Yes, he has been temporarily suspended, but many commentators, inside and beyond Germany, as well as many ordinary German Catholics, had expected that he would have been dismissed by a Pope who has made known his commitment to “a Church that is poor and for the poor”.
The matter isn’t over yet, but the initial response from Pope Francis is very lenient, given the lavish spending on an episcopal residence. An investigation and audit will take place, after the bishop was ordered to stay outside his diocese “for a period”.
One would have thought, on the basis of what is already known about the money spent on a luxury house, that there was a prima facie case for dismissal. The former secretary of Angela Merkel’s CDU party suggested that Tebartz-van Elst should be sent to Africa.
“Perhaps one could recommend to the bishop that he take over a diocese in Africa, where he can win back his credibility,” Heiner Geissler told a German television station prior to the decision from Rome about his future.
Instead of dismissal and banishment to some missionary outpost, Pope Francis, in the words of John L Allen, the Rome-based senior correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter, gave Tebartz-van Elst “a soft landing”.
Given the shameful extravagance — €15,000 for a free-standing bath, €200,000 on special windows, and €350,000 for wardrobes — indulged in by Tebartz-van Eltz, it is difficult to argue with Allen’s assessment. In truth, the bishop hasn’t been disciplined at all.
He is also involved in another controversy — he faces a fine from a Hamburg court for allegedly providing false testimony in a case he filed against Der Spiegel magazine, which reported he had flown first-class to India to visit poor children. The bishop claimed he travelled in business class.
This behaviour by the bishop of a relatively small diocese near Frankfurt is all the more remarkable in a country that was the birthplace of the Reformation in the 16th century, a momentous event that split Western Christianity and which was sparked in large measure by scandals over money and the methods of collection (charging for indulgences) and abuse of same.
Then there is the matter of an investigation and an audit? How widespread and searching will this be, given Hans Kung’s comment that the problems in Limburg are just “the tip of the iceberg”?
The Catholic Church in Germany possesses enormous wealth. German dioceses are among the richest in the world. The furore over the expenditure of €31m on a new residential complex in Limburg has prompted dioceses of Cologne, Munich, Essen, Hamburg, and Speyer to make their finances public.
Cologne revealed assets, as of Dec 2012, of €166.2m, posting an income of €9.6m in the same year. The archdiocese of Munich posted total assets of €27.6m, while the diocese of Speyer had a worth of about €46.5m.
The German Church also has a wide range of investments in commercial enterprises. These include breweries and vineyards and a radio station. The Church owns 24,000 apartments, 10 banks, 70 hotels, and a publishing house. This is what is known; much else may remain hidden because diocesan finances in Germany are no more transparent than in any other part of the world.
The understandable anger sparked by the Limburg scandal has also been fuelled by the church tax that is obligatory for all German church members, Catholic and Lutheran, said to be worth €5bn annually to the Catholic Church. And to this must be added State subsidies for the running of religious schools.
Such an abundance of wealth brings its own temptations, especially given the degree of control that bishops exercise over diocesan finances. The extravagances of the (now suspended) Bishop of Limburg may indeed be, as Kung hinted, just the tip of the iceberg. All of this is hard to square with the Pope’s own approach to wealth and his desire to see a more austere Church. It may also explain the Pope’s initially cautious response to the excesses of the Bishop of Bling.
However, there are real issues of credibility at stake here for the Church. And they extend far beyond Limburg.
Pope Francis has eschewed all ostentation. His decision to stay in the simple surrounds of Domus Sanctae Marthae, a Vatican guesthouse, rather than moving into the opulent splendour of the papal apartments, is highly symbolic. He often travels in used cars and has urged priests to do the same, telling them: “If you like the fancy one, just think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world.”
And just the day before he met with Tebartz-van Elst, he preached a sermon in which he castigated greed. “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions,” he said. “Greed destroys people, families, and human relationships.”
BUT if Francis is to make real reforms, then much more than sermons and symbolism will be required.
Committing the Church worldwide to a “preferential option for the poor” will have far-reaching implications, and it will face stern, deep-rooted opposition. Much of that will come from within the Roman Curia (the Church’s central bureaucracy), but also from a plethora of conservative bishops spread throughout the universal Church.
Their presence is part of the legacy of the long 25-year pontificate of John Paul II (augmented by the eight-year period on the chair of Peter of Benedict XVI). Time and again, these Popes appointed mediocre bishops because they were considered “safe” choices — they had anti-reformist credentials.
Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, who is 53, is a typical example. He was appointed by Benedict XVI in Nov 2007, specifically to counter “liberal” tendencies within German Catholicism. This was yet another error of judgement by Joseph Ratzinger, who resigned as Pope on Feb 28. The appointment, like a lot of others over the past 30 years, was motivated by a determination to sideline the reforms of Vatican II.
It remains to be seen to what extent Pope Francis will embrace these reforms and seek to reactivate them.
A month ago, in a wide-ranging interview with La Civilta Cattolica, an Italian Jesuit journal, he urged the world’s 1.2bn Catholics to face up to the need for reform. In marked contrast to the ultra-conservative approach of Benedict XVI, Francis said the first reform must be one of “attitude”, adding that unless a new balance is found, “the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards”.
Embracing a “preferential option for the poor” must be part of that reform, but there will be considerable opposition. The concept of a “preferential option” has roots in Vatican II, especially its constitution On the Church in the Modern World, but was first formally enunciated at a 1968 assembly of Latin American bishops in Medellin in Colombia (which I covered for the Irish Press). It was to form a cornerstone of the movement known as “liberation theology”.
One of its great champions was Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated while saying Mass in 1980. It was fitting last Friday that President Michael D Higgins, during a 12-day visit to Latin America, should visit the grave of the slain archbishop. His unflinching commitment to the poor made him powerful enemies among the oligarchies who exercise so much power even today in Central and South America.
Pope Francis, during his time in Argentina, would have had first-hand experience of the dubious and dangerous alliances between the Church and various power elites. He will know, too, that powerful voices within the Church will be raised in favour of maintaining the status quo.
His resolve is sure to be tested, and the extent to which he succeeds in reshaping a Church that is truly “poor and for the poor” could be the defining characteristic of his papacy.