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Was Removing “Bling” Bishop van Elst Justified?

Experts on Pope Francis suspension of Bishop of Limburg Franz Peter Tebartz van Elst

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Brantly Millegan - published on 10/24/13

Most of our Aleteia Experts agree Pope Francis was right to ask the bishop to step away from the situation - but aren't there other bishops who could be justifiably removed as well?

Several news outlets have reported in the the last few days that Pope Francis has temporarily suspended Bishop of Limburg Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst from his position in the wake of a local uproar over a €31 million renovation of his bishop’s residence. We asked our Aleteia Experts what they think of the situation.

“A few precisions are in order: the Bishop of Limburg, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, was not suspended from office by Pope Francis, as the story in today's New York Times reports,” says Fr. Gerald Murray, pastor of Holy family parish New York. “He accepted the invitation of the Holy Father to spend time outside of his diocese while a thorough study of the finances of his diocese is conducted by the German Bishops' Conference.”

Ulrich Lehner, Associate Professor of Theology at Marquette University, says the money wasn’t spent on where the bishop lives exclusively but on a larger complex with many uses by the diocese. “The media mention that 31 million were spent on the bishop's 'residence' – that is only partly true. It is not the case that 31 million were used for his apartment – far from that – but for a huge complex that includes a diocesan meet-and-greet center, a building housing art of the diocesan museum, a chapel, and two historic buildings. Certainly, money was wasted, but it was at least a worthwhile investment in the future of the diocese. The diocese of Rottenburg had paid 38 million just for the bishop's house last year – nobody spoke of waste then.”

Lehner also points out that Bishop van Elst wasn’t the only person who approved of the spending. “Bishop van Elst is singled out as the only guilty party in the renovation project. However, his general vicar and members of the financial commission signed off on the increased costs.”

Duncan Stroik, Professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame and a practicing architect, says the costs sound exorbitant to him. “The renovation of the Bishop's residence for 31 million euros ($43 million) seems rather exorbitant especially since we have trouble building new cathedrals for that much money. Certainly a bishop's residence is not just a house but has to serve the whole diocese, the laity and the priests included. The functionalist style employed, though minimalist, is very costly.”

Either way, Associate Professor of Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville John Bergsma thinks it was smart for Pope Francis to have Bishop van Elst step away at this time. “Whether the costs were justified or not, the Bishop in question could no longer effectively govern his diocese since he has lost the confidence of his people and clergy. Even if the exorbitant expenditures were justified for reasons we don't know… [a]t the very least, the way the Bishop handled the situation was very poor from a pastoral perspective, and put him in the situation of being unable to lead his people.”

Fr. John McCloskey points out that it’s not unheard of for a pope to ask a bishop to step down. “[It’s] not that unusual if there is the possibility of giving scandal to the the faithful. Think of the Cardinal in Scotland who was ordered to retire.”

Bergsma agrees. “It is uncommon for the pope to suspend a bishop, but it is not unprecedented. Benedict XVI suspended an Indian bishop for adopting a thirty-year-old woman as his daughter, and a Paraguayan bishop for running for elected office (he won the election for President of Paraguay). John Paul II deposed the African Cardinal Milingo for his irresponsible charismatic activities and misuse of the power of exorcism. It is unusual, but it happens. Any pope with a significant reign will end up deposing some bishops.”

As a result, Bergsma doesn’t think the situation signals anything very different about Pope Francis compared to his predecessors. “I doubt this action signals any change in Pope Francis' style or priorities over against his predecessors. Benedict XVI and John Paul II also removed bishops who got themselves into a scandal, including financial scandal. It is likely that any of the modern popes would have done the same thing Francis has done.”

Author John Zmirak wonders if there’s a double standard regarding which bishops are suspended. “I find it curious that men like Cardinal Mahony in Los Angeles can without criticism spend several hundred million dollars building vast, hideous new cathedrals that look like slaughterhouses, while a conservative bishop gets attacked mercilessly for spending around one tenth that amount restoring a historic building–which after all, would serve his successors long after he was gone.”

“Better targets, to my mind, would have been the bishops who covered up during the abuse crisis. Of course, according to the Dallas Morning News, that was two-thirds of the bishops in America, as of 2002. Had all those bishops been removed, that would have sent the kind of message we need. Hundreds of millions have gone down the black hole of litigation thanks to the negligence and complicity of those bishops. Surely, that could have been spent on the poor… on keeping open Catholic schools, on pro-life pregnancy centers, etc.”

Lehner reads the whole situation as indicative of the state of the German church. “The affair in Limburg shows in my view two things: The German bishops are as a whole intimated and weak. Almost none of them dares to reform, to call for prayer, fasting and inner conversion, with the exception of the bishops of Regensburg and Eichstatt. The German Church is, as Cardinal Meisner once said, like a huge Cadillac with a tiny engine. Or put in other words: It has plenty of financial resources but only little spiritual strength, otherwise the good the church does would not be overshadowed by such a petty affair.”

“Second, the German Catholic Church is still reigned like in the 19th century. It has no transparency and Cathedral chapters defend old privileges like their enormously generous salaries with much more vigor than unborn life, the right to fair wages or the poor. All in all, I understand the uproar of the faithful and also of those who are not Catholic – it is a sign of a country, my own homeland, that sees the Church as a parasite on the modern state. The Church has not done much to counter such a view unfortunately.”

The following Aleteia Experts contributed to this article:

John Bergsma is Associate Professor of Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He specializes in Old Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Ulrich Lehner is Associate Professor of Theology and Director of Undergraduate Studies at Marquette University. He specializes in the study of Religious History and Historical Theology from the 16th to the early 19th century, especially the history of scriptural interpretation, the history of monasticism and mysticism/spirituality.

Fr. C. John McCloskey is a Church historian and Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington DC Website:

Fr. Gerald Murray is the pastor of Holy Family parish in New York.

Duncan G. Stroik is a practicing architect, author, and Professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame. His award-winning work includes Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel in California, the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Wisconsin, and Saint Joseph Cathedral in South Dakota. He is also the editor of the journal Sacred Architecture.

John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism. His columns are archived at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall.

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