The Vatican Comes To Queensland


On the face of it Toowoomba is like Anthony Trollope’s Barchester. It has a Gothic cathedral, a Jacobean presbytery and a convent, now demolished to house a school. A few blocks away and facing Queen’s Park, Bishop’s House is a stately Federation mansion that houses the Catholic Education Office. There are, however, goings-on in Toowoomba that would make the most respectable Darling Downs dowager demur.

Catholic Bishop William Morris’s farewell letter (pdf) to his flock last weekend hints darkly at forces that ousted him from the Diocese because of complaints from fundamentalist Catholics to Rome and a subsequent enquiry led by the Archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput.

The enquiry, whose report Bishop Morris has yet to see, demonstrates one of the insidious ways in which a new status quo in Church politics has been legitimised and naturalised by a discourse that excludes alternatives. This discourse establishes itself through an apparently canonical norm, such as the announcement of an enquiry or through writing an official letter from Rome — yet it permits no real justice. While observing all the official niceties, the Papal Nuncio’s announcement that a new Administrator for the diocese has now taken over and that Bishop Morris has taken early retirement, reflects the triumph of this universe of closed canonical discourse.

Thus has the pastoral discourse of a lived authenticity to gospel values as interpreted in the light of an inculturated faith been cast aside. New ecclesiology requires conjuring up a new realm of Church membership, one that exalts disgruntled rule-driven fundamentalists and treats them — and child abusers  — better than a pastoral bishop.

Commenting from the sidelines, Brisbane’s Archbishop Bathersby capitulated to the dynamic that reinforces closed discourse. While declaring his affection for Bill Morris, John Bathersby professed ignorance of the case and speculated that the Pope must have got something on him  — even though Archbishop Chaput stayed with Bathersby during his "visitation".

This is the language of discretion and canonism masquerading as the language of justice and pastoral care. It involves the debasement of both, the removal of genuine alternatives, and offers instead conjuring tricks that enable old problems, such as a chronic shortage of priests, to disappear magically. Wands are waved and theological dialogue and discussion gone in a puff of smoke. The Vatican has got off lightly in appealing to its right to silence by urging Catholics to submit to the papal prerogative to hire and fire bishops.

Silence provides the key to the trick and the succession of a new bishop is held up as a panacea. Silence, like prudence, is an overrated virtue. Its prime purpose is to bury conflict rather than resolve it, especially when it questions the essential functionality of the dominant ecclesiastical mode.

The fundamentalists in Toowoomba and elsewhere in Australia  — and evidently in Rome and around the globe – have been fuming about Bishop Morris for years. Now the topic here, remember, is not the behaviour of some salaciously anti-Catholic Maria Monk, eager to grasp at every nettle, tug it up by the roots and lash at the face of the Evil Empire with it. This is Bishop William Morris, who has quite properly denounced the disrespectful treatment of women and married men who seek to serve the Catholic Church in ordained ministry. Moreover, without them, Toowoomba’s diocese of 68,000 souls is likely to have no priests at all by 2040.

Sheer common sense should have prevailed in determining a response to him. Instead Rome despatched "Chuck" Chaput, as he is redoubtably known within the US Armed Forces establishment, to investigate.

Archbishop Chaput is part of a new breed of theological conservative who has regularly disagreed with the US Conference of Bishops on a range of issues from bioethics to the role of Catholics in politics. He advised Catholics to vote against the Democratic Party candidate, John Kerry, who he threatened with excommunication during the 2004 US presidential election for stating that abortion was a matter of individual conscience. Chaput is a frequent critic of President Obama’s health care reform bill, even though the cost to the uninsured American poor of having a child is three times as much as to have an abortion. Following a pattern commenced in Australia with the closure of St Mary’s in South Brisbane, Chaput argues that his true concern is safeguarding freedom of religion when he has done everything possible to impose one set of religious norms and values upon many competing religious ideas  — especially within global Catholicism.

The Chaput phenomenon is widely regarded in North American liberal theological circles as an attempt to resuscitate a pre-Vatican II Catholicism, in the manner of a former New York Archbishop, Cardinal Spellman, who gave his personal stamp of approval to the Vietnam War. Chaput’s neo-conservatism has immense appeal for the new kind of global Catholic fundamentalism evident in the writings of William Buckley, Michael Novak, George Weigel and Richard Neuhaus. This movement has led to the elevation of the neo-fascist Opus Dei to the status of a personal prelature of the Pope as well the current move to canonise Pope John Paul II, both redolent with an ideology that is intended to reconfigure and position the Catholic Church as a major opponent of theological progressivism, social liberalism and social justice.

The difference between socially liberal and conservative Catholicism has always been a matter of disputed identity politics, especially in the English-speaking world, and, as in Australia, the Republican Party since the Reagan era has made extraordinary efforts to broaden its base to appeal to Catholics on what used to be anti-communist and now feature as conservative biologistic grounds, particularly as the unifying effects of American anti-Catholicism on the Catholic vote have dissipated after the election of John Kennedy. Unfortunately for such forces, the traditions of Vatican II and its close links with the now condemned liberation theology and a struggling socially liberal politics, pose an insuperable obstacle to consolidating a new conservatism for the future.

A similar socio-cultural phenomenon is in unfurling in Australia, where concerted efforts have been made over several years, especially through the influence of Cardinal Pell, to forge an alliance between neo-conservative Catholics and neoliberal politicians.

The overall tragedy is that at a time when rule-based Catholicism has collapsed and life-giving openness and dialogue is on top of the Wanted List, what is now happening, not just in Toowoomba, but globally, is under concerted attack. At stake is not simply the renewal but the very survival of the Catholic Church, commenced at Vatican II but now almost dead and buried. This is what will help to avert the exit of Catholics from separatist, cultist and moribund forms of Church life and practice and encourage the far more dynamic, integrated and relevant modes of religious belief and public engagement suited to the 21st century.
Bishop William Morris, like South Brisbane’s Father Peter Kennedy, should be proud that he attracted the ire of a Vatican set on reversing the trends that must be followed if Catholics are to play an exemplary and life-giving role in the public sphere. One hopes that his bold example will not be the last.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.