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.”

Bishop Morris celebrates a Mass of Thanksgiving for the Canonization of St. Mary MacKillop
Bishop Morris celebrates a Mass of Thanksgiving for the Canonization of St. Mary MacKillop -- who was briefly excommunicated for ecclesial insubordination (Photo: AFP)

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.

20 thoughts

  1. Why are you in any sense surprised by this?
    Especially as the various power and control seeking agendas of the church are now effectively under the control of the deeply misogynist Opus Dei, and similar right-wing outfits.

    1. Hi, John —

      I don’t know whether you’re a regular reader or not, but I think if you take a look around, you’ll find that we are, in general, quite soberly aware of — and quite critical of — the institutional sexism of the Catholic church. My being troubled doesn’t come from a place of naivete. That being said, the day that I lose my capacity to be surprised and disturbed that an institution removes an official for discussing women’s ordination more quickly than it removes an official for covering up the rape of children will be a very troubling day indeed. Borrowing from Adorno, the theologian Edward Schillebeeckx writes about “negative experiences of contrast” as fundamental indicators of hope — “All our negative experiences cannot brush aside the ‘nonetheless’ of trust which is revealed in human resistance and which prevents us from simply surrendering human beings, human society, and the world to total meaninglessness. This trust in the ultimate meaning of human life seems to me to be the basic presupposition of human action in history.”

      That’s what my post is getting at.

    2. John, even if the dynamic you suggest is at work, it seems like it may be rather hard to prove as emphatically as you state it. And I would like to at least try to believe, even in the face of the negative contrast experience highlighted by Bridget’s post (almost an impossible attempt at times of despair), that such political control for power by limited groups is not completely running the leadership of the church.

  2. Thank you for this well reasoned and thoughtful post. Not unlike yourself, I spent many a conversation attempting to decouple what seemed like equal offenses. One of the real problems of our time, exacerbated by all the instantaneous communication of the internet is a real loss of nuance and critical thinking.

    I too wondered about this in the context of bishops not removed. I did not know that Archbishop Chaput was the visitor; sadly that says, with all due respect for his office, the deck was stacked.

    And thus the confluence of ordination issues and abuse issues rises up again. This is a case of justice not yet done it would seem.

    Thank you all for what you do here. I really feel like I can’t share your work widely enough, but I try.

    1. Thanks so much for your support, Fran — I very much agree with you. And on the topic of groups of people exacerbating one another’s lack of nuance, the reports out of Australia are that this situation was inaugurated by a relatively small group of people in the diocese appealing repeatedly to Rome… Very many parallels with Elizabeth Johnson’s situation!

  3. I appreciate your nuanced explanation of the new norms. They’ve troubled me ever since they came out.

    If only the Vatican had been just as swift and zealous in removing bishops who enabled pedophile priests.

  4. Thank you Bridget and colleagues for your informative, thoughtful and insightful analysis here. Inspiring and much appreciated!

  5. Thanks for posting this – this is indeed disturbing and not only because of the juxtaposition you name but because of the way a couple different sources of authority are converging. Because of the internet, I think Archbishop Chaput has garnered increasing authority well beyond the bounds of his diocese (as seen in the 2008 election and his influence on voters far beyond his borders) – that combined with the ways in which he exercises his ecclesially-given authority as Apostolic Visitor makes for a rather extraordinary influence among lay people as well as in the episcopal magisterium. The internet has some benefits – but I worry that if we are not attentive to it, we shall find ourselves swallowed up by certain forms of authority that the internet plays into, including the ways bishops like the ones you name may lose authority.

    1. Agreed, Jana — the questions of authority, collegiality among bishops, the role of the internet in enflaming misinterpretations rather than clarifying them…

      Does anyone know with certainty whether the fact that Bishop Büchel was elected to his post has any effect on Rome’s ability to remove him for voicing these same thoughts?

    1. Thank you so much, Amelia — I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to look there… I’m really grateful to be able to read this.

  6. I would also want to know how the removal of Bishop Morris fits with the US lawyer for the Holy See’s argument that bishops cannot be considered employees of the Vatican, and the Vatican therefore cannot be liable for sex abuse occurring in the US:

    “This lawsuit is trying to say that the bishop in Louisville is an employee of the pope,” Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican’s U.S. attorney told AFP in a telephone interview Monday.

    “I say that’s not true.”

    Three men brought the case over abuse they alleged they suffered at the hands of priests decades ago. They want the Vatican held accountable because the bishop of Louisville, Kentucky, failed to report the abusers.

    But the Vatican will argue that Catholic dioceses are run as separate entities from the Holy See, and that the only authority that the pontiff has over bishops around the world is a religious one.

    “The pope is not a five-star general ordering his troops around,” Mr. Lena said.

    “The pope does not have the power of a king.”

  7. Hi Bridget,
    I very much appreciated your post.! I had read the overview of the situation on NPR and found it a bit distressing. However, after what you wrote, I think I understand (while perhaps disagree with) the Vatican’s reasons for removing Bishop Morris.

