the fact that while all Cardinals are Bishops, all Bishops are definitely not Cardinals.

Brian 16 May 2011

so why was the word 'gratitude' used in the Bishops' statement?

Helena 16 May 2011

Sr Clare is wrong about "medieval" structures. Part of the contemporary structural problem in the Church is the loss or weakening of traditional "horizontal" structures which moderated "vertical" ones: synods in local churches, election of bishops, chapters, metropolitans, a magisterium shared with the magistri (theologians), and so on. Bishop Morris could not have been dismissed in this way in the Middle Ages without being convicted of some crime. Creeping centralisation of authority in the papacy has a very long history, but it speeded up dramatically in the 19th and 20th centuries. I believe that we need to explore and understand our own ancient traditions of participatory government and update them for the 21st century. It is interventionist centralism which is the aberration. As in secular politics, we are in an age of radical conservatism, which has little regard for hard-won equilibrium; we need a counterbalance of progressive traditionalism.

Michael 16 May 2011

It seems that the Bishops are trying to have a 'bob each way', but it won't do. I am in SA and yet at every dinner table conversation, with Catholics present or former,and with those of other faiths (mystified!)or none, the comparison between the the reaction to child abuse and the reaction to the discussion re Women's ordination is the first thing that has been mentioned. The prevailing response then becomes - but aren't these Bishops men? The qualities attributed culturally to manliness, are strength and courage and the wilingness to bear hardship for the sake of good. So what has to happen before they are willing to make a stand? Or one might wonder, were they chosen precisely because they wouldn't?

I might add that we are not young radicals - our conversationalists range from my 86 year old mother and her faithful friends, to our 50-70+ group of mainly disaffected former Catholics.

Sadly it all reminds me of the children's book 'Sounder' in which an old black American man complains to God that they won't let him into the church. God replies 'Why are you complaining? They haven't let me in yet!"

Pauline Small 16 May 2011

Michael you observe that "[t]he Latin foundational word for 'obedience' is oboedire, which correctly translated means — 'to hear or to listen''" - indeed, but who is listening to ordinary Australian Catholics who are outraged by the sacking of Bishop Morris? Certainly the ACBC does not represent the thinking of ordinary Australian Catholics.

Nor is this matter a question of which of the many virtues are in play here - obedience, respect, humility, reverence and so on. The primary question is not one of virtue but of due process and recognition of human rights - even the limited recognition given in the current Code of Canon Law. As a foundational document for an egalitarian Australian Catholic Church the Code of Canon Law is fundamentally flawed - so much so that the concept of an Australian Catholic Church or a body speaking on their behalf does not even appear in the Code!!!

It's time the problem was addressed at its roots rather than tinkering with issues at the extremities. The Australian Catholic Church must be representative of ordinary Australian Catholics and their values - most importantly they must be given a say in its structure and choice of representatives. If a Bishop must be sacked then let it be done through due process and through an Australian Church in a fair and just way. Anything else is un-Australian and antithetical to an Australian ethos.

John Edwards 16 May 2011

It would be too much to expect the secular media to read the letter from the ACCBC with the same degress of exegesis that Michael Mullins has. Likewise there would not be many moral theologians who could write with such clarity on the subject of obedience as Sr Clare Condon, who as the leader of a religious order based on The Rule of St Benedict would be well aware what humility means for those seeking knowledge of God's will and the power to carry it out.

"problems of doctrine and discipline" remain unresolved. By referring to this lack of resolution it seems to me the Bishops are reserving their judgment and also giving The Vatican notice of what to expect when they visit Rome in October.

Let's hope and pray we are informed of how those discussion go and what the results are.

"problems of doctrine and discipline" cannot be allowed to float in a fog between Vatican officials and Australia's Bishops.

They need to be clearly stated and solved - or at least a transparent process put in place to ensure their resolution.
The People of God, even in The Antipodes, deserve to know what's going on.

Uncle Pat 16 May 2011

I absolutely agree with J. Edwards! How long do we have to wait for a group of old men to come to the 21th century, Australian values and "a fair go"? Having visited Fr Kennedy's congregation last week-end, in Brisbane, I just can't imagine what on earth is wrong with it?!?!?

Nathalie 16 May 2011

Will Bishop Morris continue in his role of co-chair of the National Professional Standards Group? He retired as Bishop of Toowoomba not from the Church. His extraordinary example in this role must be acknowledged. Would Rome be capable of using his approach as an model for the Bishops of the world? Or would we throw the baby out with the bath water.

