Out went the traditional model of governance by a Catholic bishop. In came a form of administration by committee — including committees appointing priests. In fact, Bishop Morris’ tenure began with a service held in a local retreat center. There he asked the priests of the diocese to sign his letter of appointment from Rome “to indicate their acceptance” of him as their bishop.
Out went the traditional understanding of the priesthood. Many parishes started to be run by nuns and lay people, with priests only administering some sacraments some of the time.
And out went a traditional understanding of the authority of the Church.
So when the Vatican asked Bishop Morris to end the practice of general absolution, he responded by carrying out a survey of parishioners on the issue before responding to Rome.
For many ordinary Catholics like the Norm and Mavis Power, life became pretty tough and very upsetting.
“The bishop would tell people what they wanted to hear, not what the Catholic Church teaches,” says Mavis, a mother of five who went on to work with disabled people later in life. Norm, a retired telecom engineer, agrees.
“Instead of individual confession people would be told to come up in a line, write their sins on a piece of paper and put it in a jar. Plus, an inappropriate form of lay participation was promoted everywhere. So on a Sunday if a priest was away for the weekend they would no longer get a neighboring priest but would, instead, ask lay people to lead the service and give out Communion on the grounds that they’d ‘want to keep the community together.’”
For the likes of the Power family this isn’t just a matter of arcane rules or abstract dogma. For them, the teachings and practice of the Catholic Church provide the wellspring for a good and happy life and – for that matter – a better world too. So to withhold or subvert those teachings is viewed as both cruel and abusive.
“It’s been pretty difficult. Really upsetting actually,” says Mavis, “and whenever we wrote to the bishop about any of these things we were always told it was us who were in the wrong.”
In November 2006, though, everything changed. Suddenly unhappiness with Bishop Morris went global. No longer did he just have to placate the Power family of Toowoomba. He now had to explain himself to the powers-that-be in Rome. The reason? A pastoral letter written to his entire diocese.
In it Bishop Morris promoted the idea of ordaining women and married men as well as allowing Anglicans, Lutherans and other religions to preside at Mass.
Again, all this flew in the face of Catholic teaching and tradition. This marked the beginning of the end for Bishop Morris.
(Story continues below)
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In December 2006 the Vatican asked him to visit Rome as soon as possible in order to discuss his views. Bishop Morris told them he couldn’t possibly make the journey for, at least, five months. Clearly surprised by this answer, the Vatican wrote again, only a month later, with a similar request.
Again, Bishop Morris said “no.”
“The whole thing was incredible. The flight from Brisbane to Rome takes about 12 hours and there's at least one flight a day,” a senior Australian cleric told CNA. “Yet here’s this bishop telling the Vatican that he can’t make that trip at all for nearly half a year! That reaction was little short of scandalous. Any bishop worth his salt would hasten to Rome as quickly as possible. To be honest, I think Bishop Morris was hoping that if he strung things out for long enough Rome would just forget all about it. That was never going to happen.”
Rather than wait, the Vatican sent in the well-respected American Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap., of Denver to review the happenings in Toowoomba. He visited the diocese in April 2007, speaking to all sides involved. In September Bishop Morris was asked to resign.
According to the senior Australian cleric, who asked that his name be withheld, the process again moved very slowly.
“It took Bishop Morris, wait for it, four months to say ‘no.’ He was then, again, asked to resign in February 2008. This time he took a grand total of 10 months to, again, finally, reply ‘no.’”