This past summer, the Vatican updated its norms concerning “delicta graviora” (grave offenses against church law). The update named “attempted sacred ordination of a woman” as a “grave crime” for the first time, and specified that women and priests involved in such attempted ordinations are automatically excommunicated; it also streamlined disciplinary procedures for priests accused of the sexual abuse of children, extended the statute of limitations for such abuse, and defined the possession of child pornography as a form of child sexual abuse. You might remember the headlines from that time: Time summarized the changes “Vatican: Ordaining Female Priests on Par With Pedophilia,” and Maureen Dowd unleashed her characteristic brand of vicious, vicious words.
I had a number of conversations with friends at that time — “people in the pews” Catholic friends, theology grad-student Catholic friends, Episcopal priest friends, secular humanist friends — in which I pressed for greater calm, and argued that updating these statutes together did not represent a moral equating of women’s ordination and the rape of children on the part of the Vatican. The explanation of Msgr. Charles Scicluna (“effectively the prosecutor of the tribunal of the former Holy Office, whose job it is to investigate what are known as delicta graviora; i.e., the crimes which the Catholic Church considers as being the most serious of all”) made sense to me:
There are two types of delicta graviora: those concerning the celebration of the sacraments, and those concerning morals. The two types are essentially different and their gravity is on different levels.
In this matter, I was disappointed in the Vatican’s public relations, but I believed — and still believe — two changes to the same body of norms do not necessarily point to a belief that the ordination of a woman is as grave an offense as the rape of a child.
All of this forms the background to this exceptionally disturbing difference in church governance: on the one hand, we have the repeated question of why more bishops have not been removed from their posts as a consequence of the sexual abuse crisis. On the other hand, the Catholic Bishop of the Australian diocese of Toowoomba, William M. Morris, has just been removed from his post by the Vatican (he had not written a letter of resignation) for writing a pastoral letter in which, according to Catholic News Service, he “indicat[ed] he would be open to ordaining women and married men if church rules changed to allow such a possibility.”
If this happened in a vacuum, it would raise significant questions about ecclesiology and theological freedom in the Catholic church — Bishop Morris did not, after all, illicitly ordain any women; he suggested that Catholics should discuss the matter (and despite Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, let’s be honest: we do). But his removal did not happen in a vacuum: it happened in the context of Bernard Law; it happened in the context of two Irish bishops named in the Murphy Report whose resignations were rejected by the Vatican.
From Bishop Morris’ final letter to his diocese:
While I have tried to deal with all people fairly and to involve all in the ministry and mission of the diocese I have not always been able to succeed. Some of those who have been disaffected by my leadership have exercised the option of making complaints about me, some of these complaints being based on my Advent Pastoral Letter of 2006 which has been misread and I believe deliberately misinterpreted. This 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. 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.
I have never seen the Report prepared by the Apostolic Visitor, Archbishop Charles Chaput, and without due process it has been impossible to resolve these matters, denying me natural justice without any possibility of appropriate defence and advocacy on my behalf. Pope Benedict confirmed this to me by stating “Canon Law does not make provision for a process regarding bishops, whom the Successor of Peter nominates and may remove from Office”.
Prayers for Bishop Morris, for the Diocese of Toowoomba, and for the Catholic church — and for Bishop Markus Büchel of the Swiss diocese of St. Gallen, who called for discussion of women’s ordination last week, on Easter Sunday.
Update: Readers might wish to read this summary of interview with Bishop Morris. An excerpt:
“I think – and I’m not the only one – that there is a creeping centralism in the church at the moment. There’s a creeping authoritarianism.’’
“I don’t think they like questions, when they make a particular decision on an issue and when you start asking questions you seem to be dissenting from their decision.
“But you need people to understand it more, when they understand the mystery of it opens up a little more.”
He said he was very grateful for the love and affection of his community, who will hold a candlelight vigil for him in Toowoomba on Tuesday night.
“I know they’re paining,’’ he said. “I’m very grateful for their love and affection.’’
Mr Morris said he wasn’t advocating women as priests to the Catholic Church or women from other denominations.
“No I wasn’t advocating it at all but what I was saying was we need to be open to options so that the Eucharist can be celebrated in our community,” he said.
He said the church must be open in discussion around the world and Australia should look at being open to inviting priests from overseas.
Let’s keep the discussion going… this is what got me into trouble in the past… I’ve been having these discussion and I’ve been doing this since the late 90s,” Bishop Morris said.
And another update:
According to “The Australian,” Bishop Morris’ letter (which I have thus far been unable to find) also called for considering the recognition of Anglican, Lutheran, and Uniting Church (a union of Congregationalist, Methodist, and Presbyterian congregations) orders.
Reader Amelia had the insight to find the letter in the last place I would have thought to look — the Toowoomba Diocesan Website. (Thank you, Amelia!) The paragraph which led to Bishop Morris’ removal from office reads, in toto:
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;
• recognising Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church Orders.
We remain committed to actively promoting vocations to the current celibate male priesthood and open to inviting priests from overseas.