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John XXIII's half century challenge


In 1962, I moved from the Brigidine Convent at Indooroopilly in Brisbane to St Joseph's College, Nudgee Junior, under the care of the Christian Brothers. I was an impressionable eight-year-old and was in grade 3. I well recall one of the brothers taking the class up to the top floor of the school. We gathered outside the chapel in front of the large portrait of our Lady of Perpetual Succour. Brother told us that there were very significant events occurring in Rome. Pope John had convened a Vatican Council. We were instructed to pray for all the bishops because this council would affect the future of the church. I have no real recollection of the prayers we offered, and thus am not in a position to say whether or not they were answered. But like you, I know that things have changed very significantly in the Church and in the world since that group of eight-year-old boys offered prayer and supplication.

50 years on, we gather to celebrate as Catholics, confident that the gifts of the Spirit will assist us in proclaiming the Good News to each other, to our fellow believers, and to our fellow citizens no matter what their religious beliefs or none. Let's recall that it was the week of Christian Unity in 1959 when John XXIII gathered with a small selection of his cardinals in the Benedictine chapterhouse beside the Basilica of Saint Paul-Outside-the-Walls when he said, 'I am prompted to open my mind and heart to you, because of this feast of the Conversion of St Paul. I want to tell you frankly about several points of planned pastoral activity which have emerged in my thoughts because of my brief three months here within these church circles in Rome. In doing so, I am thinking of the care of the souls of the faithful in these modern times.' The pastor and historian who now described himself as 'the shepherd of the Church' no doubt looked back to the reforming practices of Charles Borromeo who came as Bishop to Bergamo in the aftermath of the Council of Trent and of Msgr Giacomo Maria Radini Tadeschi who was Bishop of Bergamo at the turn of the century and to whom Roncalli had given years of dedicated service as his secretary. In his biography of Tadeschi, Roncalli wrote: 'Having a high regard for his clergy and people, he did not concentrate so much on carrying out reforms as on maintaining the glorious traditions of his diocese, and interpreting them in harmony with the new conditions and needs of the time, the ever greater spiritual advantage and glory of the Church of Bergamo.'

The great historian of Vatican II from the 'Bologna School', Giuseppe Alberigo, recalls that Roncalli upon election as Pope and on choosing the name John emphasised his commitment to being a good pastor consistent with Jesus' discourse in John 10 on the Good Shepherd. Roncalli said, 'The other human qualities — knowledge, shrewdness, diplomatic tact, organisational abilities — can help the Pope to carry out his office, but they can in no way substitute for his task as a pastor'.

There at St Pauls Outside the Walls, the new Pope said:

I am saddened when people forget the place of God in their lives and pursue earthly goods, as though they were an end in themselves. I think, in fact, that this blind pursuit of the things of this world emerges from the power of darkness, not from the light of the Gospels, and it is enabled by modern technology. All of this weakens the energy of the spirit and generally leads to divisions, spiritual decline, and moral failure. As a priest, and now as the shepherd of the Church, I am troubled and aroused by this tendency in modern life and this makes me determined to recall certain ancient practices of the church in order to stem the tide of this decline. Throughout the history of the Church, such renewal has always yielded wonderful results. It produces greater clarity of thought, solidarity of religious unity, and abundant spiritual riches in people's lives.

Then 'trembling with a bit of emotion', he announced his intention to hold a diocesan Synod for Rome, and an ecumenical Council of the universal Church, as well as an aggiornamento (bringing up to date) of the code of Canon Law. He thought such initiatives would not only produce 'great enlightenment for all Christian people' but also 'a renewed invitation to our separated sisters and brothers so that all may follow us in their search for unity and grace.'

It took almost three years before he then convoked the council with his apostolic Constitution Humanae Salutis in which he said, 'Today the church is witnessing a crisis underway within society. While humanity is on the edge of a new era, tasks of immense gravity and amplitude await the Church, as in the most tragic periods of its history. It is a question in fact of bringing the modern world into contact with the vivifying and perennial energies of the Gospel, a world which exults itself with its conquests in the technical and scientific fields, but which brings also the consequences of a temporal order which some have wished to reorganise excluding God.' And thus the title for my remarks this evening: John's half century challenge of 'bringing the modern world into contact with the vivifying and perennial energies of the Gospel'.

