Since being elected to the Chair of Peter in March, Pope Francis has emphasized simplicity and humility–particularly for career-minded or high-living clerics–along with fiscal responsibility and transparency, through his examination of the finances of both the Vatican and the “Vatican bank,” a k a the Institute for the Works of Religion.
While the Holy See isn’t about to start micromanaging every diocese in the globe-spanning Roman Catholic Church, it’s clear that the pontiff intends to be proactive when financial questions threaten to erode the trust of the faithful.
On Oct. 23, Pope Francis authorized a leave of absence for 53-year-old German Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of the diocese of Limburg, who’s been nicknamed the “Bishop of Bling” for reports accusing him of profligate spending and personal extravagance.
According to the official statement, the pontiff has been “fully and objectively informed” of what’s going on in Limburg, near Frankfurt, explaining that, “A situation has been created in which Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst currently cannot exercise his episcopal ministry.”
This follows a private meeting between Pope Francis and the bishop on Oct. 21.
Dubbed the “luxury bishop” in the European media, Tebartz-van Elst has been the target of allegations he approved an excessively expensive remodeling and building project that included his official residence…to the tune of as much as $40 million.
But, as reported in the National Catholic Register, the assertion by Der Spiegel magazine that the embattled cleric was responsible for launching the project was wrong, and that his predecessor, retired Bishop Franz Kamphaus, was actually the one who ordered it.
Tebartz-van Elst has also been criticized for flying first-class while returning from an official trip to India. But records indicate the Limburg diocese paid for a business-class ticket, and the bishop got an upgrade due to airline miles accumulated by his Vicar General, Monsignor Wolfgang Rosch, who will administer the diocese in his superior’s absence.
All this comes in the wake of an early September visit to Limburg by retired Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, sent by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, to make peace between Tebartz-van Elst and priests of his diocese who criticized the project.
After the visit, Tebartz-van Elst agreed to release financial information about the project and cooperate with an audit, since Church law usually requires consultation with a diocesan finance council before money can be spent. The Vatican statement said that the bishop must stay out of the diocese until the audit is completed and “the connected verification of responsibility in the matter” can be determined.
But, not everyone is assuming the bishop has mishandled funds. After the end of Lajolo’s visit, the Limburg diocesan spokesman said, “the bishop has gone through a rough time and is quite delighted with this outcome.” Stephan Schnelle also stated that Tebartz-van Elst has been the victim of “lies” that began with comparisons to him and his predecessor.
German Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer said to a bishops’ conference in Rome on Sept. 11: “There are forces at work that I cannot see, so everything is a bit puzzling to me.”
Voderholzer then told Catholic News Agency (CNA) that he knows Tebartz-van Elst “personally, and I consider him a modest man.”
He continued, “It is a very complicated story, and I have heard that the house has been opened now, and everyone that sees the house asks themselves why a big circus and theater has been made of this…There seems to be other reasons that I cannot see quite clearly. He has my full support, and he has my full solidarity.”
CNA also reports that this is not the first time Rome and Limburg have clashed. Apparently Kamphaus raised the ire of the Vatican by allowing Church centers to counsel women seeking abortions, in defiance of an order by then-Pope John Paul II to stop the practice.
While abortion is technically illegal in Germany, there are no penalties for women if they have a counseling certificate from a state-approved center. That means that if an arm of the Church gives these women a certificate, it has de facto cooperated in any abortion that results, and that is an occasion of mortal sin.
Both the financial concerns and Kamphaus’ actions, along with a more recent controversy, illustrate issues particular to the German Church.
The German government imposes a church tax on registered believers, resulting in billions in euros going into Church coffers. This means overspending is not just a burden on the diocese but also on the general taxpayer.
And, Kamphaus’ disobedience is not new in the German Church, which, for the last 45 years, has been drifting from Catholic orthodoxy. It started with a declaration from the German bishops that watered down the Church’s teaching on contraception following the release in 1968 of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter on the topic (which contains some statements on the implications of contraception for relationships between men and women that today, in the age of “bro-choice,” look prophetic).
In recent weeks, a leaked document from the archdiocese of Freiburg–described as “an unfinished working paper”–proposed allowing divorced Catholics who remarry before the death of their original spouses, and without having obtained a prior annulment, to receive Communion and other Sacraments again. All that would be required of the individuals involved are just a few pastoral conversations with their priests about the breakdown of the first marriage.
While Freiburg’s Archbishop Robert Zollitsch said the document was released without his permission, his praise of the concept in a letter to his fellow German bishops re-awakened concern that the Church in Germany may be sacrificing fidelity to the Holy See to yield to societal trends.
In an interesting detail, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst chairs the German bishops’ Commission for Marriage and Family, which would be involved in any discussion of changes regarding issues surrounding marriage, including divorce.
While no one denies that divorced and remarried Catholics and their families are in dire need of better pastoral care–incidentally, simply having gone through a civil divorce doesn’t in itself alter a Catholic’s standing in the Church–the Vatican quickly reconfirmed that “there is no possibility of admitting remarried divorcees to the Sacraments.”
In a lengthy piece in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano called “The Power of Grace,” German-born Archbishop Ludwig Muller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, affirmed Church teaching, along with denying the Roman Catholic Church intends to follow the lead of Orthodox Churches in becoming more accepting of divorce and subsequent remarriage.
But, Pope Francis has made clear his intention to examine how the Church can better respond to this issue and others concerning marriage and family in a rare Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops next October in Rome focusing on “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”