Frank Brennan, SJ, is one of most well known Australian Catholics. The Australian Jesuit priest and lawyer has been in the forefront of human-rights work and has spent much of his time working on behalf of the Aboriginal peoples in his country. On his Facebook page he has weighed in on the controversy surrounding the removal of Toowoomba Bishop William Morris. According to CathNews, his comments were intended for public consumption:
The forced departure of Bishop Bill Morris from Toowoomba was five years in the coming. You would think someone in the Catholic Church could have done something to avoid it. Every social institution is of course fallible; so too is the Catholic Church. The Church is not a democracy, and it does not pretend to be. Neither is it egalitarian. It is very hierarchical. And it does its dirty washing behind closed doors.
The Church is made up of members many of whom come from nation states like Australia where there are laws and processes which ensure transparency and natural justice. If someone is to be sacked, they expect to get a fair hearing. If a complaint against a citizen is to be upheld by someone in authority, the citizen has a right to know the case against them and a right to be heard. These expectations don’t always translate readily to an ancient institution like the Catholic Church.
William Morris has been removed as Bishop of Toowoomba earlier than when he wanted to retire. A popular bishop, he nonetheless upset a minority of parishioners and a handful of priests some of whom sent regular complaints to Rome. US bishop Charles Chaput visited the diocese and submitted a report to Vatican authorities who then alleged that Morris’s 18 years of pastoral leadership was flawed and defective. That may have been Chaput’s assessment. But we just don’t know. Nor do we know the basis or evidence on which the assessment was made. Morris has never seen the report. Morris rightly claims to have been denied natural justice.
After Chaput’s visit, all but three priests of the diocese wrote to Rome in support of Morris’s pastoral leadership. So too did all the Pastoral Leaders and all members of the Diocesan Pastoral Council. Morris was told that he could not see the report and that he could meet with the Pope only if he were first to submit his resignation. Talk about putting the cart before the horse.
Overseeing a Queensland country diocese stretching from the Great Divide to the NT border, Morris knew he needed to provide for the day when there would be not enough priests to celebrate mass. He wrote to the diocese in 2006 indicating that several responses “have been discussed internationally, nationally and locally” including the ordination of women and the recognition of other churches’ orders. He invited discussion while remaining “committed to actively promoting vocations to the current celibate male priesthood and open to inviting priests from overseas.” When quizzed by the media, he said he “would ordain single or married women and married men if church policy changed”. So he was sacked, not for ordaining a woman or a married man – but for talking about it! On the day of his sacking, his consultors, the most senior priests of the diocese, said, “In our view, Bishop Morris has not been treated fairly or respectfully. We find his removal profoundly disheartening. This judgment on his pastoral leadership stands in stark contrast to our lived experience of his ministry.”
This is a tragedy for anyone committed to the Church except for those like the chap who wrote on my Facebook: “The guy was a cowboy, not a shepherd”. It’s that sort of chap who probably started it all with complaints to Rome, behind closed doors. We need more shepherds in the light and fewer cowboys in the dark. Morris was a good shepherd even to those who acted as cowboys.
Professor Frank Brennan SJ AO
Public Policy Institute
Australian Catholic University