The pope, a bishop, and the scandal of wealth

Pope Francis waves to faithful as he arrives to attend the Marian prayer in St. Peter’s square at the Vatican, … Continued

Pope Francis waves to faithful as he arrives to attend the Marian prayer in St. Peter’s square at the Vatican, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

We’re used to bishops being summoned to the Vatican to defend their orthodoxy or to be reminded of their vows of obedience.

But we’re not used to bishops being summoned to Rome to defend their financial management and to be reminded of their vows of humility.

Pope Francis wants a poorer, humbler church.

Evidently he means to enforce it.

The controversy surrounding the “Bling Bishop,” Franz-Peter Tebartz van Elst, has become a test case for how Pope Francis intends to handle scandal—not the scandal of sexual impropriety, but the scandal of wealth.

Bishop Tebartz van Elst has reportedly spent millions of Euros on his residence in the German city of Limburg. The bathroom itself reportedly cost 15,000. As if this weren’t enough, Bishop Tebartz van Elst is being accused of twice lying under oath. Evidently, the good bishop flew business class to India for a social development project but denied it and sued the newspaper Der Spiegel when it published a tell-all-account. Petitions were circulated demanding his resignation—all the while the bishop has pleaded innocence: “people who know me know that I do not need a pompous lifestyle.”

Now he’s going to the Vatican to explain himself further.

It was unclear whether Bishop Tebartz van Elst was actually summoned or he went of his own accord. Reports, however, did make it clear that he traveled by a “budget airline.” He will meet with the head the Catholic Bishops Conference of Germany

No meeting with Pope Francis is scheduled. But the pontiff will most certainly make his presence felt.

Unlike Benedict XVI or John Paul II, who reserved their heaviest criticism for modern secularism, Pope Francis has condemned global capitalism in the strongest terms—particularly how its temptations hollow out the Catholic church from within. Pope Francis has condemned the slave wages paid in the garment industry and he has also condemned priests driving new cars. While one example might seem serious and the other trite, they are both linked in the pope’s religious vision: while human beings are deprived of their basic economic rights, it is not just unseemly for priests to live in luxury—it is a scandal.

The traditional Catholic definition of scandal is severe and uncompromising: scandal is an innately evil act that leads others to sin. In this case, it would seem that the issue is not just luxury as selfish appropriation and misuse of material goods, but also the message that it appears to send: the joy of the priesthood is the pomp and authority of the office.

This particular kind of scandal is one that is found throughout the Catholic world.

I am presently living and teaching in Sri Lanka, a country with a significant and quite influential Catholic minority. Here Pope Francis is seen as liberator. But he is not seen as a liberator in a conventional socio-political sense. He’s not called “Pope Fidel” or “The Successor of Che.”

Instead, Francis is seen as a pope who is seeking to liberate Catholicism from its own pretensions.

Among Catholic laity and seminarians I have met, the watchword now is “humility”—it is the standard by which the clergy and hierarchy are judged. In my experience in South Asia, there are more than a few bishops who lead ostentatious lifestyles that would surely provoke the envy their brother bishops, like Tebartz van Elst, who themselves are ensconced in the comforts of what we like to call the “first world.”

How Pope Francis deals with Bishop Tebartz van Elst will tell us much about how this still new pontiff will shape the Catholic hierarchy of the future. I do not think Pope Francis will be enforcing humility and poverty among bishops by applying particular forms of ecclesiastic sanction like forced resignation. Instead, this pope seeks to lead with gentleness and mercy–and by example.

But balancing discipline and mercy is a difficult task. And this pope likes simplicity. So maybe one Christian way of dealing with the scandal of wealth is through an ethic of sharing. In this case, Bishop Tebartz van Elst might open his palatial residence to the public—not just to the homeless, but to any one who needs a bathroom break.

Mathew N. Schmalz is a professor at The College of the Holy Cross.


Mathew N. Schmalz Mathew N. Schmalz is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at The College of the Holy Cross.
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