One might think we were living back in the days of the Renaissance. Tremendously high expenses for “luxurious” buildings by the Bishop of Limburg have brought him into the headlines as the “Protz-Bischof” (“the showy Bishop”). Scandal has rocked the diocese and Rome decided therefore in October 2013 that bishop Tebartz-van Elst was to take some time out, while a committee investigated the matter. He has retired to the Bavarian monastery of Metten, while awaiting a final decision.
Given the reaction of the press, of the diocese and the general public outcry, one might have thought he had done something far more serious. In reality, this affair is really about something quite different than a project that went over budget. Furthermore, it hides the fact that a far greater scandal has been going on, namely a division that has ripped the Church in Germany apart for a long time. Many members of the diocesan chapter, many priests and lay-people in Limburg have said that they won’t take the bishop back, even if his name is cleared. They have said so in press-conferences, interviews and official statements. Their argument is that confidence has been lost which cannot be re-established. This says much, not only about the lack of Christian spirit in the diocese, but particularly about the Catholics’ relationship towards Rome. “The official church (die Amtskirche) can say what it wants, we, who are the Church, say and decide differently”; this is the line of reasoning behind this. The Church in Germany is thus sitting on a tinder-box; all it takes is for the bishop’s name to be cleared and for him to be sent back to his diocese, and we have the stuff out of which schisms are made.
What exactly happened? Under the previous bishop, Franz Kamphaus, the episcopal palace had gotten into disuse. During the 25 years of his reign, he lived in the seminary, because he had previously been its rector and wanted to continue residing there. Since it is a historical and beautiful building, right in the center of the city next to the cathedral, it became necessary to consider its renovation. This happened under his successor, Tebartz-van Elst; not only was the original building renovated, but a new diocesan center was created, in which the bishop would have his apartment as well. This would be in the interest of the diocese, protecting its patrimony for generations to come. This was all well and good. However, it became fuel for scandal, when the budgeted 2 million Euro, after going up to 5.5 million Euro, ballooned to over 30 million.
This obviously didn’t happen overnight, but by increments. Furthermore, the bishop was not alone in making these decisions, but had a committee. Whether or not this was side-stepped, whether he was therefore not alone in making “bad” decisions, and whether this over-budgeting was the wrong decision in the first place is something which still needs to be decided. Rome determined in the wake of the scandal that the bishop was to withdraw from his diocese for a while, during which time a commission would investigate the nature of the accusations and see, if there was any truth to them. It is interesting to note, however, that the architect in charge of the project, Michael Frielinghaus, who is also head of the German architects’ association, states this was an adequate price for this kind of construction work; so does the architectural critic, Rainer Haubrich, who confirms it to be a lasting and beautiful complex without being luxurious. The diocese will be able to enjoy its use for generations to come.
In reality, the problem does not seem to be the money spent on the building (taken mostly from a foundation established in the nineteenth century, which the bishop was free to use under the supervision of a board of directors)—though that was a perfect excuse—but that Tebartz-van Elst stepped into a hornets’ nest. His predecessor Kamphaus had the reputation of being a liberal (he refused, for example, to follow John Paul II’s directives on getting out of the state’s abortion-counselling which implied signing a certificate, thereby allowing the woman to have an abortion, and thus providing close material cooperation in the act) and his conservative successor was thus bound to make enemies. The list of clashes is long.
Early on, for example, Tebartz-von Elst removed the priest, Peter Kollas, from his office of dean, after the latter had blessed a homosexual couple in the cathedral of Wetzlar in August 2008 (some see this as being at the root of the bishop’s further problems in the diocese). Then he exchanged the press-spokesman and head of the diocesan tribunal with people recommended to him by the conservative Cardinal Meisner, archbishop of Cologne, which immediately caused an uproar among the priests of the diocese. A letter from June 2009, signed by 11 priests, criticized the “high-end kitsch,” “empty words” and “clerical pride” as consequence of the bishop’s rule. This shows that he was stirring up deep resentment, as he was trying to reform his diocese and making decisions, which were his to make. As he removed more people from their positions, he made more enemies. The liberals were in an uproar, criticized the bishop for his strict rule, speaking of an “authoritarian style of a Church of clerics fixated on Rome,” when they wanted to continue building their own private Church, which is in spirit, if not in name, already Protestant.
In the wake of the mounting building costs and the scandal arising from this, Cardinal Lajolo was sent by Pope Francis to visit the diocese in mid-September 2013 (though this was not an official visitation). He tried to dispel the tension, by asking the diocese to make a new start and the bishop to communicate better, but also spoke of a media-campaign against the bishop. Tebartz-van Elst asked for forgiveness and accepted to make the budgets and costs more transparent.
But nothing, it seems, could assuage the liberals, who want nothing else than to see the bishop leave. During the diocesan meeting mid-November, it was declared that a new beginning did not seem possible. During a public debate on November 14, the head of the deanery from Frankfurt, Johannes zu Eltz, spoke about the necessity to acknowledge wrong decisions in the selection of bishops. Those responsible for the choice, namely the Pope or the diocesan chapter, should “ask the faithful for forgiveness.” No person was there to defend the bishop, and it was declared that no serious defendant of Tebartz-van Elst from the domain of research, science or journalism could be found; when one knows the conservative Catholic intellectual scene in Germany, one realizes how ridiculous and unfounded this declaration is. The plenary meeting of the Zentralkommittee deutscher Katholiken, the most prominent representation of the Catholic laity in Germany, was no better and declared as well that Tebartz-van Elst should not return. Only one lone voice spoke out against this. A member of the Benedictine secular institute “St. Bonifatius” said how shocked she was by how the bishop had been ridiculed and excluded, and at the lack of Christian spirit she noticed.
Three months have passed since then. It is to be hoped that people have made good use of this time to reflect, for things will soon be settled; whether it is to their liking, is a different question. On Sunday, the German news magazine Focus reported online that the committee set up by the bishops’ conference to investigate the matter had reached the following conclusion: Tebartz-van Elst had not wasted any money on the diocesan center, nor had he side-stepped anybody. This news was leaked, however, and cannot be given the weight of an official statement. Since then the speaker of the bishops’ conference, Matthias Kopp, has explained that the commission has not yet finished its work and that its findings will first go to the bishops in February and then to Rome before being presented to the public. But an interview with archbishop Georg Gänswein, prefect of the papal household, a week earlier, points in the same direction; for Gänswein declared he thought Tebartz-van Elst would be exonerated.
What will happen with the diocese? The alternatives presented by Focus which relies, as it states, on serious sources, is to dissolve the diocese, making it part of the dioceses of Mainz and Trier, or to send an administrator from Rome, thereby side-stepping the diocesan chapter. The first option is that of the German episcopal conference and the second is that of the Vatican. What will really happen remains open. But whatever it is, outright rebellion is a real possibility, if it is not to the liking of the rebellious priests, administrators’ and their followers’, as events over the past months have shown. If the Pope avoids conflict and Tebartz-van Elst does not return to his diocese, things will probably calm down. But the result of this would be a false peace, the kind of quiet that is present before a storm, for nothing will have been resolved, nothing improved. Only a real conversion of heart within the diocese and the Church in Germany in general (for Limburg simply mirrors the prevalent spirit at large) and a new understanding of what service to the Church means, nay what the Church itself is, would bring real peace. Contrary to the widespread misunderstanding, the Catholic Church is not a democratic institution, but the mystical body of Christ, which is hurt each time rebellion, hatred and dissent rear their ugly heads. Let us pray for an authentic renewal, so that the 500-year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in Germany in 2017 will not commemorate this event by its repetition.
(Photo credit: Franco Origlia/Getty Images)