God Is Near and the CDF

On 15th July, 1997, the Superior General of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in Rome received a letter from Congregatio Pro Doctrina Fidei stating:

"This Congregation has received many complaints over the years concerning doctrinal errors in a book authored by Fr Michael Morwood MSC…

"A study of the book has revealed that it indeed does contain doctrinal errors, especially with regard to the nature of Christ (cf enclosure).

"Therefore this Dicastery asks you, as Fr Morwood’s Superior, to ask him to clarify his positions relative to the errors outlined in the enclosed observations, and to take the necessary measures to forestall any further propagation of them"

It is interesting that this covering letter contains a judgment already made: the book "indeed does contain doctrinal errors."

The "Observations" are reproduced here.

The document does end as reproduced here – halfway through a sentence, halfway through a paragraph – and sent in this form as an official document to the Superior General of a Religious Order making serious charges against a member of his religious congregation.

The writer occasionally breaks into Latin and offers no English translation. I provide a translation within the text for the sake of fluency and I refer to the source of the translation.


1. The book in question carried an Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat

2. The book had 8 printings in Australia in 5 years









on the book God is Near. Understanding a Changing Church

by Michael Morwood, MSC,

(Spectrum Publications; Melbourne, 1992)

This is a volume addressed, according to the intentions of the author, to a public which is not used to reading religious books.

The connecting thread of the entire book is expressed in the title: God is near to us. This constitutes the direct object of the first chapter. The other four chapters attempt to demonstrate the closeness of God developing respectively the following themes: Jesus, the Eucharist, the Church, prayer.

The treatment is a continuous criticism of ecclesiastical structure, which would be contrary to communion and to the promotion of the responsibility of the laity.

Some points of the book present grave doctrinal problems. These primarily concern Jesus before the Resurrection. According to the author, Jesus, to be truly human, had to live by faith, not knowing with certainty that he was God, otherwise he would not have had either uncertainty, nor questioning, nor doubts, nor obscurity: "If he knows, with certain knowledge, as a child that he is God, and if he knows everything God knows, then he does not have to live by faith; there is no uncertainty, no questioning, no searching, no act of faith required in times of doubt and darkness. However, for Jesus to be really human, he must live by faith. That is an essential part of being human" (p. 17; cf. pp. 18-19). The faith of Jesus has been subjected to obscurity and even, in the passion, to temptations of desperation: "Here was a man holding on to his beliefs about God in the midst of darkness and the temptation to despair" (p. 23).

Regarding the passions of the soul, the author attributes some to Jesus which imply faithlessness and powerlessness; thus, for example, in learning of the news of the death of John the Baptizer: "what is he feeling? It could be any number of deep feelings: shock, anger, regret, fear, powerlessness, loneliness, helplessness, abandonment, rage, concern, grief' (p. 60). The reader is invited to formulate questions for Jesus: 'Did you ever long to be held by a woman? Did you want to marry? ' (p. 18).

One cannot see how all these approaches and assertions can be compatible with the teachings of the Magisterium, right from the times of the christological heresies. St. Leo the Great, although being a great defender of the integrity of the human nature of Jesus Christ against the errors of Eutiches, wrote: 'Nihil enim carnis suae habebat adversum, nec discordia desideriorum gignebat compugnantiam voluntatum, sensus corporei vigebant sine lege peccati, et veritas affectionum sub moderamine deitatis et mentis nec temptabatur illecebris nec cedebat iniurius ' (Ep. Licet per nostros, June 13, 449: DS 299).

[He had no opposition in His flesh, nor did any lack of harmony in desires cause a conflict of wills. His bodily senses were vigorous without the law of sin; His emotions, which were real, were not tempted by allurements and did not give way to harmful influences since they were under the control of His divinity and His mind. ](1)

The Second Council of Constantinople condemned that one might say: 'alium esse Deum Verbum, et alium Christum a passionibus animae et desideris carnis molestias patientem, et a deterioribus paulatim recedentem, et sic ex profectu operum melioratum, et a conversatione immaculatum factum" (DS 434).

[That God the Word is one while Christ is another who, disturbed by the passions of the soul and the desires of the flesh, freed himself gradually from inferior inclinations and having improved through the progress of his works and having become irreproachable in his conduct … ](2)

The Third Council of Constantinople excludes every resistance or reluctance of the human will of Jesus Christ in respect to the divine will (cf. DS 556).

In regard to the knowledge of Christ's soul, the Holy Office has, in its time, declared that the following proposition "cannot be taught safely": Placitum quorumdam recentiorum de scientia animae Christi limitata, non est minus recipiendum in scholis catholicis, quam veterum sententia de scientia universali (DS 3647).

