Stroke of a Pen? Not So Much

Back during the Long Lent of 2002, journalist Rod Dreher gave voice to a meme which has enduring power in the Catholic Church when he complained that the Pope could simply dismiss any bishop he wished with “the stroke of a pen” but that, mysteriously, he would not do so.

Given the stunning infrequency of the Pen Stroke Papacy’s appearance in history, I was always highly inclined to doubt this anticipation of Papal Omnipotent Fiat but, not being a Vatican Insider as I sit here at my computer here in suburbia, I was not inclined to enter the fray too deeply beyond saying, “I think you over-estimate what the Pope is able or willing to do, even with bishops he’d dearly love to get rid of.”

Now, thanks the to saga of Bishop William Morris of Toowooba, Queensland, Australia, we have a much better view of how the system works—or doesn’t work as the case may be. It’s the story, not of a good old boy network striving to protect an abusive priest from the consequences of his crimes, but of an agonizingly slow, patient, and frustrated bureaucracy moving as fast as possible to deal with a rebellious, irritating bishop that it badly wanted gone—and still taking nearly 20 years to do the job. The tale is worth reading in full, because it makes clear that even when Rome really wants to get rid of somebody, it cannot simply delete them with a stroke of the papal pen:

The removal of a dissident Australian bishop, announced by the Vatican on May 2, came after more than a decade of conflict between the bishop and the Vatican, and almost four years after he was originally asked to resign.

Bishop William Morris reluctantly surrendered his authority in the Toowoomba diocese as of May 2. The Australian bishop — who was only 67 years old when he stepped down, 8 years short of normal retirement age — has stressed that he did not resign.

Bishop Morris, who has complained bitterly about the manner of his departure, claims the support of most of the priests in the Toowoomba diocese, including all of the members of the diocesan College of Consultors. In addition to protesting the bishops’ removal, the College of Consultors has provided a detailed report of the bishop’s long history of conflict with the Vatican. CWN has obtained copies of that report, as have several Australian media outlets.

Friction between Bishop Morris and the Vatican became evident soon after he was installed in the Toowoomba diocese in 1993. “Bishop Morris, immediately, proved to have a very different style of leadership from previous bishops,” the Consultors report. The new bishop eschewed the Roman collar, preferring to wear a necktie emblazoned with his episcopal coat of arms. Bishop Morris encouraged the practice of scheduling children to receive their First Communion before making their first Confession. More seriously, he approved the widespread practice of services at which priests would offer general absolution, despite clear canonical directives that general absolution should be used only under extreme circumstances.

“The issue of the use of General Absolution led to a dispute between the Bishop and Cardinal Francis Arinze,” who at the time as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, the Consultors report. (Their summary adds a somewhat condescending note: “Some of this dispute took on a personal aspect.”)

In 1998, the leaders of the Australian Catholic hierarchy gathered in Rome with Vatican officials, to discuss some serious concerns about the centrifugal forces within the Church in Australia. The meeting ended with a “Statement of Conclusions” that offered a blunt critique of some commonplace practices in Australian dioceses, notably including the use of general absolution. The Statement of Conclusions was not aimed directly at Bishop Morris—it applied equally to other Australian dioceses—and it receives no particular attention in the Consultors’ time-line of the developing conflict between Toowoomba and Rome. But the December 1998 document is an important element in the overall story. The Statement of Conclusions illustrates the grave concern in Rome over the liberal tendencies of the Australian hierarchy in general, and the bishops’ tolerance of general absolution in particular. Those concerns, clearly, applied with particular force to Bishop Morris’ leadership in Toowoomba.

The simmering tensions between Bishop Morris and the Vatican came to a boil in 2006, when the Australian bishop wrote a pastoral letter in which he suggested that the Church should consider ordaining women, as a way to respond to the shortage of priests. Although he only suggested a discussion of the issue, and did not openly advocate the ordination of women, Bishop Morris was flagrantly disregarding the message of Pope John Paul II in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, that the Church cannot ordain women. He was also disregarding the Code of Canon Law, which made it a punishable offense to call into question the enduring teaching of the Church that it is impossible for women to be ordained.

When he was called to Rome to account for his unorthodox statement, Bishop Morris refused, saying that he had “serious pastoral reasons” for staying in Australia rather than answering the Vatican summons. So the Vatican assigned Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver to conduct an apostolic visitation of the Toowoomba diocese, investigating not only the bishop’s statement on women’s ordination but also the teaching and liturgical practices within the diocese. Archbishop Chaput delivered his report to Rome in May 2007. (Bishop Morris complains that he has never seen that report.)

Matters came to a head in September 2007, when Bishop Morris received a letter from the Congregation for Bishops, requesting his resignation. The Australian prelate replied that he would consider the matter. In November he replied, saying that he would like to discuss the question with Vatican officials. Cardinal Re, who was prefect of the Congregation for Bishops at that time, agreed to the suggestion, and set up a meeting in January 2008. When that meeting produced no agreement, Cardinal Re against requested the bishop’s resignation.

Bishop Morris again resisted. In June 2009 he met with Pope Benedict XVI to discuss the situation. The Pope apparently thought that the Australian bishop had agreed to step down; Bishop Morris says that he made no such promise. After yet another request for his resignation, the bishop wrote to Pope Benedict in November 2009, saying that he could not in conscience resign. The Pope wrote back, reminding him that the decision had already been made, and a papal decision cannot be appealed.

Still Bishop Morris resisted. For nearly two more years he continued to negotiate the terms of his departure, eventually agreeing to accept “early retirement” in the middle of 2011, but adamantly refusing to resign. Finally the apostolic nuncio in Australia informed him that his “resignation” would be announced on May 2. In fact, the Vatican finessed the question of “resignation” or “retirement” by announcing simply that the bishop had been “removed.”

Bishop Morris and his supporters have charged that the Vatican treated him unjustly. But the long history of this conflict suggests that the Vatican made every effort to give the Australian bishop a fair hearing, to provide him with ample opportunities to correct errors, and finally to arrange a quiet departure. Pope Benedict exercised his authority only after it became painfully clear that Bishop Morris would neither abide by the decisions of the universal Church nor leave his post voluntarily.

The bishop’s many supporters within the clergy of Toowoomba attribute his ouster to “a small number of disaffected priests and lay people” — dismissively termed the “temple police” — who have complained to Rome about the bishop’s leadership. On Sunday, May 8, the newsletter at St. Patrick’s Cathedral offered thanks “for the overwhelming expression of support for Bishop Morris,” and provided addresses at the Vatican for parishioners who wanted to voice their objections to the bishop’s removal. After 18 years of Bishop Morris’ leadership, the seeds of dissent are widely sown in the Toowoomba diocese.

Moral: The fantasy that the Pope is empowered to quickly and easily rearrange the entire episcopacy, as well as the liturgical, moral and sacramental life with the “stroke of a pen” is and always has been just that: a fantasy.