At 67 years of age, Msgr. William Morris (photo) of the Diocese of Toowoomba in Australia is eight years short of the normal mandatory retirement age for Roman Catholic bishops and yet, this week, the bishop was forced into early retirement by the Vatican, which appointed Msgr. Brian Finnigan, the auxilliary bishop of Brisbane as apostolic administrator of the diocese. Bishop Morris was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Brisbane in 1969, and had served the Diocese of Toowoomba for 18 years, having been appointed by Pope John Paul II in 1993. Bishops are seldom forced out early unless they have health problems that impede them from doing their job or have committed illegal acts.
Bishop Morris' "crime"? A 2006 Advent Pastoral Letter in which he expressed to the faithful his concern about the priest shortage in his diocese. "We do face an uncertain future with regard to the number of active priests in our diocese", said Bishop Morris. The estimated numbers of priests in "parish-based ministry in 2014" would be six aged 65 and younger (three in the 61-65 year group) and eight aged 66-70, with a further five in "diocesan ministry" including the Bishop himself.
Bishop Morris went on to offer some possible solutions in his Letter:
"Given our deeply held belief in the primacy of the Eucharist for the identity, continuity and life of each parish community, we may well need to be much more open towards other options for 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 ...
"As a pilgrim people who journey in hope we need to remain open to the Spirit so that we can be agents of change and respond wisely to the needs of all members of the local Church of Toowoomba".
The Advent pastoral letter sparked an investigation, led by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado, who visited Toowoomba and spoke to priests and laity at length, and also spoke with other Australian bishops. That Apostolic Visitation, according to a letter released by Bishop Morris, led to an "ongoing dialogue between myself and the Congregations for Bishops, Divine Worship and Doctrine of the Faith and eventually Pope Benedict". The consequence of that dialogue, according to Bishop Morris, was that the Pope determined that "the diocese would be better served by the leadership of a new bishop." In the letter, Bishop Morris also complains that he was denied due process, as he was never allowed to see Archbishop Chaput's final report or prepare a defense for himself.
Bishop Morris was asked to resign but refused. "I have never wavered in my conviction that for me to resign is a matter of conscience and my resignation would mean that I accept the assessment of myself as breaking communio which I absolutely refute and reject and it is out of my love for the Church that I cannot do so." Instead, he opted to take an early retirement.
Since penning the letter explaining the events that transpired, leading up to his retirement, Bishop Morris has given additional statements to the press. In an interview with The Australian, he said: "I believe there is creeping centralism, a creeping authoritarianism and fallibility in the way the church operates and discusses issues...It is not just Pope Benedict: it is the whole Curia (Vatican bureacracy), with Benedict as the leader." And in a letter to priests in the diocese, Bishop Morris criticized the treatment of his peers in the clergy. "It has been my experience and the experience of others that Rome controls bishops by fear, and if you ask questions or speak openly on subjects that Rome declares closed . . . you are censored very quickly, told your leadership is defective . . . and are threatened with dismissal."
In another interview with the Brisbane Times, Bishop Morris said he believed Rome was increasingly exerting its might in silencing bishops across the world. "I believe the Vatican hasn't given me a voice ... and that means it hasn't given the people a voice," he said. "The church is governed with all the bishops in the world and the Pope and I think in many ways the local bishops have been sidelined - they've become like branch managers - and have lost a lot of their voice ... in the governance of the church."
Since his forced retirement, Bishop Morris has received overwhelming support both from the faithful in his diocese and from his fellow priests. Eight of the priests who serve under him issued a statement complaining that he had not been treated fairly or respectfully. They described his removal as "profoundly disheartening." "The far greater majority of priests and lay people of the diocese have found the pastoral leadership of Bishop Morris to be constructive, informed and life-giving," the priests said.
Bishop Brian Finnigan, who has been appointed to administer the Toowoomba diocese, also issued a statement in which he praised his predecessor's handling of a sexual abuse case involving 13 young girls and a former Catholic primary school teacher in the Toowoomba diocese during 2007 and 2008. Fr. Peter Dorfield, Vicar General of the diocese, added that Bishop Morris had helped the victims' families seek civil court action if they wanted it. "He encouraged compassion and justice for these families," he said.
In the end, Bishop Morris says, "I believe that a conversation needs to be had, whether its on the ordination of women, whether its on birth control ... whatever in the life of the community or the life of the world...My issue has always been that I need to be a voice for the people."