Anne 16 May 2011

In this whole murky saga with one side of the story revealed but the other locked away in the minds and files of the Vatican few, I am more and more convinced that the leaders of our Church are regressing into the same mindset and world view typical of the Ayatollahs that the system is perfect and that it is insane not just disloyal to question it. This pathology emerges from a institution which is allergic to good governance, rationality and modernity.

David Timbs 16 May 2011

Church attendances drop about 50% over past 15years. Our future foundations-the below 50 year olds show clear concerns about the church attitude on many issues they see as important.Bishops conduct a research project to discover this--nothing happens.Bishops now try to excite us with the news that the clock is being turned back with a revised Roman Missal.Then Rome sacks Bishop Morris for openly discussing[not promoting]many of the real issues which we are all talking about.

Our Bishops need now more than ever to open real dialogue with their Australian people and convince us that they are concerned about the issues so many of us care about

BRIAN 16 May 2011

I have read with dismay both articles and the homily by Fr Brennan about the sacking of Bishop Morris and the reactions of the bishops. Once again I find a discrepancy between Christianity and Catholicism. Further evidence, for me, is given for my need to define myself as a Christian who worships according to a Catholic ritual BUT not a Catholic who can accept as morally acceptable so many of the decisions of the Catholic hierarchy. I also deplore the lack of openness of the hierarchy.

The Church in Australia is fast moving toward crisis point in relation to the provision of enough priests for a growing number of faithful. Yet a bishop who has the courage to speak out is silenced and his fellow bishops do not have the courage to speak out against this silencing. To me it is not a matter of obedience but of spinelessness and a hope that the problem will go away. So much for our so-called leaders in the Church! I continue to worship in the Catholic tradition in spite of, rather than because of, its leadership.

Dr Judith Woodward 16 May 2011

Surely infalability does not apply to such judgement by Rome ,so why didn't our Bishops show more guts ?.Quite some time back I mentioned in an earlier comment that Bishop Bill defied Rome's directive re not accepting any liability with regard Church based sexual abuse ,by declaring he would support victims even if it meant liquidating Church assets .Might I suggest his dismissal had more to do with them coverting their wealth & less with what Bishop Bill suggeated as way of addressing shortage of priests.

Many of our Bishops ,including our's in N/Qld are more happy to tow the line and import priests from poorer countries regardless of whether faithful can even understand their English . I have difficulty differentiating between this exploitation & that of sex workers imported from Thailand etc .

John Kersh 16 May 2011

Surely we (the body of the church) have the right to request, no demand an open meeting with ACBC ,so they can clearly hear what we need to say .Legal minds such as Father Frank can maybe advise us how this can be arranged .Sadly most of them would decline given the Brisbane job will soon be in the offing .As more & more of the faithful are letting their feet do the talking ,there will be little congregation left to dialogue with.

John Kersh 16 May 2011

I find it very telling that Sodano reportedly dismisses church sexual abuse as 'peripheral'. It says a lot about how he and his ilk are so far removed from Christ's teachings. What is "peripheral" is whether woman or married men can be priests; and whether a bishop wears a tie or not.

Don't hold your breath waiting for Rome to take any notice of our bishops. I expect they will be stonewalled.

Frank S 16 May 2011

Sorry, from the other side of the ocean, Bishop Morris looks as though acted passively aggressively to Rome and at home - created his own cult. He needed to go. Rome was only too gracious in its treatment of him.

Mary 18 May 2011

Bishop Morris has only two options left, one is to retire as ordered; the second is to found a new autonomous Australian Catholic Church. Under Canon law any male priests or bishops Morris ordains would still have valid orders though they would not be part of the RC church. This second path is the one chosen in 1988 by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who founded the Society of St Pius X Church, his successor bishops have now in talks to rejoin Rome as a autonomous group. There was a time I thought the right option would be for Bishop Morris to retire, now I am not sure which path God would want him to follow. We should pray Bishop Morris picks the right path.

Carl 18 May 2011

Yes, I'm sad but also angry although I try to keep the latter in perspective. Michael (16/5) makes a good point about vertical & horizontal structures. Sad how a few bureaucrats enjoy power! The two issues I believe that are eating away at the institutional church are secrecy & a lack of respect for justice.

Jim W, Concord NSW 20 May 2011

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