We gather as people of faith. We gather as the people of God, true to the church and engaged with the world. Coming from the Ignatian tradition, I have long thought that the greatest challenge to us as people of faith is to tap the interior freedom to which we are called, freed from all the disordered affections, so that we might be better able to serve humanity and the whole of creation, being bridge builders to the frontiers, being at home at the crossroads between church and world, being the credible mind of the Church, the soiled hands of the contemporary Jesus, and the heart of Christ large enough to hold, love and nurture with dignity and respect all our fellow human beings.

The challenges are enormous, but invigorating. John O'Malley SJ, the finest contemporary historian of Vatican II writing in the English language has provided us with 'a simple litany' of the changes in church style indicated by the council's vocabulary: 'from commands to invitations, from laws to ideals, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to conversation, from ruling to serving, from withdrawn to integrated, from vertical and top-down to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from static to changing, from passive acceptance to active engagement, from prescriptive to principled, from defiant to open-ended, from behaviour modification to conversion of heart, from the dictates of law to the dictates of conscience, from external conformity to the joyful pursuit of holiness.'

I am one who welcomes these changes. I am not one of those Catholics so wedded to the continuity of the tradition as to think that nothing happened at Vatican II, and that we should be back to business as usual as we were when those eight year old boys gathered with the Christian Brother around the portrait of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. As you know, I am quite unapologetic in according primacy to the formed and informed conscience of the individual. Any Catholic taking their faith and church membership seriously will be very attentive to the teaching office of the hierarchy, especially the Pope. But at the end of the day, all of us, whether Pope or not, are obliged to form and inform our conscience and to that conscience be true. In the US we are seeing a strong pushback by the Catholic Bishops against the Obama administration's new health regime on the basis of freedom of conscience. We cannot espouse freedom of conscience against the State and deny it within our own Church.–

Tonight I want to indicate six ways in which we the educated and grounded People of God might respond more passionately to the challenges of the Age. Most of you who are parents or grandparents wonder how any practice of the Faith is to be handed on credibly to your children and grandchildren. You know that the younger generations are more impressed by actions than by words, and that talk of justice rings hollow with them unless there are structures in place to ensure justice is done, and that talk of God's love rings false unless it is lived through deeds and witnessed by a real sense of transcendence and respect for every person's human dignity elevating the believer above the materialism and power of the world. If our faith is to be handed on to the coming generations, we need to be sure that we the Church are not an obstacle but rather a bridge for bringing the modern world into contact with the vivifying and perennial energies of the gospel. I suggest that there are six matters requiring our attention:

1. Transcendence and openness

We need to foster our contemporary sense of the transcendent and openness to the other, the world and culture which are not all bad. We need to be attentive to the arts and culture, open to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and mutual learning. I was surprised at how uplifting I found Geoffrey Blainey's A Short History of Christianity. As a Catholic, I took delight in the variety of expressions of Christian faith, and admitted to myself as if for the first time that I would be a little wary of praying that all Christians come under Rome, given some of the very fallible human procedures and intrigues that go on in the Vatican. I have been tantalised by Charles Taylor's recent essay A Catholic Modernity? In which he suggests:

In modern, secularist culture there are mingled together both the authentic developments of the Gospel, of an incarnational mode of life, and also a closing off to God that negates the Gospel. The notion is that modern culture, in breaking with the structures and beliefs of Christendom, also carried certain facets of Christian life further than they were ever taken or could have been taken within Christendom. In relation to the earlier forms of Christian culture, we have to face the humbling realisation that the breakout was a necessary condition of the development.

One might think only of the contemporary international concern with human rights and the suspicion of many Catholic bishops about the invocation of human rights discourse.

2. Primacy of conscience

We need to be true to conscience and to the tradition, respecting the dignity of all persons who are called to act according to their formed and informed consciences, and respecting them enough to challenge them in the light of the tradition when we think their consciences might be insufficiently formed and informed, conceding that there might be room for improvement in our own conscience formation and learning which might be infected by too much group-think and subservience to authority which is exercised with insufficient transparency and openness.

3. Justice and Dignity for All

We need to be credible in agitating for justice and dignity for all, espousing not just equality and non-discrimination, but also the common good and the public interest, with a particular eye to the voiceless and those whose claims on us do not enjoy fad status. The same sex marriage debate comes to mind. I have been greatly assisted by the line of Archbishop Vincent Nichols, elected President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales by unanimous acclamation in 2009, who has said, 'We were very nuanced. We did not oppose gay civil partnerships. We recognised that in English law there might be a case for those.' Archbishop Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, when speaking about civil unions and same sex marriage has said: 'Clearly, respect must be shown to those who in the situation in England use a civil partnership to bring stability to a relationship. Equality is very important and there should be no unjust discrimination. (However) commitment plus equality do not equal marriage.'

