Thursday, 24 October 2013

An Earthquake in Rome?

For quite a while now there has been a problem in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Limburg. A project to renovate several historic buildings and provide a new flat and administrative centre for the Bishop lay at the heart of what was in the media, but now it has emerged as only the tip of a very large iceberg which has finally forced Rome to take action. On the face of it, the project seems entirely reasonable. The buildings needed restoration, and the old Bishop's residence and office were no longer either fit for purpose or really habitable. So far, so good, but now enter a new Bishop in 2007, an academic with aristocratic ambitions and an authoritarian attitude, and things go downhill fast.

It needs to be explained to non-German residents, that the RCC bishops enjoy quite a degree of autonomy. How they use that depends on how 'traditionalist' they are, or how 'liberal'. The 'new' Limburg bishop belongs in the ultra-traditionalist camp, and, according to some of his disaffected congregation, sees himself as a medieval 'Fuerstbischoff' - a Prince Bishop in English - whose authority was not to be questioned and who 'ruled' his See without deference to anyone. That he also has, as do most of the RCC bishops, a 'private' Trust set up in the 19th Century which he may use 'for the enrichment and furtherance of the Church' means he is more or less independent of the opinions of anyone else as well. That is where the problem really starts. The Roman 'rules' for the expenditure of money on building projects require that Rome be consulted on any project over €5 million. The bishop went to considerable effort to make sure the way the project was 'costed out' kept each part of it just under that ceiling - so no one except his immediate 'team' had any idea of how much was being spent. In fact one senior member of his advisory Board, when questioned on National television, responded with the irritated exclamation: "Hallo? We're all good Catholics. We didn't expect our Bishop to deceive us, so we didn't question what he told us."

A pity really, because now it is revealed that the costs have soared to over €30 million, and likely to rise still to over €40 million when all the damages caused to adjoining properties are taken into account. How did this arise? Well, despite the impression created in the media, it isn't all going on the Bishop's flat. There are in fact ten major projects, the flat, chapel and administrative centre being among them. They do, however, form the lion's share of it, partly because the Bishop has a taste for luxury and partly to meet his artistic ideas (like exposing some of the 'natural rock formation' beneath his residence to the view of visitors - with a little 'improvement' of course) and to display some of the church treasures so visitors can enjoy them.

More important is the fact that the laity eventually smelled a rat and have demanded answers. One, an avowed member of the RCC actually fixed Luther's 95 Theses to the Bishop's gates. Another managed to gain access to the cathedral clock tower and reset the bells to strike 13 times at midday (the Angelus is rung by twelve strokes of the bell at Midday) which reflects a folk saying that the bell striking thirteen is an end. The loss of trust is enormous, and it is slowly emerging, itself an earth shattering event, that the bishop has more or less alienated all his senior clergy, most prominently the Dean of Frankfurt, and now even the Dean of Limburg cathedral itself has broken his silence and admitted he and the bishop were not at the same table.

The earthquake in Rome is that the Pope has now relieved the bishop of his duties, sending him 'on leave' to 'recover' while a commission looks into the whole affair and reports. That it has sent a shock wave through Rome is now exposed, this must be the first time in a long, long while, that Rome has responded to public external pressure in this way. While the bishop isn't yet removed from his post, it is clear he cannot expect to return to Limburg, itself a major departure from normal Roman practise.

What it exposes, of course, is summed up in the statement of that adviser - it is not done, by 'good' Catholics, to question their bishops. Rome has long enjoyed that 'status' for its bishops and other clergy. 'Ordinary' people cannot, must not, dare not, question their authority. This has led to massive abuses down the centuries. It was one of the reasons the Reformers fought to break away from Rome in the 16th Century. It was a major cause of the formation of the Church of England, and it was a major factor in the misery (and ongoing problems) in Ireland for much of the 20th Century with abuse of power in politics, in social issues and in the treatment of women and children in the 'refuges' managed by the RCC for the Irish State. In Germany as well, abuses are emerging (alongside those of the former DDR 'orphanages' for children removed from 'unsuitable' parents) and the repercussions are yet to be fully appreciated in some quarters. Rome is right to be taking definite action, but this is just one issue it needs to address urgently.

The Limburg affair has sent a shock wave through the Church and through Germany, but, as I said at the outset, they are addressing, at present, only the tip of a much larger iceberg. They will need to act very swiftly to deal with all the other problems before this loss of credibility damages them fatally. There is no place today for "Prince" bishops ruling autocratically, nor is there really a place for unquestioning obedience in matters of faith. Limburg will get a new Bishop, one it is to be hoped, with a more pastoral understanding of his role. He will not have an easy task, but neither does Pope Francis as he grapples with a Curia determined to resist any attempt to open some of the discussions Rome knows it must have if it is to retain or regain any shred of credibility.


  1. "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

    John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902).

    In a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887.

  2. It was true then, and it's true now. It was recently revealed that the most hardline Archbishop in Germany, the Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne, has resources that exceed those of the Vatican. He's another one that thinks he's a ruling Prince with an independent Principality. In part this is a Napoleonic legacy, since he seized church property and 'secularised' everything. As compensation we have a 'church tax' collected by the state and paid directly to the church, with the RCC getting about £1.6 billion a year from its members. The Lutherans get slightly less and smaller churches like the Old Catholics get significantly less, but proportionate, of course, to their membership. (The Church Tax is an 'opt out' one, but, if you don't pay it, you can't ask to be married, baptised or buried in a church.)

    On top of the regular 'income' the Bishops (RCC, Lutheran, Old Catholic and Orthodox) are paid from the Civil Service lists and the RCC diocese all have massive portfolios of property, stocks, investment funds and so on, the 'gift' of various Princes, Archdukes, Dukes and so post the Napoleonic plundering. This is how the Bishop of Limburg has a 'personal' Trust of close to €100 million in investments.

    Some of the Bishops are fairly 'liberal' and tend to use these funds to support activities in keeping with the Christian ideal. Many support missions and so on in developing lands, or Christian communities where they are persecuted. A few use them almost entirely to bolster their own status and ambitions - this was why Benedict 'dismissed' the Bishop of Augsburg for something of a similar sort to what van Elst has been doing. The Augsburg bishop was buying up art work by Old Masters and others to 'decorate' his palace. He rather overdid it - just as Limburg has. I mean, come one, €15,000 for a bath? Another €20,000 for walk-in wadrobes in his flat? Just two of the items he was spending on.

    Nice if you've got the money and nicer if it's your own and not 'in trust' for the benefit of the wider community you're supposed to be serving.