[The recent opinion of some about the limited knowledge of the soul of Christ is not to be less favoured in Catholic schools than the ancient opinion about His universal knowledge.] (3)

Concerning sin, the author makes it clear that only the fundamental option which refuses God is able to constitute a mortal sin, not singular sins: "The Good News is that we will only lose the gift if we refuse it. Such a refusal would have to be one of the most critical decisions we could make. The loss of heaven does not result from isolated sins or the reality of our constant weakness" (p. 7). He consequently proposes the distinction between mortal sins and serious sins: "It would help our thinking if we reserved 'mortal ' sin to its strict definition: the sin of death because it is an attitude that seeks to cut oneself off completely from God. We could then refer to other sins as 'serious ' according to their capacity to cause harm to oneself and others' (p. 10). The consequence is that we are good people: " We live basically good and decent lives. Deep in our hearts we know we will return the embrace. We are good people in spite of our faults, our sins and our failures' (p. 7).

The author does not at all take into account the teaching of the apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, December 2, 1984, concerning mortal sin and the fundamental option: 'Likewise, care will have to be taken not to reduce mortal sin to an act of 'fundamental option'--as is commonly said today--against God, intending thereby an explicit and formal contempt for God or neighbor. For mortal sin exists also when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered. In fact, such a choice already includes contempt for the divine law, a rejection of God's love for humanity and the whole of creation, the person turns away from God and loses charity. Thus the fundamental orientation can be radically changed by individual acts' (n. 17).

The superficial vision of mortal sin is then manifested in a way that it might be considered justified-- to be good people despite sins--without any reference to the sacrament of Penance: "At the very least we can say: 'At this moment of my life I have no intention whatever of turning my back on God's love.' We would do well to trust in this basic goodness, our basic desire to do good, and in Jesus who has won for us a place in heaven" (p. 7).

From the beginning of the book a banalization of the Christian life appears, not only on the slope of the battle against sin, but also on the positive slope of union with God, for such union, according to the author, is not able to grow. If there is a difference between us and the saints, it lies in their more sensitive awareness of the presence of God who loves us: 'The truth is that in this life I will never get closer to God that I am now. God loves me totally now. God will not love me any more in ten years' time w matter what great things I might do. God's love will not change. What can change is my awareness of God's presence with me and love of me. The difference between myself and the greatest of the saints is not that any one of them was closer to God in life than I am. The difference lies in their sensitive awareness of God's loving presence. It is this awareness and belief that leads the saints to respond in such extraordinary ways" (pp. 4-5).

In the chapter dedicated to the Eucharist, the author does not make even minimal mention of the sacrificial character. Moreover, he criticizes the bread which is used for the Eucharist as not corresponding to that which the Lord had at the Last Supper, since it doesn't seem to have the flavor of true bread, and also the fact that the chalice is not offered to the people (cf. pp. 50-51).

About purgatory, the author sustains that the different ways of thinking among the faithful are to be respected: whether of those who believe that it exists because the teaching of the Church about this is clear, or of those who question its existence because the forgiveness of God is complete. Who is closer to the truth? he concludes (cf. p. 53). From the way he presents the question, the response is obvious: the second opinion. But in this way, the solemn teaching of the Council of Trent is not retained (cf. DS 1820), a teaching confirmed by the Second Vatican Council (cf. LG, 51a) and by the Solemn Profession of Faith n. 28, of Paul VI (June 30, 1968).

The author likewise criticizes the ways of praying present in many petitionary texts of the eucharistic liturgy, in which one asks God to bless his people with the gift of his reign, to watch over his family, to help us, to listen to us, to send us his Spirit so that he might teach us the truth, etc. The author sustains that it is an improper way for the redeemed to pray, for God has already done and continues to do that which we ask of him (cf. pp. 63-64). It must truly be said of

The Observations end there.

On August 7th another letter from Congregazione Per La Dottrina Della Fede was sent to the Superior General asking to be kept informed "of any developments in this case". I advised the Superior General that the book was not likely to be reprinted in Australia and I had no plans for it to be published overseas, so the investigation ceased.

The book has now been released (2002) in the USA, with minor changes that would not alter the criticisms made by the CDF. The USA edition has a different subtitle: Trusting Our Faith. The page references to God Is Near in the "Observations" refer to the original Australian edition of the book, not the US edition.

There is only one item in this revised edition of the book that needs to be noted in the light of these "Observations". In the first chapter I have included a quote from John Paul II’s Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, a quote I used often when speaking on the topic of mortal sin, even before writing the book. The writer’s statement that the edition of God Is Near he worked with "took no account" of Reconciliatio et Paenitentia is correct. There was no quote from the document in previous editions of this book. I am happy to oblige in this edition with a quote from the document. However, I have used the quote because I believe it actually strengthens the point I make about mortal sin rather than weakens it.



In offering this response it is not my intent to trade blows with the writer of the "Observations" nor am I attempting to show that I am right and he (a presumption on my part) is wrong. Rather, I see his comments and my response as an opportunity for people to move into deeper conversation on the issues raised.