I concede that some Catholic commentators might argue for limits on non-discrimination and compassion on the basis that the very recognition of a same sex relationship is contrary to the natural law. For example, the Catechism states: 'The natural law, the Creator's very good work, provides the solid foundation on which man can build the structure of moral rules to guide his choices. It also provides the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community. Finally, it provides the necessary basis for the civil law with which it is connected, whether by a reflection that draws conclusions from its principles, or by additions of a positive and juridical nature.' But these commentators would then need to establish that the extension of non-discrimination and compassion to same sex couples would undermine the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community.

It would be a pity if those of us trying to contribute the strength of the Catholic tradition to the debate were simply characterised as homophobic naysayers. And it would be helpful if some of the nuances of the experienced UK bishops could get some airplay here from our own bishops who also wrestle with the pastoral and moral dimensions of this question.

I don't think the public debate in Australia will be much assisted by agitating the present canonical view of the Catholic Church that 'a valid marriage contract cannot exist between baptised persons without its being by that very fact a sacrament'. We all know many baptized persons who profess no religious faith at all. It stretches our understanding of a sacrament to propose that two adult persons without religious faith could be administering a sacrament to each other; and it offends our sense of natural justice to say that such a couple are incapable of entering into a marriage contract in good faith. If we Catholics are told not to accept the reality of non-sacramental marriage for those who happen to be baptised, we should not expect our official Church teaching on marriage to assist much with setting the contours on civil marriage. The distinguished canon lawyer Ladilas Orsy has said:

There are concrete cases when the wise advice to a couple, baptized and unbelieving as they are, is to tell them to contract a nonsacramental marriage. This is no more than to respect the state of their mind and heart, to honour their honesty. We have no right to refuse to recognize the genuine human value of their commitment. If one day they are given the fullness of faith, become believers, and ask for the sacrament, it should be given to them in joyful celebration.

I will continue to advocate against same sex marriage, while being in favour of civil unions. Discussion about the sacramentality of marriage in the Catholic Church is unlikely to provide any clear answer or direction to those seeking a just law for all couples, including same sex couples.

Most young people who marry nowadays have already been cohabiting. They usually marry because they think it is time to start a family. The State's interest in marriage as an institution has arisen because the State has been concerned with the procreation and nurture of children of the union. We are just around the corner from scientists being able to produce a child from the genetic material of two ova or two sperm. I think the State still has an interest in preferencing a social institution which maximises the possibility of children being nurtured by their known biological mother and their known biological father. Call me old fashioned if you will. But I think the State should proceed slowly in this field. We should have learnt some lessons from the Stolen Generations and those who were adopted out contrary to their parents' wishes. I would support the recognition of civil unions now, but I would want to reserve consideration of same sex marriage until the majority of those who are married (and not just the young) favour it, and until we have dealt with the complex issues of parenting children produced from the genetic material of two men only or two women only.

4. Liturgy for life

We need to celebrate liturgy which animates us for life and mission — being faithful to the routine of life including weekly Eucharist and daily prayer, being sufficiently educated in our faith and familiar with liturgy to celebrate the big events and sacramental moments of life, attentive to our local cultural reality and part of a universal Church which both incorporates and transcends all cultures. The clunky new translation provides us all with a real challenge, particularly when celebrating marriages and funerals when very few in the congregation know the responses.

5. Institutional support for a resourced laity who are the majority of Christ's faithful

Given the shortage of priests and religious in the contemporary Australian church as compared with the situation 50 years ago, we need to provide more resources and opportunities to the laity wanting to perform the mission in Christ's name — lay organisations, public juridic persons, volunteering, better structured opportunities for part time commitment to the apostolate, and provision by religious orders for young people wanting to make a commitment for a few years before marriage and life and work in civic service. The greatest challenge is providing a place in the Church for young women wanting to contribute to the mission. When I stood at that portrait of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour 50 years ago, there were almost 15,000 women religious in the Australian Church. Today there are less than 6,000 and their median age is 74. Only 6 per cent of them are under 50. When I joined the Jesuits in 1975, almost half the women religious were aged under 50.

