Thursday, October 24, 2013

The "Bling Bishop" Exits... Of Sorts

Saying Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst "cannot, at the present moment, continue to exercise his episcopal ministry" after months of embarrassing revelations on the prelate's lavish spending for a new diocesan compound, while it was anything but surprising that Rome moved yesterday to depressurize the fraught situation in Limburg, the solution reached was a remarkable departure from the standard course of action.

Instead of accepting the 53 year-old prelate's resignation or announcing his forced removal from office, the Vatican instead relayed that Tebartz-van Elst was being "authorized" to spend "a period outside the diocese," pending the outcome of an investigation by the German bishops' conference. In addition, "by decision of the Holy See," a new vicar-general previously named by the embattled prelate and scheduled to take office in January was placed in post immediately to oversee the diocese in the absence of the so-called "luxury bishop."

With some 700,000 Catholics, the Limburg church encompasses the far larger city of Frankfurt and much of its sprawling metro area.

After disclosures that Tebartz-van Elst spent $475,000 on walk-in closets and $20,000 on a bathtub among other big-ticket items for his residence in the new facility adjacent to his cathedral, the Vatican's handling of the fallout is extraordinary on several fronts. First, because it precisely isn't the "suspension" that has been widely misreported – indeed, the move is not a formal canonical act of any kind – but likewise as it's a substantive instance of the intended fresh push for collegiality by Pope Francis. In other words, far from derailing a locally-called probe to impose a definitive, permanent resolution from on high, the Holy See has indicated that, in essence, the final verdict on Tebartz-van Elst's future lies with his confreres at home.

Even as fact-finding missions have long been employed to settle questions of alleged episcopal misconduct, they've always been chartered by Rome and carried out according to its whim... at least, until now. To repeat an earlier note, with the former president of an episcopal conference having ascended to the papacy for the first time, the role and influence of the national bodies is expected to markedly increase under Francis. In that light, the two-tiered response on Limburg – with most of the action being driven from outside the Vatican – could be a sign of things to come as similar cases arise elsewhere.

To be sure, it's not that Rome has exerted no authority in the matter – only the Pope can order a bishop to cool his heels, and for the Holy See to strongarm the appointment of a diocesan official is practically unheard of. Yet even on the latter front, the customary protocol that'd see the pontiff parachute in an apostolic administrator – a figure enjoying the full authority of the bishop for a temporary period (and something that can be done even when a diocese is not vacant) – has been disregarded in favor of a strictly local arrangement, one in which, even for all the ugly press that's made the rounds, the prelate could easily be returned to his full powers with minimal disruption.

Accordingly, as a vicar-general has only a limited, day-to-day purview normally contingent on the bishop, Tebartz-van Elst's chosen deputy, Wolfgang Rösch, would be unable, for example, to U-turn the controversial building project with its €31 million (US$43 million) price-tag. No timeframe was given for how long the odd state of affairs would endure.

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While the practice of funding the church with state-collected revenues comprising around a tenth of each registered member's annual income tax is common across much of Europe, in the continent's largest country, German Catholicism is widely believed to be the global church's wealthiest national branch thanks to its government windfall. Accordingly, the Limburg debaçle has resurrected the country's occasional debate over whether to scrap the "church tax" (which, in Germany, sends 8 percent of a believer's amount owed to one's own religious group) while forcing several of the country's larger dioceses – among them Cologne, long thought to be the world's richest see – to take the unprecedented step of opening their books.

In addition, another typical element of Germano-church scandals has returned to the fore as the numbers of Catholics seeking to civilly de-affiliate from the faith are yet again reported to have spiked. Though the act is not equivalent to renouncing one's baptism – its only bearing is on a diocese's share of the "church tax" – the country's bishops made waves last year by declaring as a conference that those who've civilly left the church rolls should refrain from receiving the sacraments and would not be eligible for Catholic weddings, funerals or baptisms for their children.

Speaking of Germany, with Cologne's Cardinal Joachim Meisner set to turn 80 on Christmas Day and his well-delayed succession believed to be soon in the offing, the Nordrhein prelate – a cardinal for three decades, and long the German bench's lead conservative – had his own private audience with Francis on Tuesday shortly before Tebartz-van Elst was received.

Given the new Pope's concerted emphasis on a "poor church for the poor," the selection of Meisner's replacement in the super-flush Cologne church provides Bergoglio with a key opportunity to translate his priorities into the realm of policy as only his appointments can flesh out.

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On the wider scene, the Limburg fiasco is just one piece of German theater that's been causing high-profile headaches in Rome these days. The other came earlier this month, when a vademecum on pastoral practice from the archdiocese of Freiburg opened the door to a local understanding where, in defiance of the universal norms, civilly-remarried Catholics could be permitted to receive the Eucharist.

Quickly garnering global attention given the hot-button topic – an issue intensely focused-upon in the German context – the move was quickly swatted down by the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, who rapped any attempt at lower-level moves prior to next year's extraordinary Synod called by Francis to address "the pastoral challenges of the family." More recently, Tuesday saw the publication of an extensive retort in L'Osservatore Romano by the German CDF prefect, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, who bluntly stated that "there is no possibility of admitting remarried divorcees to the sacraments."

Francis, however, was conspicuously less absolute on the question when it was posed during the now-(in)famous press conference during his return from July's World Youth Day trip to Rio.

"This time is a kairos [appointed hour] of mercy," the Pope said. "We are moving towards a somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage. And this is a problem for everyone, because there are so many [divorced and remarried couples], no?"

In any event, Freiburg likewise happens to be another top-shelf German vacancy on Francis' plate. One of the largest Deutsch dioceses with over 2 million Catholics, the post recently opened on the retirement of Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, who continues to serve as chairman of the country's episcopal conference until next spring.

Given his Chancery's opening of the proverbial can of worms right in the middle of the his successor's selection, who's sent in Zollitsch's stead could just provide a preview to this pontificate's approach to the divorce dilemma in the long haul.