I find it interesting that the first charge laid is that the book is "a continuous criticism of ecclesiastical structure". It surprises me that anyone could read the book and judge it to be a "continuous criticism" of anything. Yes, there are criticisms throughout the pages but I thought it would be obvious that the intent of any of the criticisms was to draw attention to the positive theme of the book, God being near to us.

The writer’s comments on Jesus make interesting reading and should provoke lively discussion among Catholics, especially if they are to be taken as an indication of theology acceptable to the CDF.

It seems that Catholics cannot believe that Jesus "lived by faith". We cannot believe that during the passion Jesus had to "hold on to his beliefs about God in the midst of darkness and the temptation to despair." It is not surprising, then, that the CDF is having so much trouble in these times with Catholic theologians writing about Jesus. The message here is that Catholics must believe Jesus lived without doubts, without questions and without any real temptations." Recent opinion" that Jesus’ knowledge might have been limited cannot be "taught safely."

The writer explicitly objects to the description of Jesus being moved by his feelings ("the passions of the soul") on hearing the news of John the Baptist’s death. We cannot permit Jesus to feel "powerlessness"? We are not allowed to wonder (out loud) whether Jesus might ever have wanted to marry. It seems that asking whether Jesus experienced tension between emotional response and an act of the will is to be on dangerous ground. In fact, "one cannot see how all these approaches and assertions can be compatible with the teaching of the Magisterium".

The writer cites Pope Leo the Great’s statement that Jesus’ emotions "were not tempted by allurements". Pope Leo wrote another letter the same day in 499 stating that Jesus "was born in a ‘new type of birth’ in that undefiled virginity experienced no concupiscence." (4) Christians today might have some sense that a warped attitude towards sex and feelings is operating here, an attitude insinuating that only a virginal conception could be free from "concupiscence" and the stain of sin. Is it appropriate in this day and age to cite someone like Pope Leo, a great Pope, but a man of his era’s attitude to sexuality and feelings, as an authority on whether Jesus, like the rest of us, might have been really, and at times, deeply, moved by his emotions? We can agree with Pope Leo that Jesus’ emotions "did not give way to harmful influences", but Pope Leo’s belief that this was because "they were under the control of His divinity" makes Jesus quite different from the rest of us in our struggle to be good and decent. That can make, "Come and learn of my heart" a rather hollow invitation for people who in their pain think that Jesus would not really understand what it is like to struggle against all sorts of "allurements" to despair or revenge or violence or whatever. Is this the image of Jesus we want to present to people of this age?

Today, probably more than any other time in the Church’s history, we need open discussion and access to the views of our Church theologians on Jesus if we, the Church, are to bring the message and person of Jesus to our times and our contemporary understanding of how God is present and active in this vast universe. It is all very, very different from the 5th century when Pope Leo wrote his famous letter outlining "orthodox" views on understanding Jesus. How much longer can official Church authority keep demanding that Jesus be interpreted only according to the worldview, opinions and attitudes of the 4th and 5th centuries?

My concern here is not whether I am right or wrong. My concern is that our theologians be allowed to write and speak about Jesus and what "salvation" through Jesus might mean in today’s world without being silenced and condemned if they step outside the thought patterns of the great minds that shaped the Christian Creeds in those early centuries – and outside the narrow, petty minds operating anonymously within the CDF.

With regard to sin, I stand by what I have written and I lament the reluctance or inability to hear something very simple and very basic. Catholics need a change in language about sin, just as they need a wider understanding of sin beyond personal sin. The mortal-venial alternative is most inadequate and in addressing its pitfalls we should be concerned to free adult Catholics from the very common and mistaken belief that mortal sin is easy to commit. Many, many Catholics believe they have committed "mortal" sin at some time in their life when the reality is they have never, in fact, done so. Why is the CDF so reluctant to share this good news with them? Why is the writer of the Observations so disturbed by someone urging Catholics to put trust in their innate goodness and their love for God? Yes, reading Pope John Paul II’s Reconciliatio et Paenitentia will give Catholics a much broader understanding of the controversy in our Church about "mortal sin" and ""fundamental option", but I also hope that the few paragraphs in the book on "mortal" sin will serve to lessen the guilt many undeservedly carry – and that was the prime intent of mentioning mortal sin.

The book is a "banalization of the Christian life". How does the CDF writer come to this conclusion? It seems that I am wrong to assert that God is intimately close to us and that our primary spiritual task is to deepen our awareness of this presence (as the saints do) and to allow this awareness to transform the way we live. I am not surprised to read the charge, though. Since the book was first published, my greatest ongoing surprise has been experiencing how greatly disturbed many ultra conservative Catholics are by the notion of God’s intimate closeness. It is understandable, if lamentable, that the CDF writer reflects the same disturbance. The underlying issues have to do with dependency on authority or people with special powers for access to the sacred and dependence on authority for how and what to think. The joyless, grim struggle for access to God, won through hard work, correct theological thinking and membership of an elitist Church is still very much alive in our midst. Indeed, it has the bark and bite of a very alert watchdog.

