But Pope Benedict was pretty forceful about removing bishops when he wanted to be. To be sure, finesse is helpful, because the Code of Canon Law is cautious about removing a bishop. Canon 401 § 2 says that “a diocesan bishop who has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office.” But Benedict and his predecessor, St. John Paul II, invoked that canon many times, as the journalist Sandro Magister wrote in 2012.
If Bishop Morris’s case is any indication, it is something more than a “request” when the pope and his top aides in the Vatican want a bishop to resign. See this letter to Morris from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops:
Unfortunately, at this stage there is no other option but to ask Your Excellency to tender your resignation before the end of November, 2008, so that it can be published at the beginning of January next year. As an act of filial obedience to the Holy Father, your resignation will avoid embarrassment for yourself and will potentially avoid misunderstanding and division among the priests, religious and faithful of the diocese of Toowoomba.
The Apostolic Nuncio will be in contact with Your Excellency concerning some options for your future ministry.
If Your Excellency should sadly refuse to comply with this invitation, the Holy See will be obligated to announce that you have been relieved of your office as the Bishop of Toowoomba and have been assigned a Titular See.
Morris recounts what happened in his well documented 2014 book Benedict, Me and the Cardinals Three, which offers a valuable inside-look at how the Vatican process of removing a bishop works in practice.
He writes that he had run afoul of what he referred to as the “temple police,” a small group among the sixty-six thousand Catholics in his diocese that reported to Rome on his activities. Bishop Morris had disagreed with Vatican authorities on use of general absolution in the sacrament of reconciliation. But the greatest concern was his 2006 Advent pastoral letter, which said that “if Rome would allow it,” he would ordain women and married men as priests.
That is a very big if—Morris says that he didn’t actually try to do illicit ordinations under church law, or even advocate them. But under prior decrees, the subject was supposed to be beyond discussion.
So three Vatican dicasteries sprang into action, and in December 2006, Morris was summoned to Rome for a meeting with Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops; Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith; and Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. Morris responded that he wasn’t able to visit, so in March 2007, the Vatican appointed Charles Chaput, then the archbishop of Denver, to visit him and investigate.
Morris never saw Chaput’s report, but the cardinals evidently did, and pressed all the more for him to resign. Morris traveled to Rome in January 2008 to meet with the trio, and once again refused to resign. There would be many more “requests.”
After he met with Pope Benedict on June 4, 2009, Morris has written, Cardinal Re followed up with a letter saying he was required to resign because he had promised the pope he would. Morris said he had made no such promise, and once again told the cardinal that he could not in good conscience resign. Then there was a December 22, 2009 letter from Pope Benedict requesting he resign and, as Morris summarized it, “reminding that there is no appeal from papal decisions.” Ultimately, Bishop Morris agreed to “retire” early, at age 67, but still would not “resign.” The Vatican announcement on May 2, 2011, however, said Pope Benedict had him “removed from pastoral care” of his diocese; and that was international news.
Australia’s bishops met with Benedict five months later, and supported him with a conciliatory statement in which they pinpointed Morris’s refusal of the pope’s “request” to resign as the critical moment. “What was at stake was the Church’s unity in faith and the ecclesial communion between the Pope and the other Bishops in the College of Bishops,” they said.
Meanwhile, a hazy secrecy surrounded whatever it was that happened in the Vatican over allegations that McCarrick sexually harassed and abused seminarians. And yet, in retrospect, the McCarrick situation has proven far more devastating to the mission of the church than any progressive ideas Morris may have dared to raise during Pope Benedict’s papacy.