Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Bishop of Bling vs. Bishop of the World

It appears to be time to keep an eye on the German Bishops' Conference, where things are a bit off kilter and aiming to possibly get worse.  Normally, it wouldn't be so much of an issue for the universal Church, but the Germans seem to be taking center stage in recent Vatican discussions on Church teaching and practice regarding marriage.  So, what happens in Germany doesn't necessarily stay in Germany.


 Some of these latest shenanigans are being brought to light in a comparison of two mega diocesan building projects.  The first one, as you may have heard, concerned the archbishop of Limburg, Franz Peter Tebartz van Elst, who was ultimately deposed as the ordinary of his diocese in 2013 because of supposed excesses in spending on a new diocesan center and bishop's residence.  The press in Germany and elsewhere went after van Eltz like wolves after wounded prey.  He was called names like "the bishop of bling" and "bishop swank."  Rumors swirled of a  gilded bathtub and other excesses, most of which could not be documented by the swarming press even after diocesan books were opened.  While the press and public were screaming for blood, Bishop  Tebartz van Elst did not get much support from his brother bishops.  Only the outgoing bishop of Cologne, Cardinal Meisner,  stood up for van Elst and spoke eloquently about his moral character and theological acuity.  Among those who had no good words to say was Cardinal Marx, the archbishop of Munich and current head of the German bishops conference.

Fast forward to this year and another massive diocesan building project in downtown Munich.  The cost of the project as ballooned from 31 million Euros in 2011 to 130 million Euros today.  The person responsible for this project?  Cardinal Reinhard Marx.  While the press and the people were calling for Bishop van Eltz's head in Limburg, the reaction to Cardinal Marx's spending spree is ...crickets. (Hillary White has a very informative article about the situation over at LifeSite News. )  What could be the reason for the difference?

Cardinal Marx is not especially known for his simple lifestyle.  According to Hillary White's article, he drives a top of the line BMW.  His bishop's residence (a palace) was recently renovated at the cost of 8 million Euros. He gets to stay in a cozy guest house in Rome while working on Vatican business (a building valued at approximately 10 million Euros).  In addition, he draws a German bishop's salary of 11,500 Euros per month (yes, you read correctly - per month!!).  This is an equivalent salary of about $177,000 per year.   Not a very austere lifestyle for someone who is on Pope Francis' inner advisory council!

Where is this money coming from, especially since so few people are practicing the faith in Germany?  Welcome to a concept known as the "church tax."  You won't find ushers going up and down the aisles in German churches.  They're not necessary; the government does the job for them.  If you want to be recognized as a Catholic in Germany and be able to receive the sacraments, you must register as such with the government.  Then, 8 to 9 % of your gross income will be deducted from your paycheck and sent directly to the Church.  No registration means no tax, but it also means no sacraments.  It's no wonder that the Catholic Church in Germany is wealthy.  In 2011, the tax dropped 5 billion Euros into Church coffers.  And, interestingly, the Catholic Church is the second largest employer in the country.

Does this amount to simony - charging the faithful for the sacraments?  Hmmm.  This is a different discussion for a different day, but it does raise a question.  For now, however, let's focus on the hypocrisy of the press and the public at large to the cases of two different bishops doing very similar things, but having very different reactions. What could the reason be for calling for the removal of the one and utter silence for the other?  The glaring difference between the two prelates that becomes obvious is the adherence to orthodox Church teaching by the one versus advocacy of accommodating the culture by the other.  While Bishop Tebartz van Eltz is strongly supportive of the Church teaching on marriage, divorce and homosexual practices, Cardinal Marx  advocates a more "inclusive" approach on these issues. Of course the press and the public would embrace the more worldly and expansive view of morality.  While, the more orthodox view - well you saw what happened to Bishop van Eltz.  (Edward Pentin has a very interesting article on this issue over at the National Catholic Register. )

German bishops have historically been known for pushing the envelope (and German priests, as well...we're looking at you Martin Luther).  On the other hand, they have also been great contributors to theological and philosophical discourse (Benedict XVI - need we say  more?).  Why these German prelates have such an outsize influence on ecclesial matters, especially today when the practice of the faith is withering on the vine in their country, is a question to ponder.  It will be very interesting to see how this plays out in the coming year as the Vatican moves toward the culmination of the Synod on the Family.   Will the increasing public emphasis on simplicity and frugality makes it way over to Germany?  Will the German bishops continue to push an expansive view of morality?  One can only pray and wait and see.  Saint Boniface, ora pro nobis.

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