I caused alarm with some of my fellow Jesuits last year when I gave an interview to The Good Weekend saying: 'I wouldn't be a priest if I was 21 today. I am one of the last generations of Irish Catholics whose families made it professionally and were comfortable with the church. I love being a Jesuit but I can't honestly say I would join now. My religious faith has remained rock solid, but there are times when I feel really cheesed off with the institutional church, which sometimes treats its lay members and non-members in a too-patronising fashion.'

When I joined the Jesuits, approximately 25 per cent of clerical religious were 60 or over, with very few aged 75 or over. More than one-third (36.6 per cent) were under the age of 40, with 9.8 per cent under 25 years. By 2009, only 10 per cent of clerical religious were under 40, with just 0.7 per cent aged under 25. That's an enormous challenge for a 21 year old.

As I have said to my superiors, we need to see how a young man might discern that action of the Spirit in calling him to a group which is aged and diminished, though armed with a fine founding charism and recent documents which make for splendid reading in terms of mission and life. For example, if I were contemplating priesthood or religious life aged 21 today and was attracted to the Australian Jesuits, I would need to consider some additional factors which were not relevant in 1975: I will be responsible in fraternal charity for a disproportionate number of my brothers who are retired and moving towards death; I will not be accompanied by a significant number of like-minded contemporaries; I will be expected to oversee corporate enterprises boasting the Ignatian charism with a reduced expectation that I will have a long working life largely dedicated just to learning, teaching or direct pastoral involvement; and I will be part of an apostolic group dedicated to the universal mission of the Church but with few inspiring demands or expressions of trust from the local hierarchy. The Spirit may still be calling me but not in the same exciting and challenging way that the Spirit would have been calling the same young man had he turned 21 in 1975 rather than 2012.

6. Due process in the Church

We need to reform our church structures to be more aligned with contemporary notions of justice and due process. Tonight I would like to take further my reflections on the Morris affair, acknowledging that some Catholics think it is just a storm in a teacup about a recalcitrant country bishop and that it is time we all moved on. I think such an approach is a serious misreading of the signs of the times. The Toowoomba diocese has been without a resident bishop now for almost eleven months since Pope Benedict removed Bishop William Morris, who refused to submit his resignation when requested by three curial cardinals who formed an adverse view of him.

Morris had offered to retire by August last year provided only that the sexual abuse cases in the diocese had been resolved. This timetable was judged inappropriate by the Vatican cardinals who conducted an ongoing inquiry into Morris' fitness for office. They wanted him out, immediately.

Morris was denied natural justice. No one, including the Australian bishops, quite knows why he was sacked — or at least they cannot tell us; the charges and the evidence remain a moving target, a mystery. Clearly Morris has not been judged a heretic or schismatic. He has maintained his standing as a bishop, being asked to assist with Episcopal tasks in his home diocese of Brisbane.

There have been some suggestions of defective pastoral leadership by Morris — an assessment not shared by most of his fellow Australian bishops, who expressed their appreciation 'that Bishop Morris's human qualities were never in question; nor is there any doubt about the contribution he has made to the life of the Church in Toowoomba and beyond. The Pope's decision was not a denial of the personal and pastoral gifts that Bishop Morris has brought to the episcopal ministry.'

In 2004, Bishop Morris had his first meeting with Cardinal Arinze, the Cardinal Prefect for Divine Worship, to discuss the use of the third rite of reconciliation in the far flung diocese of Toowoomba. On 21 December 2006, Cardinal Arinze requested Morris to come to Rome to discuss the matter with three curial cardinals in February 2007. By that time, Morris had discontinued the third rite. Morris saw no need for a special trip to Rome. He advised that he would be in Rome for a regular meeting in May 2007. Meanwhile Morris had published his 2006 Advent letter. Arinze wrote again in January 2007 asking Morris to present himself in Rome in February. Morris once again declined. On 16 March 2007, Morris was then informed that the Pope had appointed Archbishop Chaput from the United States to make an Apostolic Visitation of the Toowoomba Diocese. Though there was no mention of the third rite of reconciliation which had first brought Morris into dialogue with the curial officials, Cardinal Re, Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, disclosed to Morris the reason for the Apostolic Visitation: 'That the doctrinal and disciplinary line you are following seems not in accordance with the Magisterium of the Church', observing that 'an expression of this is also found in some phrases of your Advent pastoral letter 2006'. Chaput made his visit to the diocese from 24-28 April 2007. Morris went to Rome in May 2007 but none of the three Cardinals wanted to meet with him. Summoned to Canberra by the Nuncio in September 2007, Morris was handed an unsigned document with the heading 'Congregatio pro Episcopis', dated 28 June 2007. Morris made repeated requests for a copy of Chaput's report. The requests were denied. The Curia sent letters on 3 October 2007 and 30 November 2007 requesting that Morris resign. Morris declined and on 19 January 2008 he attended a meeting with Cardinals Re, Levada and Arinze in company with Archbishop Philip Wilson, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. On 2 May 2011, Pope Benedict 'relieved Bishop William Martin Morris of his office as Bishop of Toowoomba, Australia'.

