The news came through today that Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the Bishop of Limburg in Germany, has been granted a leave “outside of his Diocese” for an indeterminate period. Bishop Tebartz-van Elst has acquired the moniker “the bling bishop” for his expenditures on a new residence, which reportedly cost $40 million, and his other lavish lifestyle choices. Though the matter is being handled very discretely by the Vatican, it seems to me that he is being (in the language of government) suspended with pay while there is an outside investigation of the finances of his diocese. (The Guardian was quite pointed in their assessment, headlining their article “Pope Suspends Bling Bishop”.)
I had been thinking about writing about Bishop Tebartz-van Elst for the past month, since it seemed that at least part of the reason the story was gaining traction was because Pope Francis, by word and deed, had staked out a very different position, calling for the Church to become “a poor Church for the poor.” I was interested in the question of whether this sort of soft influence was going to be effective in changing the princely lifestyles affected by certain bishops, both in the US and abroad. Certainly the Pope was leading by example and the contrast was marked. Cardinal Dolan was forthright enough to say that he felt challenged by the Pope’s example, and my sense of the blogosphere is that a lot of people (particularly on the Catholic left) were drawing invidious comparisons between the Pope and other “princes” of the Church. Some on the Catholic right, on the other hand, were denouncing Pope Francis for his “false humility.” (See, for instance, here.)
I think this line of discussion is still fruitful: is a Papal example that challenges the deep-seated materialism of the Western Church sufficient to work any significant change in it? Much as we want to fault our bishops for their luxurious ways, they differ only in degree and not in kind from many of their flock who are, in practice, far more devoted to Mammon than to God. (Nominally poor Franciscan that I am, I do not exempt myself from this criticism.) In his day Francis of Assisi was widely respected for his poverty and humility, just as Mother Theresa of Calcutta was in our day. But in all honesty we have to ask how big an impact their example had in changing the behavior of those who praise them.
Today’s announcement, however, changed my focus entirely and led me to the question: has the Pope decided that the soft approach of his example must also be accompanied by a firmer hand in some circumstances? Is this suspension, however gently affected, intended as a thinly veiled warning to other bishops that there is a new sheriff in town, and things which had been tolerated are no longer acceptable?
After reading my colleague Julia Smucker’s very thoughtful commentary on Papal popularity I am mindful of the danger of reading too much into the specific actions taken or words spoken by Pope Francis. In particular, I realize that popular expectations and narrative should be treated with caution. And it is certainly the case that for a very long time there has been a sense (again particularly on the Catholic left) that the Church was failing to rebuke and discipline bishops who had failed their flocks miserably, particularly in their dreadful handling of the child sexual abuse scandals. I have personally felt that a few heads should have rolled. Therefore, there is a desire to read into this suspension the fulfillment of these wishes.
So the question becomes: is this incident a one-off? Are there circumstances in play that we are not aware of? Or does this tell us something fundamental about the Pope’s management style? Will he continue to lead by example but resort to sharp rebukes when he deems it necessary? And how often will he think is necessary? Important questions, but we have little evidence with which to answer them. This is an aspect of Francis’ tenure as archbishop of Buenos Aires I have not seen discussed in the press. As bishop there he also led by example, but a bishop must also make painful personnel decisions: what to do about a pastor who is incompetent, makes bad financial decisions, etc. How did Cardinal Bergoglio deal with these matters? Some bishops, like some bosses, prefer to maintain the positive image, and delegate the role of disciplinarian to a trusted subordinate. Others relish the role of hatchet man, and others still simply ignore the problems and hope they will go away.
If I had to guess, I think that Pope Francis will be his own disciplinarian, and when he feels it necessary he will act decisively. But I also think he will be slow to act, preferring to gather as much information as possible first, and also leaving the door open for the errant bishop to mend his ways on his own in the light of the gospel (and the Pope’s own example). And, should he act, I think we will always see justice tempered with mercy. Fewer heads will roll than I might want, but I think more will be reconciled to the Father.