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Is There a New Sheriff in Town?

October 23, 2013

sheriffThe 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.

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15 Comments
  1. October 23, 2013 10:06 pm

    Reality has a liberal bias.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      October 24, 2013 6:11 am

      Not sure where you are going with that, but since liberalism is a social construct, I am not sure if it is correct to say that “reality” has a liberal bias. And what does this have to do with Pope Francis?

  2. Ronald King permalink
    October 24, 2013 9:02 am

    “… is a Papal example that challenges the deep-seated materialism of the Western Church sufficient to work any significant change in it?”
    His example is certainly triggering intense emotions which are revealing the areas of fear in the Catholic collective.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      October 24, 2013 11:19 am

      Fear? Maybe. But we can respond to fear in both productive and unproductive ways.

  3. October 24, 2013 9:22 am

    Now we need to have Julia Smucker join the conversation, to explain how the difference between this pope and the last one is purely in the “eye of the beholder”–even though we know that, when he was offered the luxurious ermine mozzetta of his predecessor, Francis proclaimed “That Carnival is finished!”

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      October 24, 2013 11:20 am

      This is about more than an ermine mozzetta, however luxurious.

      • October 25, 2013 2:04 am

        You obviously have no idea how much ermine costs.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
          October 25, 2013 7:01 am

          Probably less than the Porsche I once owned, or the European vacation I took my family on.

          Seriously, I am very happy that Pope Francis is eschewing the more ostentatious signs of wealth that have accrued around the papacy. But I think we need to keep this in perspective: he might have disapproved of the bishop had he bought himself ermine lined robes, but I don’t think he would have removed him for it.

    • Dante Aligheri permalink
      October 24, 2013 11:58 am

      There’s no doubt that popes have sometimes radically different, even blatantly conflicting approaches and responses to the Gospel. Pope Leo XIII was not Pope Pius IX nor was Pius XII like either of them. Without a doubt, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI would have tremendous conflicts even in inhabiting the same mental world as Pope Pius IX. To smooth over that with a false sense of continuity would be disingenuous.

      They’re human. I think the larger question is whether the breadth and width of Tradition can hold all of them under the tent of Catholicity. I must admit I am here slightly partial to the conciliarist wing, but I think looking at surviving Tradition as somehow prior to defined doctrine, popes, and even the Magisterium at least logically makes more sense than trying to streamline papal pronouncements in straight line.

      It’s not a matter – at least to me – of going from points A to B, searching for points of contact, but finding workable space for differences under a broad tent.

      I have no doubt that Sts. Ephrem the Syrian and Isaac of Nineveh would both vehemently be (and, fancifully, “are”?) on St. Augustine’s case until doomsday. Yet, somehow by the grace of God, we didn’t end up with just one of them as saints but all of them.

      • Julia Smucker permalink*
        October 24, 2013 4:03 pm

        It’s not a matter – at least to me – of going from points A to B, searching for points of contact, but finding workable space for differences under a broad tent.

        My point exactly, Dante.

        To nuance it a bit further, I don’t see “continuity” as the absence of change, but rather change that fits within the whole.

        • Brian Martin permalink
          October 25, 2013 12:09 pm

          Julia, you represent a grand rejection of Either/Or thinking…
          David, I really enjoyed this post, and your willingness to look at and challenge your own biases and assumptions. It is so easy to get caught up in the judgement of others, their opinions etc. I keep coming back here because I always learn here.

    • Ronald King permalink
      October 24, 2013 4:19 pm

      Someone in the hierarchy had to awaken from the hypnotic effects of ineffective tradition which has nothing to do with faith and more to do with establishing thought control through the use of power and fear.

  4. R. Incardona-B permalink
    October 25, 2013 8:10 am

    I thought this was a very strong blog post. It showed a lot of emotion towards struggles of today. This post is very inspirational and is a good argument. He should show how concerned he is and how he feels about the economy today. God is what everyone should center their world around, not wealth. There are so many people that believe money is everything and sometimes they forget about God. If it wasn’t for God none of these people would be here in the lives they live so why can’t people understand that. I am glad the pope is not afraid and used his power to express how concerned he is. This showed a good view of what other people should think about the economy and what God does.

  5. Cojuanco permalink
    October 25, 2013 8:58 pm

    Tradition in Action is to the Catholic Right what the Constitution Party is to the American secular Right, especially given their adherence to the suspended Fr. Gruner, which shows their traditionalism is awfully, awfully selective. Their tradition is not Tradition, but a set of nostalgic visions about the 19th Century that an inhabitant thereof would not have recognized as anywhere near authentic.

  6. November 9, 2013 4:24 am

    I think it is time for those of us who want to see a change in the Church to stop pretending that the “yes-men” who over the years were appointed by the last two popes chiefly on the basis of their “orthodoxy” and deference to authority aren’t going to try to obstruct what Pope Francis is trying to do.

    They have been asked by the Vatican to circulate a survey regarding the “Family” and modern “Evangelizing” and they are tacitly refusing to include lay people, and are only “consulting” themselves.

    However, the bishops of England and Wales have put the survey up on-line, for everybody to participate. I suggest that American Catholics go on’line to the bishops of England and Wales, identify themselves as American Catholics who are being denied a voice by the American bishops, and complete the survey:

    http://publius-aelius.livejournal.com/738128.html

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