The key resident church leaders of Toowoomba then commissioned retired Supreme Court judge and esteemed Catholic layman, William Carter QC to review the Vatican's curial process demanding resignation and culminating in papal dismissal. They also sought a canonical reflection on Carter's report from the respected canon lawyer Fr Ian Waters who stated, 'I presume I have been invited because I am not a Queenslander. I have never met Mr Carter, although I know he is an eminent and highly respected jurist.' Waters concluded:

In accordance with Canon 19, the Holy See, departing from the earlier precedents for the removal of Australian bishops, could have designed a process similar to the process for removal of a parish priest, thereby according procedural fairness and natural justice consistent with the Code of Canon Law. This was not done. I respectfully concur with Mr Carter's conclusion that 'Bishop Morris was denied procedural fairness and natural justice.'

In his report of last October, Mr Carter, having access to all Morris's files and having heard directly from Morris, scrutinised the Vatican processes including the Apostolic Visitation to the Toowoomba Diocese by Archbishop Chaput. He wrote: 'Not only was Bishop Morris, at all material times, totally ignorant of the material in Chaput's possession when he arrived in Toowoomba, nor was he told anything to identify his accusers of the real reason for the visit, nor was he given a copy of the Visitor's report or any information concerning its contents. As of now he still has never seen it.'

In his 'Statement of Position' to the three Cardinals gathered in Rome in January 2008, Morris said, 'At the end of the Apostolic Visitation, when Archbishop Chaput was being driven back to Brisbane, he remarked to Fr Brian Sparksman, our diocesan Chancellor, that he would be astounded if our diocese were to lose its bishop. He also asked John Bathersby (Archbishop of Brisbane) why he thought he was asked to investigate me because as far as he could see from the material provided to him things that I had reportedly said and done were happening in other places as well.' Fr Sparksman told me last week: 'I cannot say with certainty that Chaput used the word 'astounded' but it was a word like that. I definitely took heart and was relieved by what he said because as you can imagine it was a tense time for us all and that was a difficult drive to Brisbane. I was very anxious at first but then very relieved by what Archbishop Chaput had to say.'

Archbishop Denis Hart wrote to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on 4 February 2012 telling us that Archbishop Chaput 'said he discussed the contents of his report with Bishop Morris in Toowoomba'. Archbishop Hart's claim contradicted the statement made by Bishop Morris in his letter to the Holy Father dated 24 December 2008 in which he said: 'I have not seen the report prepared by the Apostolic Visitor; the Apostolic Visitor did not discuss his findings with me; I have not been shown any of the 'evidence' that was gathered or even the list of the 'accusers'.' Archbishop Hart's claim was strenuously denied by Bishop Morris when he then wrote to the same newspapers in response to Archbishop Hart on 8 February 2012 stating: 'I categorically deny that Archbishop Chaput ever discussed with me what he was going to put in the report.'

At World Youth Day in Madrid last year, Archbishop Chaput realising that Gerard Holohan, Bishop of Bunbury, was from Australia, drew him aside in the cathedral before mass 'to indicate vigorously that he had indeed discussed the contents of his report with Bishop Morris — except for the names of who he met — at the end of his Apostolic visit to Toowoomba.' If the processes were working correctly, there would have been no need for an Apostolic Visitor to draw aside a bishop he had never met to assure him of due process in relation to another bishop when the stranger bishop had not even made an inquiry. When Archbishop Hart first published his report about Archbishop Chaput's claim that he had followed due process, I wrote to Archbishop Chaput seeking clarification. He replied promptly though briefly within a day, 'I have no comments for you, Father Brennan. God bless you.' On 12 March, Bishop Morris wrote seeking clarification of Chaput's repeated claim to Australian bishops that he had shared the contents of his report. We await developments.

