In 2003, Chris McGillion, the respected former religion writer for The Sydney Morning Herald, wrote a book on the Australian Catholic Church called “A Long Way from Rome” in which he argued that while the Church in Australia had changed radically, Rome had not. Ironically, McGillion’s liberal analysis was supported by a 2005 warning from Rome via Pope Benedict XVI that Australia was one of the few countries in the world where true secularization had taken hold and was an example of where the “so-called ‘great’ churches seem to be dying.” 

Either way, the events of the past few years and particularly in the Queensland Diocese of Toowoomba this month would seem to confirm that it is more than the tyranny of distance that separates the Australian Catholic Church from Rome.  

The removal of Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba has been a long, drawn-out affair and has been played out against a nationwide background of the usual ills of the Church in most developed Western countries: an increasing liberalization in doctrinal matters; disaffected congregations; a decline in practice, particularly among the young; and a dearth in vocations, which, having reached its nadir, is possibly improving.  

Add to this Australia’s quota of sex abuse scandals, and you have a situation where even the Church’s internal upheavals are regarded as fair subject for comment by the secular press. 

Controversial, yet popular 

Bishop Morris came to Toowoomba from the Gold Coast, Australia’s answer to Miami, Las Vegas and Disneyland all in one. He had a laid-back style, but he first got into real trouble as early as 1993, the year he was ordained bishop of Toowoomba, over his drawing up of guidelines allowing the use of the third rite of reconciliation in the diocese. The general absolution issue led to an acrimonious dispute between the bishop and Cardinal Francis Arinze, then prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments. However, although he was warned about the third rite and other eccentric liturgical manifestations such as a “clown Mass,” where he appeared in full clown makeup, he continued on with his progressive style.

Meanwhile, there was a growing group of dissatisfied conservatives within the diocese, which had in the past been a bastion of old-fashioned Irish Catholic tradition.  

Nevertheless, Bishop Morris was — and is — popular, and, in one particular area, an effective and decisive pastor. Although the sex abuse scandals have not been as catastrophic in Australia as they have been in the United States and Ireland, largely because of the foresight of Cardinal George Pell of Sydney in setting up mechanisms to deal with it, Bishop Morris was one of the few Australian bishops to act personally and immediately in the matter of child sexual abuse by a former teacher in a Catholic school. Controversially, he insisted on sacking a principal who failed to take action over his suspicions about a teacher who was later convicted of rape, and for this Bishop Morris rightly won plaudits from the secular press as well as his Toowoomba flock. 

Doctrinal impurities 

However, the straw that broke the Vatican’s proverbial camel’s back was Bishop Morris’ 2006 Advent pastoral letter, which, among the remedies for the lack of priests, canvassed the ordination of women and the regularization of Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church (a merger of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches) orders. 

Although there has been some discussion in Australia about ordaining married men and regularizing Anglican orders because of an expectation of a small influx of disaffected Anglican priests, neither the Lutheran or Uniting Church ministries equate with the priestly ministry as Catholics regard it. So, whether he was emboldened by his popularity or whether, as one commentator remarked, he was just not bright enough to see the theological implications, the pastoral letter was bound to stir critics. Consequently, they wrote to Rome, eliciting a visit from an apostolic visitor, Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. 

The upshot of Archbishop Chaput’s visit was a report to the Congregation of Bishops, after which Bishop Morris was asked to resign. He refused, even writing to the pope. Pope Benedict, who had been thoroughly briefed, also requested Bishop Morris’ resignation and repeated the serious concerns he had with the bishop’s position on the ordination of women and the recognition of Anglican and other orders, but still the bishop was immovable. Eventually, Bishop Morris, 67, proposed resigning when he turned 70, which would have allowed him to see out the end of the sex abuse case. His appeal was refused and in March he accepted early retirement. 

Since the announcement on May 2, there has been a general outpouring of sympathy for Bishop Morris, including many impromptu sermons, complete with applause from the congregations. His situation has become something of a cause célèbre in the secular press. 

That the simmering discontent of the Australian hierarchy has bubbled over on this issue is not surprising. The Church in Australia, partly because of its origins in the Irish convict-descended underclass, and its traditional links with the labor movement, has always emphasized social action over doctrinal purity. However, since the 1970s, it has been moving rapidly to the left, with doctrinal purity almost gone in many institutions, especially schools. 

Tumultuous time 

However, the Catholic Church is still very influential on Australian public life. That is partly because Catholics make up the largest religious denomination in Australia, about a third of the population, and partly because of the huge numbers of children attending state-subsidized Catholic schools — at least a third of the total school population attend Catholic schools.  

However, this influence is in inverse proportion to its doctrinal strength and the number of practicing Catholics, who have dwindled, according to the 2006 census, to about 11 percent of the total. 

One reason suggested for this decline is the very liberalism that has flourished since the Second Vatican Council, which resulted in the next generation of young people having received a particularly poor quality of catechesis and being exposed to a very substandard liturgy. The results show in the lack of priests, which have declined in numbers of around 20 percent between 1971 and 2005. 

However, recent figures show an increase. For example, there are now 44 at the seminary in Sydney, where a few years ago there were less than half that. 

The reason for this is twofold. First, there has been a new influx of Catholic immigrants, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. They are largely Asian, Vietnamese and Filipinos, which make up a large percentage of numbers in many city congregations. Second, there has been a revival in conservative practices in Australia, particularly among these groups.  

This seems to be an indication of something that is obvious all over the world. If you want to see a decline in the Church, look at the liberal parishes. 

But if you want to see a younger, more vibrant group, you are more likely to encounter more doctrinally orthodox conservatives. This was starkly illustrated during Sydney’s World Youth Day in 2008, when young people from all over the world brought their own orthodox brand to Sydney. 

Angela M. Shanahan is a columnist for The Australian.

By the Numbers