Balancing Truth and Propaganda: of incoming missals and outgoing bishops II

Having seen one example of how opinion can effectively be used as a means of propaganda, and so veil the truth to a great extent, with regard to the revised missal Anglophone Catholics are soon to be using, we can now look at another topical issue in which truth has often yielded to the weight of propaganda and ill-informed opinion. It is Pope Benedict XVI’s removal from the pastoral care of the diocese of Toowoomba (Australia) of Bishop William Morris, announced by the Vatican on 2 May.

The removal of a bishop by the Holy Father (and only the Pope has this power) is a very rare event indeed. In the normal run of events negotiations would take place to persuade an erring bishop to mend his ways, or if he were obstinate and unrepentant, to persuade him to resign, usually with some mechanism involved that would allow him to leave with grace and dignity.

What all sides agree on is that the catalyst for Bishop Morris’ removal was a pastoral letter the bishop wrote to his diocese for Advent 2006. In it he made the following statements:

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 for ensuring that Eucharist may be celebrated. As has been discussed internationally, nationally and locally the ideas of:

  • 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;
  • Recognizing Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church Orders. (sic)

Bishop William MorrisThe grammatical confusion of this excerpt is emblematic of the chaotic theology to which it gives voice. The latter two points are especially troubling. Despite the definitive ruling by Bl. Pope John Paul II in 1992 in his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that women could not be ordained, Bishop Morris proposes it again, in a pastoral letter to his diocese, without any acknowledgment that the Church has taught in a binding fashion on the matter already. His last proposal, the recognition of Protestant ordination, is quite frankly bizarre. There has been room for debate over Anglican orders (though Pope Leo XIII ruled they were invalid) but I have never read of any theologian advocating recognition of Lutheran or other Protestant orders, either “internationally, nationally, or locally”. That he can propose this in a teaching document to his diocese without any sort of theological context, let alone any reference to official Church teaching, is staggering.

So the day before the official announcement by the Vatican of his removal Bishop Morris issued a statement which is a true example of propaganda and economy with the truth. The tactic of making his statement before the official announcement was, one presumes, an attempt to influence the way in which the official announcement would be received. In his statement he paints himself as a victim, with the seeming aim of ensuring that the announcement of his removal would be seen as an injustice. In it he makes the following points:

  • that in the diocese “a small group have found my leadership and the direction of the diocese not to their liking”;
  • that some of these made complaints in part “based on my Advent Pastoral Letter of 2006 which has been misread and I believe  deliberately misinterpreted”;
  • these complaints led to “an Apostolic Visitation and an ongoing dialogue between myself and the Congregations for Bishops, Divine Worship and Doctrine of the Faith and eventually Pope Benedict”;
  • that the “substance of these complaints is of no real import now but the consequences are that is has been determined by Pope Benedict that the diocese would be better served by the leadership of a new bishop”;
  • that since he had not seen the Visitation Report he was denied “natural justice without any possibility of appropriate defence and advocacy on my behalf”; and
  • that he had not offered his resignation as that “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”.

Other bloggers and commentators, such as Kate at Australia Incognita, have made a detailed analysis of all the issues involved. Here a few points will be noted. It is impossible to see how the proposals in his 2006 Pastoral Letter quoted above could be misread or misinterpreted. There is no mitigating context in which he wrote them, no nuance of language. Furthermore, his claims that the substance of the complaints arising from his Pastoral Letter are of no concern now is “of no real import now” is hard to comprehend. They are precisely the point – he was proposing things contrary to the teaching of the Church, and doing so as an offical teacher in the Church. His claim that to resign would entail his acceptance that he had broken communion, which he claimed he had not, is really a nonsense. Ecclesial communion, communio as he termed it, is not a feeling: it is based on concrete and explicit acceptance of and adherence to the faith. This is why non-Catholics cannot receive Holy Communion until they are in communion with the Church through Baptism and solemn profession of the faith. By using his teaching authority in his Pastoral Letter to advocate matters totally contrary to the faith the Bishop himself broke communion. Any Eastern Orthodox Christian would recognise that instantly.

Lastly, his claim that he was denied natural justice is a serious charge against the Pope. He justifies it by saying that he had never seen the Visitation report. However, he is misleading the reader into believing that only this Report was the substance of the process set in motion after the complaints were made. Alas, his own supporters scored an own goal when they released a timeline of the process. It clearly shows that the complaints against the Bishop started as far back as 1993; that other issues were involved apart from his woeful Pastoral Letter, not least his widespread and illicit implementation in his diocese of general absolution in place of confession; and that the process properly speaking began in December 2006. That process involved repeated requests to come to Rome to discuss the situation, many of which he rejected or postponed. In the end, he had several meetings with the relevant authorities in Rome, employed an advisory group of international canonists, met with the bishop sent to make the Visitation, Archbishop Chaput of Denver (USA), and sent a written position statement to Cardinals Re, Arinze and Levada. Moreover, in the face of his refusal to remedy his false steps, he was asked several times, including personally by the Pope, to resign, which he outright refused to do. Even then, it was more than a year before the final move was made. In light of all this it is hard to sustain the charge that he was denied natural justice and the opportunity to defend himself. He certainly had plenty of time to rethink his position and repent of it.