Members of Christ's Faithful who have access only to the public documentation are left confused. Seeking clarification for the good of the Church, I have written to the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishops Chaput and Hart and Bishop Holohan and discussed the matter with Bishop Morris and Fr Sparksman. Neither the Nuncio nor the Archbishops want to engage in any public dialogue. That of course is their prerogative which I respect. If indeed Archbishop Chaput did discuss the content of his report with Bishop Morris, it would be helpful for Christ's Faithful to know that. If he did not, it would be helpful if the Australian bishops could be duly informed so that they do not mis-state the situation. Rather than having Vatican cardinals present an accused with an anonymous list of complaints submitted untested, it would be preferable that the Visitor present the accused with a list of concerns held in good faith by the Visitor after due inquiry. Archbishop Chaput's answer to Bishop Morris's query may provide an opportunity to clarify the public record.

We are left confused as to whether Morris was sacked chiefly for what he wrote in his 2006 Advent letter, for what was reported by Chaput, 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 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 how extraordinarily surprising it would be if Morris were to be sacked. The matter is a complete mess reflecting very poorly on a Church which prides itself on a Code of Canon law which provides for the protection of the rights of all Christ's faithful, including priests and bishops.

When Morris met with the curial cardinals in January 2008, they spoke specifically to only six of the issues listed in the unsigned, unsourced and inaccurate memorandum which had been presented to Morris by the nuncio in September 2007. The first issue listed was the vague assertion that 'Toowoomba is moving in a different direction than that of the Catholic Church'. The second issue was the Advent pastoral letter. The third issue listed was the false statement: 'At least in the past eight years there have been no priestly ordinations in Toowoomba' and that priests in good health were retiring early and being replaced 'by deacons or laity'. There had been four priests ordained in the last eight years, and Toowoomba had no deacons. The fourth issue was the third rite of reconciliation. The Cardinals said, 'With regard to 'general absolution', we are glad to hear of Bishop Morris's statement that 'general absolution is no longer common'.' Morris was able to assure them that he had given permission for general absolution only twice in the last three years, and for the most appropriate canonical reasons. The fifth issue was his general failure to correct liturgical abuses. Morris assured them: 'Reports of aberrations have been addressed immediately, when referred to me.' The sixth issue was 'the general theological climate of the diocese, and especially of its priests, need(ing) to move towards a more authentic Catholic identity, as found in the Catechism'. Morris rightly told them:

I am unable to respond fully to issues raised against me because I have not been provided with a copy of the material carried by the Apostolic Visitor when he came to our diocese in April of this year nor have I seen the final Report. Canon 220 guarantees my right to a good name and Canon 221 a right to defence. I am exercising my right to defence as far as possible by responding to matters raised in the unsigned memorandum.

Canon 221 provides: 'The Christian faithful can legitimately vindicate and defend the rights which they possess in the Church in the competent ecclesiastical forum according to the norm of law. If they are summoned to a trial by a competent authority, the Christian faithful also have the right to be judged according to the prescripts of the law applied with equity.'

If Archbishop Chaput relying on evidence from his Visitation, rather than the Roman Cardinals acting on untested allegations from the temple police, had formed the view that Toowoomba was 'moving in a different direction than that of the Catholic Church' and that the priests of the diocese needed 'to move towards a more authentic Catholic identity', you would have thought he would have told Bishop Morris at the end of his visit and that the Diocesan Chancellor would have had no grounds for feeling relieved as they drove towards Brisbane.

Anyone questioning the process or decision in relation to Bishop Morris is placed in the invidious position of being seen as one insufficiently trustful of the papacy. One can be a great defender and advocate for the papacy and still be a strong advocate for due process especially when administrative or judicial type functions by curial officials may result in a pastor being relieved his office without satisfactory explanation to him or his flock.

Vatican II's dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, describes the Church as the people of God. Many of the people of God anxious to respect the human dignity of all and to ensure that the Church be as perfect a human institution as possible now think that natural justice and due process should be followed within the Church, while always maintaining the hierarchical nature of the Church and the papal primacy. Of course, there are some who question the papal primacy or the need for an ordained hierarchy, but that is definitely not my position and they are not my concern here. The question for the contemporary Catholic is: can I assent to the teaching of Lumen Gentium without having a commitment to due process, natural justice and transparency in Church processes and structures thereby maximizing the prospect that the exercise of hierarchical power and papal primacy will be for the good of the people of God, rather than a corrosive influence on the faith and trust of the people of God?

