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Bishops sad not mad over Morris sacking

  • 16 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