    By speaking out for women’s ordination, Bishop Morris explicitly rejected the command in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that declared the discussion “closed” in the RCC. Thus, BXVI felt perhaps that he had no choice but to remove B. Morris from his post. (Naturally, one could argue that some gray area existed here since B. Morris did not actually ordain any women, but the Pope’s actions certainly correspond with his 2007 addition of women’s ordination into the delicta graviora. The Pope may argue that he is not defrocking or excommunicating the Bishop, just removing him from a place of Ecclesial leadership.)

    On the other hand, from the Vatican’s point of view, the bishops from Ireland who submitted resignation letters had not committed any theological wrongdoing according to RC doctrine–i.e., they had not fundamentally committed an act theologically forbidden by the Church. True, their dereliction of pastoral leadership and perhaps blatant attempts to hide sexual misconduct could (and perhaps should) be considered far worse than a theological misstep, but in the eyes of the Curia, their actions were perhaps akin to a moral shortcoming such as failing to support local charities or giving a few ill-tempered homilies. Nothing a confessional can’t fix, the Vatican might argue.

    The argument for B. Morris’ removal, then, is one of outright theological disobedience as opposed to a forgivable yet significant moral wrongdoing. Not sure if I clearly elucidated the nuance, but figured I’d offer my voice to the discussion.

    1. Hi, John,

      Thanks for commenting. I don’t think it will surprise you to learn that I have a significantly different view… I find it impossible to believe that anyone could (or that the Vatican actually explicitly does) find the enabling of the repeated rape of children to be a less serious offense than the belief that women could be ordained. I think that any system that did advance such a belief would require of us a radical re-examination of our continued participation in such a system…

      …and I’m sure you don’t actually believe that the repeated sexual abuse of children is comparable to failing to support a charity?

      So the problem that I am pointing to here is that the actions of the Vatican in this case seem to indicate that they are thinking in the way you outline here — that Morris’ “offense” is less serious than that of bishops who cover up the sexual abuse of children. I do not believe that is the explicit thought process at work. Personally, if I ever did believe that the Vatican actually believed that actions which enabled the repeated rape of children were a minor offense compared to holding the theological opinion that the prohibition of the ordination of women should be reconsidered, I would consider myself morally bound to leave the Roman Catholic Church.

      1. First of all, no, of course I do not think the facilitation of child abuse is equivalent to neglecting charities. Unfortunately, however, I’m not convinced (as you seem to be) that the Vatican thinks otherwise. Pope Benedict himself seems to have been connected with such facilitation and cover-up back in the 1980s.

        As per Sonja, I don’t think the Vatican sees facilitating child rape as ‘less serious,’ just as a whole different kind of wrongdoing in the eyes of the church.

        Anyhow, its all a sad state of affairs, isn’t it? A bishop can’t even express views about female ordination without being removed? Where has the church come in the last 20 years? An optimistic part of me wants to think that this removal is actually a scared act of a hierarchy who knows its losing the battle for certain theological changes. Perhaps the theologians in support of a female diaconate and priesthood are finally gaining some ground in Rome, and this is a way for the Pope to fight back—a childish and remarkably inconsistent way given, as you well state Bridget, the lack of forced removal of -so many- bishops who have facilitated sexual abuse in their diocese over the years.

    2. Hey John,

      Yeah, that’s the logic that I think many enabler bishops were operating with, and I reject it vehemently; I think Bridget wrote this post because she ALSO rejects that logic, not because she’s unaware that it exists at some level.

      While I think the existence of explicit and numerous prohibitions against women’s ordination (e.g. Ordinatio sacerdotalis) helps explain why pro-women’s ordination voices got quashed so much faster and frequently than enabler bishops got removed, I don’t think that ‘the official position of the Vatican’ is actually that facilitating child rape is a less serious offense than being pro-women’s ordination. If anything, it’s that ‘the official position of the Vatican’ wasn’t even articulated with respect to the former until very recently.

  8. Sorry to come late to this discussion. I have little to add, other than to say how deeply disturbing to me it is that conversation and dialogue is more threatening than actual acts of abuse and their persistent cover-up by men whose job it is to care for the people of God. I think Bridget is correct, “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.”

    However, it remains that both are ‘types’ of delicta graviora. That they exist even in the same category of ‘graveness’ seems to allow for some kind of equivalence. This equivalence is underscored when they are enforced in the manner and context Bridget indicates. I.e., one is repeatedly ignored and the other is acted on even when the grave sin has not actually been committed. Perhaps the issue is, as John points out, disobedience. However a command to be silent is deeply disturbing. In the Eastern Church (which is hardly better on some of these issues, please don’t think I am touting my tradition’s superiority here), there is a distinction between dogma (the creeds), canon, and theologoumena–‘theological opinion.’ The last is a very very broad category. Outside of monastic obedience, no one person or body (the magisterium) can actually command silence or prohibit discussion. I am always shocked by this when I revisit Ordinato Sacerdotalis.

    I commend Morris’s cautious willingness to be open to the options of ordaining women and married priests in order to ensure the continuity of the Eucharist. I hope more Catholics disobey as he did, despite the fear of losing their jobs.

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