It is true that I do not make mention of the "sacrificial character" of the Eucharist. The chapter on the Eucharist is not a treatise. It is a very simple historical outline of how radical changes took place in practice and attitudes. The critic may think it would have been a better chapter, more faithful to Church teaching, if I had made mention of the "sacrificial character", but I find it surprising that I am criticized because of the omission. By the same token, I could be criticized for not outlining the Church’s teaching on transubstantiation. That still does not mean the chapter should have treated such topics.

My statements about the bread not looking like bread and the chalice not being offered to the people express my opinion. I think the opinion is valid and acceptable. I think the bread should look like bread; it is part of the symbol. I think the chalice should be offered to the people. People can make their own judgments about health issues on this. The point is, neither of these opinions I’ve expressed are contrary to Church teaching.

Purgatory is a fascinating topic these days. The Observation here is a head in the sand approach not uncommon among some people in the Church today when confronted with the need to re-image aspects of traditional Catholic belief. It is obvious for most adults today that purgatory is not a place somewhere. It is also obvious to anyone with a working knowledge of history that belief in purgatory took off like wildfire in the late Middle Ages because it was a welcomed balance to popular belief that most people would go to hell. It is also obvious that what happens after death is still the greatest of all mysteries. So Catholics will continue to question notions and images and practices that stem from the Middle Ages and will bring their questioning into engagement with their experiences of love and forgiveness. This is what I presented in the book with the wife speaking about loving and forgiving her husband. The head in the sand reaction totally ignores this and insists: we have "solemn teaching" - as if this silences all questioning. Whether Trent said it or the Pope said it or the Second Vatican Council said it is no longer the deciding issue for many of us today. We respect these voices in our Church, just as we respect Scripture and our Tradition. But if any of these sources take us into an outmoded worldview we will no longer give unquestioning acceptance to the ideas and images that are linked with that worldview. The challenge to authority figures in the Church who quote traditional sources is this: Don’t just quote a "solemn teaching" to us. Show us how and why a teaching framed in a time long past can and should be believed in these times. Don’t hide behind dogmatic statements and technical language. Make faith relevant to our lived experience and our contemporary knowledge about our world and our universe. Help us to avoid the "split between the faith we profess and our daily lives". Take seriously Vatican II ‘s assertion that this split "deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age". Work with us and encourage us as we try to remedy this error. Stop adding to the gravity of the error by demanding unquestioning assent to "solemn teaching".

The difficulty is that a significant number of authority figures in the Catholic Church see the lack of obedience to traditional Church teaching as a far more serious error of this age. They seem to think this illness can be remedied simply by demanding assent to "Church teaching". This approach may seem admirable, but it can also mask a lack of courage or the inability to bring traditional teaching about Jesus into dialogue with the challenging questions that contemporary knowledge about our world and our universe and our understanding of "God" bring to this traditional teaching. Future generations will judge Church leadership in our times on its willingness to engage this dialogue. We can but live in hope that we will experience another wave of renewal in our Church that will produce leaders who have more courage and less fear, more trust and less suspicion, and more faith and less absolute certainty.

I have no problem with acknowledging that on some issues, especially whether Jesus knew everything, I am at odds with the writer of these "Observations". Doubtless some Catholics will not read the book if they hear the CDF has grave reservations about it. On the other hand, I hope the book and especially this report on the "Observations" will engender mature discussion on what we believe and why we believe what we believe, especially on such important subjects as God’s presence with us, Jesus, Eucharist, the Church and Prayer.

Finally, a reminder that the Australian edition carried an Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat from the Archdiocese of Melbourne in 1992. Readers may be interested to read on this website the account of George Pell banning my book "Tomorrow’s Catholic" and silencing me when he became Archbishop. Pell, a member of the CDF at the time of the banning (1998), wrote to the Provincial of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart stating he intended to set up a committee for the express purpose of withdrawing the Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat from God Is Near. We never heard any more of this. But it shows the thinking of the man, fearful of what God Is Near might do to adult Catholics reflecting on their faith. I presume Pell’s reasoning was in line with whoever wrote the "Observations" - or that the "Observations" reflect Pell’s theological thinking.


  1. Hunt, E. Translator. Pope St Leo the Great. Letters. The Fathers of the Church. Catholic University of America Press. Washington. D.C. 1957. P 115
  2. Neuner. J. and Dupuis J editors. The Christian Faith. Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church. HarperCollinsReligious. London. 1992. p 174
  3. Ibid. p. 194
  4. Hunt, E. Op. Cit. p 97

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