.- It’s been nearly a month since Bishop Bill Morris of Toowoomba in Australia was dismissed from office by Pope Benedict XVI. Now the country’s most senior Catholic, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, has given his first in-depth interview on the controversial sacking to CNA.
“Well, it was a tragedy. It should never have come to this,” Cardinal Pell told CNA while on a visit to Rome.
“Rome was very patient. You could say the dialogue had continued on for 13 years and unfortunately Bishop Morris felt unable to give satisfactory clarifications.”
Bishop Morris’s dismissal followed comments he made in a 2006 pastoral letter. In it he called for the ordination of women and married men, and suggested that protestant ministers could offer Mass to compensate for the lack of priests in his diocese. This in turn led the Vatican to order an investigation.
“Catholics stand with the Pope as the successor of Peter and his role is to strengthen his brothers and to defend the apostolic tradition, and it’s now Catholic teaching that women cannot be ordained priests. That’s not an optional belief; it’s now part of the Catholic package,” said Cardinal Pell.
Critics of the bishop who’ve spoken in recent weeks to CNA suggest that the problems in Toowoomba went far beyond the bishop’s public disagreement with Catholic doctrine on the priesthood.
They’ve claimed Bishop Morris - who preferred a shirt and tie to a priestly collar and bishops’ attire - did much to undermine Catholic identity and teachings during his 18 years in office.
Cardinal Pell was both balanced and charitable in his assessment of Bishop Morris’s legacy.
“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 the diocese was divided quite badly and the bishop hasn’t demonstrated that he’s a team player. I mean even at the end he didn’t wait for the official Vatican announcement.”
“He sent around messages to every parish, to all his priests, the Australian bishops before the official announcement and since then he’s made a number of public announcements which haven’t been helpful.”
As for critics of the Pope’s decision to sack Bishop Morris?
“There’s been a predictable chorus from a minority but such is life.”
The job of rebuilding things in Toowoomba now falls to Bishop Brian Finnegan of Brisbane who has now been appointed apostolic administrator until a new bishop can be found. Cardinal Pell said it’s time “to look to the future.”
“You know, life moves on, but also I think it will be a useful clarification for people that Catholic doctrine is there to be followed and bishops take promises to defend the integrity of Catholic teaching.”
Cardinal Pell believes that it’s this orthodox approach that is reaping apostolic benefits in many parts of Australia including Sydney. He points to an increased number of priestly and religious vocations, vibrant university chaplaincies and the legacy of World Youth Day in 2008.
“Young people don’t see the Catholic Church as being inevitably in decline at least in most parts of Australia.”
“We’re doing what Christ wants, and I think that if you do that you’ve always got to be optimistic”
“There’s life and energy and promise.”