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Best of 2011: Trust at stake in Toowoomba


Bishop Bill MorrisThe Australian Bishops' response to the forced retirement of Bishop Bill Morris was as good as could have been hoped. It affirmed the Pope's right to dismiss bishops, affirmed the personal and pastoral qualities of Bishop Morris, simply reported the situation that led to the dismissal, and promised to take up the question of the process with the Pope.

The kindly tone of the letter offers good hope that the bishops will maintain the personal links with Bishop Morris that matter more than words.

It may be helpful to look at what happened in Toowoomba against the much larger question of trust in governance. Significant cultural changes have affected all institutions, including national governments as well as churches.

All governance relies on a passive trust on the part of the people if it is to function well. If trust is not given, laws will not be obeyed. When trust is withdrawn, societies stagnate because they lack any sense of the common good. They become polarised, and governments often rule by repression. The officials responsible for day to day governance become demoralised and unenthusiastic.

In Eastern Europe, and now in the Middle East, apparently impregnable regimes can be brought down because trust is lacking.

Traditionally, institutions have encouraged trust by depicting their rulers as strong and benign and as guided by the best of values. But these images, and the trust they engender, have been put under pressure by the development of communication technologies and the lack of control over them. Images have become personalised.

Leaders of institutions must use sophisticated means of communication to project their own image and the values they represent. Their personalities become the face of the institution and the guarantee of good governance.

But the inability of institutions to control communication leaves them vulnerable. The link between the projected image and values and the reality is constantly tested by a stream of information and of critical judgments. The strong leader is shown to bow to pressure groups; the defender of family values is revealed to be a philanderer; the exact administrator is shown to run a shambles.

This erosion of trust results in a general public disillusionment with leaders and their professed programs. It also encourages the political paralysis visible in Australia, Europe and the United States.

We might expect to see two responses to this challenge. The first will be to look for substance rather than style in leadership, and to ensure that the fit between the image of leaders, their stated values and their governance is so adamantine that exposure will not corrode the image. The second is to control the image by controlling communications, marginalising critics and criminalising leaks. This hard choice underlies the anxieties revealed by the debate over Wikileaks.

The retirement of Bishop Morris is illuminated when seen against this broad context. The Catholic Church has also been affected by the changes in communication. Particularly during the pontificate of John Paul II, whose travels were carefully choreographed, it has promoted the image of the Pope and the values he professes by focusing on his personality.

This focus also inevitably leads to speculation about the match between the image of the Pope and bishops and the reality of their commitment to the values of the Gospel they profess. The image becomes uncontrollable.

The catalyst for a widespread perception that in the Catholic Church image and reality do not match has been the publicity given by the media to widespread incidence of sexual abuse in the Church and to its mishandling by bishops, including by Pope John Paul II. It seemed that human beings mattered less than the institutional interests of the Church.

The treatment of Bishop Bill Morris risks further blurring the image of the Catholic Church. The story told of a good man who encouraged his church, who was resolute in dealing with sexual abuse, but was removed in an untransparent process, will confirm many in their distrust of the Catholic Church. They wlll conclude that it has taken the authoritarian option.

We may ask, of course, whether this matters.Such judgments can be represented as simply a matter of public relations, without anything to do with truth and reality.

This argument has some weight. For most Catholics, bishops and popes are not central in their faith. They remain committed to churches because they find God within face to face connection with other Christians. They presume that their bishops and the Vatican will tend to the good of the Church, but are not much interested in their interrelationships.

But for many people, especially those living in Bishop Morris' own church and those who are well-read, it will erode trust in Pope and bishops.

Pope and bishops are images of the Church and of its commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It matters that the values of the Gospel and the best values of our society are reflected in the way in which they act. It is a condition of commending the Gospel and its values within a sceptical society.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Bishop Bill Morris, Australian Bishops, letter, Pope, forced retirement



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Existing comments

Something must be done. We cannot sit here and read and hear and listen to Rome and the inhumnan way it responds to both Bishop Morris and to the sexual abuse problems. Rome appears too comfortable and unaware and unwordly. Today we are an educated people.