Lumen Gentium provides a constellation of biblical images for the Church. It is 'a sheepfold whose one and indispensable door is Christ. It is a flock of which God Himself foretold He would be the shepherd, and whose sheep, although ruled by human shepherds, are nevertheless continuously led and nourished by Christ Himself, the Good Shepherd and the Prince of the shepherds, who gave His life for the sheep.' The Good Shepherd is not arbitrary or capricious with his sheep. Those commissioned to act for the Shepherd would want to go to great lengths to ensure that the Shepherd is provided with all necessary information and appropriate processes to console the sheep that the best interests of all have been maintained with due regard for each person's dignity and just entitlements.

The Church is also described as 'a piece of land to be cultivated, the tillage of God. On that land the ancient olive tree grows whose holy roots were the Prophets and in which the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles has been brought about and will be brought about. That land, like a choice vineyard, has been planted by the heavenly Husbandman. The true vine is Christ who gives life and the power to bear abundant fruit to the branches, that is, to us, who through the Church remain in Christ without whom we can do nothing.' The branches of the vine will of course be well cultivated if all necessary nutrients are provided within the life of the Church including natural justice, due process and transparency.

The Church is also described as 'the building of God. The Lord Himself compared Himself to the stone which the builders rejected, but which was made into the cornerstone.' The modern foundations of any contemporary building like this include just structures which ensure the recognition of everyone's dignity, due process and natural justice.

The Church is also called 'our mother'. It is described as 'the spotless spouse of the spotless Lamb.'

None of these images is undermined or threatened by church structures and church personnel committed to due process and natural justice being accorded all persons before the Holy Father exercises his ultimate jurisdiction and authority. Nor is it undermined by church personnel being in a position to inform the faithful about the transparency and justice of the processes adopted by curial officials preparing briefs for action by the Holy Father.

It is no longer appropriate for Church hierarchs to claim that notions of transparency, due process and natural justice are antithetical to the hierarchical nature of the Church or to the primacy of the papacy. The primacy is not to be exercised arbitrarily or capriciously; and defenders of the Church will want to go to great lengths to ensure that the papal office is not perceived to be exercised without sufficient regard to the circumstances and evidence of a case. For the Pope to be totally free in the appointment, transfer and removal of bishops, he and his flock have to be assured that his curial officials exercise their power to recommend appointment, transfer or removal in a just and transparent manner.

The laity, the religious, the presbyterate and the bishops in some nations are sure to have a heightened 21st century notion of justice, transparency, and due process. This heightened notion is a gift for the contemporary Church. It is one of the works of the Spirit. It is not antithetical to the nature of the Church. Lumen Gentium puts it well:

Since the kingdom of Christ is not of this world the Church or people of God in establishing that kingdom takes nothing away from the temporal welfare of any people. On the contrary it fosters and takes to itself, insofar as they are good, the ability, riches and customs in which the genius of each people expresses itself. Taking them to itself it purifies, strengthens, elevates and ennobles them.

The Church of the 21st century should be the exemplar of due process, natural justice and transparency — purifying, strengthening, elevating and ennobling these riches and customs of contemporary Western societies which are the homes and social constructs for many of the faithful, including those most directly impacted by the decision to force the dismissal of Bishop Morris.

While there can be little useful reflection and critique of the final decision of Pope Benedict to force the early retirement of Bishop Morris, there is plenty of scope to review the processes and the evidence leading to the submission of the brief for dismissal provided by curial officials to the Holy Father. Those officials acted primarily on written complaints by a small minority of the faithful and of only a few priests the diocese, the report of the Visitor Archbishop Chaput, and the responses provided by Bishop Morris who was unable to cite the complaints or the report. Even though the Pope can exercise all power (legislative, executive and judicial), that is no reason for postulating that persons below him in the hierarchy can act as if they too could exercise all power without limitations and without review.

If a case had been fairly made out against Morris, there may well have been a grave reason for him to offer his resignation. But we just do not know the grounds on which he has been singled out for forced retirement. For example, it's not as if he is the only bishop in the world to have spoken about women's ordination. And unlike some of them, he has not espoused it; he has just said he would do what Rome authorised in the future. He has never gone anywhere near the approach taken by the Swiss Bishop Markus Büchel who has called for women's ordination saying, 'We must search for steps that lead there. I could imagine that women's diaconate could be such a step.' Büchel thinks 'we can't afford' not to talk about women's ordination any longer.

