Ouster of 'Bishop of Bling' puts heat on wealthy German Catholic Church

The uproar over Bishop Tebartz-van Elst's $47 million in renovations may be a tipping point for the German Catholic Church, whose officials' lifestyle clashes with the pope's austerity.

Ralph Orlowski/Reuters/File
A protester holds a placard reading "I'm speechless!", as he demonstrates past Limburg Cathedral in Limburg, Germany, last week. Pope Francis' suspension of Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, Limburg's 'Bishop of Bling,' over the bishop's $43 million renovation of his residence has increased scrutiny of the German Catholic Church's use of its massive wealth.

As a scandal-ridden bishop withdrew to a monastery in deep Bavaria for a "spiritual time of recovery" this past week, Germany continues to debate how symptomatic Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the so-called “Bishop of Bling,” is of the German Catholic Church.

For years, no one batted an eye at the institution’s estimated $365 billion fortune, which includes one of the world’s richest dioceses in Cologne – with wealth rivaling or even topping that of the Vatican.

But the paradigm shift under the new pope has placed the church under serious scrutiny and pressure to change its ways.

“The wealth of the German Catholic Church is not a new problem, as the vow of poverty is an integral part of the faith,” says Markus Thurau, a theology professor at the Free University of Berlin. “But it is only now, under Pope Francis, that this tenet is being pushed.”

Pope Francis is also putting theory into practice.

Straight after his election in March, he symbolically shunned the red velvet mozetta preferred by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, in favor of a more modest white vestment, and can currently be spotted driving around the Vatican in a gifted second-hand, decades-old jalopy.

His intention is for the Roman Catholic Church to strip itself of all “vanity” and humbly become “a poor church for the poor.”

It’s a message that stands in stark contrast to the Bishop of Limburg, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, whose personal requests for lavish fixtures such as a $20,000 bathtub for his private residence drove the cost of the bishopric estate’s renovation up to $43 million – more than five times the original estimate.

Trying to escape the firestorm that the renovations ignited, Tebartz-van Elst boarded a budget airline to Rome on Oct. 13 in hopes of gaining an audience with the pope. For eight days, he waited in uncertainty. Then Francis saw him for 20 minutes on Oct. 21, only to suspend him indefinitely two days later.

It's not a strong enough response, some Germans say. “I think Tebartz-van Elst should have been stripped of his post. There’s no way he can ever be a role model again,” says Jeanny Müller, a Catholic from Munich.

Church and State

But the scandal has spurred a change. Several dioceses, including Cologne, Hamburg, Essen, and Münster, have disclosed their wealth.

For centuries, the German Catholic Church has been operating a type of dual-accounting system.

Public funds are documented and disclosed. Every year, the state directly finances Germany’s Protestant and Catholic churches with approximately $680 million to compensate for the expropriations under Napoleon in 1803. Christian churches further levy an annual tax from their members (8 to 9 percent of their income tax, depending on the state). The system brought the Catholic Church a record $7.1 billion in revenue last year.

However, the 27 Catholic dioceses also possess undisclosed pots of money. These include assets such as real estate or bonds, which are recorded in a kind of shadow budget that, until recently, only the bishop and his closest aides were privy to.

With all this money, the Catholic Church takes on more tasks than in many other countries. One in five hospitals is run by the Catholic Church, for example, as are many kindergartens, retirement homes, and the training of hundreds of priests in Latin America and Africa. Overall, this leads to the Catholic Church being one of Germany’s largest employers, with around 650,000 employees, according to the German Bishops Conference.

Still, these activities are financed with no more than 70 percent of the Church’s yearly intake, says Carsten Frerk, Germany’s foremost expert on church finances.

“It seems that between 50 to 60 percent of the annual intake goes toward paying employees’ salaries, and between 2 to 4 percent to charitable efforts. The church-run hospitals are entirely state-financed,” says Mr. Frerk, who has written two books on the German Catholic Churches’ wealth and their “opaque” bookkeeping.

Dioceses have now taken first steps to disclose those secret fortunes. But Frerk says the published numbers are “a joke.”

“I would estimate the total wealth of the Cologne diocese at 3 billion euro [$4 billion], and not 166.2 million euro [$225.8 million] as it declared, for instance,” he says.

More than the wealth of the German Catholic Church, it is the lack of transparency surrounding its finances that irks German Catholics.

While Pope Francis seems determined to reform the Vatican Bank – which has allegedly turned a blind eye to tax fraud and money laundering – Germany’s post-war Constitution continues to grant the Church the right to administer itself without state interference.

Frerk says that despite a shift towards greater transparency, “formal control seems unlikely, because it would require the Vatican to step in and change church law.”

Losing laity

Christian Weisner, spokesperson for the German branch of the international church reformist movement "We Are Church," warns that the German Catholic Church needs to take serious steps, or it will continue to lose membership – currently estimated at 23 million.

Since the 1950s, a steady flow of members has quit their Church. Following the child-abuse scandal involving clergymen in 2010, that exodus swelled to 180,000. Although the rate has receded in years since (118,000 in 2012), latest forecasts place Christians in the minority in Germany by 2023.

“Attrition is not only due to religion becoming less central to people’s lives. It’s also because church officials are being trusted less,” Mr. Weisner says. He believes Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as Pope Francis was known while a cardinal, was elected precisely because the Catholic Church wanted to change course after the sexual abuse and Vatican bank scandals.

“People in the pews love Pope Francis and his Franciscan style. But especially in Germany, bishops are hindering reform and development like a layer of insulation between the pope and the public.”

German cardinals and bishops tend to have lifestyles more like senior managers, with monthly salaries between $10,500 and $16,500 and chauffeur-driven sedans. The wealth inherent to them and the church more generally, will make adjusting to Francis’ new course more difficult, says Mathew Schmalz, theologian and professor at the College of the Holy Cross.

“The Roman Catholic Church in Germany is the definition of an ‘established’ church – it is wealthy, and has a special status recognized by the government,” Mr. Schmalz says.

For the moment, it remains unclear whether Francis will formally lean on the German Catholic Church to adjust its financing system or force dioceses to fully disclose their wealth.

But Schmalz believes that given Pope Francis’ example and popularity, it will become increasingly difficult for German bishops to flaunt their riches. “Following the suspension of the Bishop Tebartz-van Elst," he says, "German Catholic laity will also feel empowered to hold their bishops to the standard that Pope Francis is setting.”

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