Pope Francis, who has made humility and modesty his hallmarks, sent a swift and clear message to Roman Catholics around the world on Wednesday, suspending a German bishop accused of spending millions on lavish renovations to his residence and forcing the chief administrator of the bishop’s diocese into early retirement.
The bishop, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, 53, of Limburg, Germany, was reported to have allowed the costs of renovating his residence and other church buildings to balloon to more than $41 million. The projects drew ridicule in the German news media for luxuries like a $20,000 bathtub, a $1.1 million landscaped garden and plans for an 800-square-foot fitness room — as well as a cross to be suspended from the ceiling of a personal chapel, which necessitated the reopening of a renovated roof.
The pope acted just two days after receiving Bishop Tebartz-van Elst in Rome, where he was summoned to explain himself. The Vatican issued a statement saying that Francis had been “comprehensively and objectively” informed about the events in the diocese and that Bishop Tebartz-van Elst “currently cannot exercise his office.”
That’s very exciting. It gives lie to the claim that some made during the JP2-Benedict days that the Pope shouldn’t be blamed for not removing the worst bishops in the abuse scandal because a pope cannot do this sort of thing to a bishop. Of course he can. He always could. The previous popes just didn’t want to.
Francis recognizes, it would seem, that the Church exists for a mission, and when a bishop gets in the way of that mission through is own maladministration or self-aggrandizement, he is expendable. The case of the Bishop of Bling (as he was called in the German press) was hugely controversial in Germany, and made the hierarchy look corrupt. Francis understands, apparently, that when the bishops bring onto themselves the justifiable contempt of the faithful, they harm the Church’s authority, and ultimately the credibility of the Gospel. So they have to go. Would that all hierarchs and synods of the world’s churches see their leadership in this light.
Now: why is Pope Francis leaving the convicted criminal and child-porn-user-protecting Bishop Finn in office? Perhaps something is in the works. That would mean real reform.