The only reasonable conclusion to reach from the evidence of this process and his own written statements is that the Bishop has sought to portray himself as a martyr to the injustice of an authoritarian Church, a prophet rejected by his own. How else to explain his statement when interviewed that “You’ve got to stand in your truth.” In an interview on Australia’s ABC Radio, the Bishop claimed to be giving a voice to the people through whom the Spirit is speaking, and who “certainly haven’t got a voice”. In the same interview he questions the infallibility of Bl. Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter (mentioned above) on the ordination of women. His statement is startling:

…in my knowledge I had never seen that written before, using the word ‘infallible’ concerning JP II’s statement, because he never used the word ‘infallible’. If my memory serves me right, without looking at the document, I think he said that he didn’t see himself having any power or the right to ordain women, something like that language, but he never used the word ‘infallible’.

Having raised to his diocese the prospect of ordaining women, he seems profoundly unfamiliar with the most recent papal teaching on the subject, his recollection being that the Pope said that he did not have the power to ordain women or “something like that language”. In fact, if the Bishop had bothered to do his homework, he would have found that the Pope taught that the Church did not have the right to ordain women, not just the pontiff himself. And the language Bl. Pope John Paul II used made it clear he was not expressing his own personal opinion, but a binding teaching that would settle the matter:

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful. (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 4)

So why then did the Bishop sow confusion by proposing women’s ordination, in a Pastoral Letter to his people, without any reference to the definitive teaching of the Church? He is either ignorant or pursuing his own agenda. He makes much of the fact that the word “infallible” is not used by the Pope, as if the word itself is required for infallibility to apply. It does not take much to find out the five crtieria for infallibility to apply to any teaching. If you read them and apply them to the excerpt above from Bl. Pope Joahn Paul II’s teaching, it is not hard to see that it fulfills the criteria. But allowing that he forgot and was unable to track these down, he either forgot or did not take the time to read the then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s clarification of precisely this issue in 1995, stating that the language the Pope used made it clear that his teaching belonged to the “deposit of faith”, ie is infallible.

Was the Bishop merely ignorant? If so, he is culpably ignorant. Or was he “prophetically” challenging the teachings of the Church on behalf of the people of God who have no voice? It is not clear from what he has said which explanation is correct. Certainly if his aim was to paint himself as a victim of authoritarian injustice, he won over those who were willing to be won over. The body representing religious orders in Australia and the Australian National Conference of Priests both express, in rather intemperate language in the case of the priests, that Bishop Morris is the victim of an abuse of power.

St Patrick's Cathedral, ToowoombaFor almost 5 years the Vatican “dialogued” with the Bishop, who stonewalled and obstinately refused to recant or resign. He has set himself up as a type of prophet-martyr who speaks for the people. One wonders if he ever asked himself, above and beyond the fundamental questions of Catholic truth, what a bishop actually is. He most certainly is not a “pope” for the local Church who can decide teaching independently of the rest of the Church. Rather he acts as shepherd of his flock always in communion with the Bishop of Rome, who has a primacy conferred by Christ. He has a responsibility to defend and expound the deposit of faith, in communion with the other bishops, with the Pope as the bond and guarantor of that unity. When he acts outside of these boundaries, when he stands for (or in!) his own “truth” rather than that of the gospel entrusted to the Church, then he ceases to have any legitimacy as a bishop and is obviously out of communion with the rest of the bishops, not just the Pope. If in doubt, you can read the Dogmatic Consitution Lumen Gentium of the Second Vatican Council, in particular #22-26. By his ordination a bishop takes on a sacred duty to care for his flock and keep it with the communion of the universal Church under the successor of St Peter. In so doing he forgoes the right to be a “prophet” speaking against the teachings of the Church – he cannot say as did Bishop Morris, as noted above, “You’ve got to stand in your truth.” He stands by the Church’s truth or he is no bishop worthy of the office. A bishop also has the responsibility to teach the faith of the Church. That Bishop Morris did not seem even to know the basic teaching of the Church about the ordination of women, against which he was publically making proposals to his diocese, suggests a profound failure to know the faith, let alone teach it.

For this reason, if for no other, Bishop Morris deserved to be removed from his diocese. He did not teach the gospel; he did not even know the faith of which he was guardian and teacher; he served the voice of “consensus” in his diocese rather than the truth of the universal Church; and he failed to accept responsibility for his actions and his failures, painting himself as a victim, and the Pope as unjust and uninformed. For all his care of the marginalised, his promotion of ecumenical dialogue, and his accompanying rural Australians in his dicoese through the drought years, adduced in his defence and all noble in themselves, he failed in his primary and essential duty as bishop. We can but pray for him, not least that he might recognise how he has let down the whole Church, not just his diocese.

The office of bishop is foundational in the Church, and he who accepts it accepts a grave responsibility and a heavy burden. It is no wonder that some fail. That the Pope has in the last nine months removed three bishops from their dioceses (in Italy and the Congo as well as Australia) suggests that the Holy Father is now going to hold bishops to account for serious and unrepented failures in the discharge of their office, and to take responsibility for them. Bishops, it seems, are being asked to re-consider their call. Moreover, the announcement last Saturday that the Pope has suppressed the Cistercian monastery at the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalamme in Rome suggests that religious communities are also going to be held account for the way they live out their calling. But that is another story…

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