Bev Smith | 12 January 2012  

Very well thought out articles. Congratulations! We can all take it to heart.

Theo Verbeek | 12 January 2012  

Great article Andrew. I agree with it all, but..........What can we do? We are powerless. Our Australian bishops are good men, who tried to get justice for Bishop Bill, but really got nowhere. We are being conditioned to conform because we are powerless until Rome changes. I am now ashamed of much of our institutional church

leo kane | 12 January 2012  

Vatican City, Oct 22, 2011, Re., Bishop William Morris. "The Australian Bishops concluded their letter by expressing their acceptance of "the Holy Father's exercise of his Petrine ministry" They reaffirmed their" communion with and under Peter." The matter is now close

Ron Cini | 12 January 2012  

thank you Andrew Hamilton for your article. As a Religious of 50 in the Catholic Church it makes me sick and sad to hear how a very good Bishop can be treated and no one can do anything about it. Hopefully we all support our Bishops (especially those who are pastoral and approachable) in their time of need.

Breda O'Reilly | 12 January 2012  

I agree that Bishop Morris was extremely mis-treated and the anomalies between the church, meaning the hierarchy. and the reality of a Catholic community are as disparate as black is from white. Why would any Church have anything as complex as Canon Law, which requires lawyers to interpret it, compared with what Christ actually said and obviously meant when he gave us the Sermon on the Mount. Bishop Morris looked after his flock in the way he saw fitted them. What would people in Rome know about Australian Catholic communities? Give us all a break from Rome!

shirley McHugh | 12 January 2012  

"Pope and bishops are images of the church..." in this case smiling assassins - society and the Catholic community, specifically, must be sceptical and angry - they have trusted for far too long.

Michelle Goldsmith | 12 January 2012  

Father Andrew Hamilton's article are so well said, he gives me hope. I feel very depressed and at times disgusted by the politics of the Catholic Church, what with the world wide sexual abuse scandals and the inadequate manner in which they were handled for the most part, my faith and trust in the church is waning. The treatment of two of our really pastoral Bishops namely Bishop Geaffrey Robinson and Bishop Bill Morris is adding injury to insult. These two men are real leaders in our church and their memory will live on because of their courage to speak out and their authentic Gospel message. Most Catholics are well educated in the tenets of their Faith today and I look to the Gospels and Jesus message. I am sick of political correctness both in Civil and Church societies. Margaret M.Coffey

Margaret M.Coffey | 13 January 2012  

"They wlll conclude that it has taken the authoritarian option." No doubt, Andrew . . . no wiggle room . . . the church has taken the authoritarian option, and the hierarchy now behaves like politicians and bureaucrats . . . as our American friends say, "Covering their ass." How do we respect (or take seriously) people who profess the Gospel of love and then treat people like Bill Morris (and many others) so badly and unjustly? It appears the hierarchy just want people who will say, "Yes sir, No Sir, Three bags full . . . etc." Just like politicians!

Robert Rennick | 18 January 2012  

Fr Hamilton the bottom line is His Lordship called into question infallible teaching on male priesthood and other church teaching though smoke screened behind a verbiage on pastoral probs And yes I have studied Justice Carter's memorandum, which discards the above vital issue under a load of legalese. Al Capone would gyrate in his grave on hearing of Vatican forensic kid gloves re l'affaire Morris[though here of course not physical murder yet Jesus spoke strongly on those who injure souls eg by rash scandal]: i] his lordship had a decade of interchange with Rome-poor AL had staple brevity of civil trial. ii]the prosecution didn't send Al a nice guy to talk things over 'in situ' with cups of coffee[like Chaput versus 'Kaput'] iii] Al would have been laughed out of court for pleading a la Morris "I could have worded things better![dur Al] Truly Father Hamilton you cannot be an Ordinary and question church teaching[pleading "but I have never denied church teaching"[just contemptuously calling determined teaching into question[dur your lordship]

Father John Michael George | 20 January 2012  

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