Bye-Bye for the Bishop of Bling … And Hello Obama?
Religion & Liberty Online

Bye-Bye for the Bishop of Bling … And Hello Obama?

In USA Today comes this story from the Associated Press:

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis on Wednesday permanently removed a German bishop from his Limburg diocese after his 31 million-euro ($43-million) new residence complex caused an uproar among the faithful.

Francis had temporarily expelled Monsignor Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst from Limburg in October pending a church inquiry.

At the center of the controversy was the price tag for the construction of a new bishop’s residence complex and related renovations. Tebartz-van Elst defended the expenditures, saying the bill was actually for 10 projects and there were additional costs because the buildings were under historical protection.

But in a country where Martin Luther launched the Reformation five centuries ago in response to what he said were excesses and abuses within the church, the outcry was enormous. The perceived lack of financial transparency also struck a chord since a church tax in Germany brings in billions a year to the German church.

The Vatican said Wednesday that the inquiry into the renovation found that Tebartz-van Elst could no longer exercise his ministry in Limburg and that Francis had accepted his resignation, which was originally offered Oct. 20.

Back in October, I was part of a panel of guests on the BBC program World Have Your Say, discussing the question, “Should Religious Leaders Live a Modest Life?” The springboard for the conversation was the scandal surrounding Monsignor Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst.

At the Boston Globe yesterday, John Allen sees this as a potential sign of a social gospel alliance between Pope Francis and President Obama, whose first meeting is today:

Though at first glance the two things may seem utterly unrelated, there’s something oddly fitting about the fact that Pope Francis accepted the resignation of the controversial bishop of Limburg, Germany, just 24 hours before his much-anticipated first meeting with President Barack Obama of the United States.

Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst became infamous last fall as the “bling bishop” who spent more than $40 million remodeling his own residence. When Francis ousted him in October it was a shot heard round the Catholic world, signifying that the new pope’s call for a “poor church for the poor” was more than mere rhetoric. Today’s formal denouement to the Limburg saga cements that impression.

The impression of a grand alliance on behalf of the world’s poor is, of course, very much at the heart of what Obama would like to get out of tomorrow’s session – both as part of his eventual legacy, and with an eye towards the mid-term elections looming this fall.

It’s tempting to augur that Obama and Francis ought to be able to do business, since both are identified with what Christians call the “social gospel,” meaning concern for the poor and for peace. Obama, who began his career as a community organizer with a group founded with the support of some Chicago Catholic parishes, is a great admirer of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who had a passion for the kind of Catholic social teaching enjoying a renaissance on Francis’ watch.

Allen, however, notes that the differences between the president and the pope on the questions of the right to life and the Middle East stand in the way of any sort of “reset” between Washington-Vatican relations:

It’s more plausible that the relationship will continue to be a complicated ballet, with each side looking to extract what it can get, driven more by strategic interests than any deeper spirit of common cause.

I would add that there is also a difference in emphasis in their aims with regards to poverty. Dismissing a bishop who has mismanaged funds and embarrassed Rome is not the same as supporting an ever-increasing, unsustainable welfare state. In the same breath that the pope memorably criticized “the absolute autonomy of markets” — whatever precisely that means — to great celebration and scandal in the blogosphere, he also emphasized the temporary, stop-gap nature of government aid.

He writes in Evangelii Gaudium (202),

Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.

While I have no desire to weigh in on the overblown debate regarding precisely what Pope Francis meant here (I’ll let my Roman Catholic friends sort that out), I think it is safe to say that one way in which he hopes people would reject “the absolute autonomy of markets” is through a strengthening of the social role of civil society, especially religious institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church.

As Allen notes, decentralization of ecclesiastical power has been another focus of the pope, and thus it is not likely that he would contradict the resolutions of American Catholic bishops about the Obama administration’s questionable stances regarding religious liberty. I suspect this may be yet another obstacle to any “reset” of relations between the Vatican and Washington.

But perhaps we just need to wait and see.

In any case, as with the bishop of bling, we know that Pope Francis is not afraid of taking bold measures to act on his convictions.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.