The majority of the faithful are left in the dark, many of them hurt and confused. The papal overriding of the usual canonical provisions for the election of an Administrator has caused offence to the diocesan consultors and rendered the task of Bishop Finnigan, the nominated Administrator, more difficult. Due to a lack of due process, natural justice and transparency, the papacy has been harmed, the standing of the Vatican curia has been harmed, the public standing of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference further undermined, and the confidence of the Australian Church in the public square compromised. The Church cannot credibly proclaim a message of social justice in a pluralist democracy when its own processes fall so demonstrably short of ordinary community standards of justice.

When it comes to Christian charity and solidarity, the recent cases of bishops Heather, Heaps, Robinson and now Morris leave many Australian Catholics with the perception that our bishops are caught between a rock and a hard place — the rock of Vatican secrecy and the hard place of solidarity with a brother in need. For example, consider Cardinal Pell's observations about Morris to the US Catholic News Agency on 28 May 2011. He acknowledged Morris's undoubted pastoral gifts: 'He's a very good man. He had a lot of pastoral strengths. He's got a lot of good points. He's done of lot of good work. He's got quite a strong following in the diocese.' But then he went on to say: 'But the diocese was divided quite badly and the bishop hasn't demonstrated that he's a team player.' There are divisions in every diocese. It may just be that the few 'temple police' in Toowoomba have been more shrill and more organised than elsewhere. But that does not make it a quite badly divided diocese. Not all of you as members of the Archdiocese of Sydney would agree with everything that Cardinal Pell says or does. That doesn't mean he should be sacked. After Chaput's visit, the majority of the clergy and Pastoral Leaders of the Toowoomba Diocese gathered to discuss what had happened. All except three priests signed a letter of support for Bishop Morris. Letters of support were also sent by the pastoral leaders and the Diocesan Pastoral Council to the Congregation for Bishops. Some other Australian bishops would be hard pressed to command such unsolicited broad support from all key groups in their diocese. If Morris was not a team player, whose team are we talking about, and what are the rules the team plays by?

One of the more questionable assertions relating to this case has been that there is no formal Vatican process for determining a grave reason for the forced retirement of a bishop when there has been no penal offence committed, especially when it is common ground that the bishop in question is 'a very good man' with 'a lot of pastoral strengths', 'a lot of good points', having 'done of lot of good work' with 'quite a strong following in the diocese', and when the Vatican accusers themselves say the bishop 'should be given another assignment (as a bishop) with special duties' so that he can 'continue to effectively serve the Church elsewhere in Australia'. Charity and truth within the people of God are not dependent only on positive law enacted in the Code of Canon Law. Where the Code is silent, due process, natural justice and transparency are to be expected unless there is some countervailing interest of the common good to be served by secrecy and the avoidance of due process and natural justice.


If we as the People of God rejoicing in the name 'Catholic' are to bring the modern world into contact with the vivifying and perennial energies of the gospel, we need to ensure that our Church is an exemplar of the noblest values espoused by people of all faiths and none. We need to recommit ourselves to charity, justice and truth both within our own structures when dealing with each other, and in all our dealings with those outside the membership of our Church, especially those who differ with us conscientiously about the moral challenges of the Age. We need to examine afresh our belief in 'a love or compassion which is unconditional — that is, not based on what you the recipient have made of yourself — or as one based on what you are most profoundly, a being in the image of God'. Charles Taylor sums up the challenge as 'a difficult discernment, trying to see what in modern culture reflects its furthering of the Gospel, and what (in modern culture reflects) its refusal of the transcendent'. Thus exercised, we might bring even the young into engagement 'with the vivifying and perennial energies of the gospel'. 

The above text is from
Fr Frank Brennan SJ's address 'Bringing the modern world into contact with the vivifying and perennial energies of the gospel (John XXIII's half century challenge)' at the Catalyst for Renewal Dinner, Hunters Hill, 23 March 2012.


Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Bill Morris



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Existing comments

Thanks for this valuable commentary. As you say, "The Church of the 21st century should be the exemplar of due process, natural justice and transparency". Failures in due process, natural justice and transparency fail Christ's basic teachings of love. Our Church is in desperate need of renewal.

Peter Johnstone | 26 March 2012  

Thank you Fr. Brennan. I found your speech echoing many of my own thoughts, and clarifying some issues for me. It is good to hear a priest still quoting the Vat. documents with such conviction, and urging us to follow our formed and informed conscience, even if we are criticised for it.

Patricia vagg | 30 March 2012  

Father Kevin Murphey gave me the link to this article for which I am very grateful.I have found the article well written truthful, and helpful in the understanding of the removal of Bishop Morris.

Jenny Keegan | 29 April 2012  

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