It is not often that an article starts this way: “The $20,000 bathtub and $482,000 walk-in closets ordered by ‘Bishop Bling-Bling’ — the moniker of Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the now-suspended bishop of Limburg — have scandalized the German public.”
That recent piece, written for Religion News Service by Nele Mailin Obermueller and Jabeen Bhatti, and reprinted by National Catholic Reporter, explained that Pope Francis had temporarily suspended Tebartz-van Elst. Church authorities wanted to know why the bishop spent $42 million to renovate his residence.
Tebartz-van Elst has a well-known predilection for pomp, circumstance, and finery. See another article, written by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt (Austrian correspondent for the London Tablet), and also posted at NCR: “He favors ornate vestments with gold brocade and white gloves when presiding at Mass. During a hospital chapel dedication this year, he used so much chrism oil and incense that the altar caught fire and two-yard-high flames shot up. A catastrophe was only avoided in the last minute.”
The pope, who drives himself around the Vatican in a 30-year-old used car while conducting daily business, might someday wish to inquire into other German bishops as well. According to the Obermueller-Bhatti article, the head of the national bishops’ conference specifically “balked” at giving up his BMW. The cardinal-archbishop of Munich, Pope Benedict’s old see, sunk $11 million into his own residence. And the Cologne archdiocese is reputedly wealthier than the Vatican.
As Christian Weisner, spokesperson for the Catholic reform group We Are Church, told Religion News Service: “Tebartz-van Elst is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Even the tip of the iceberg is a highly instructive object lesson. It reminds you of the types of people who have tended to accumulate in the upper ranks of the institution. One wonders how much has really changed–at least in the wealthy, dominant church of the industrialized West–since the halcyon days of Boston’s William Cardinal O’Connell (so fond of luxury cruises that he was called “Gangplank Bill”), New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman (nicknamed “Cardinal Moneybags”), and Chicago’s George Cardinal Mundelein (who, according to Eugene Cullen Kennedy, “was driven throughout the archdiocese by a leather-legginged chauffeur in a limousine with crimson strutted wheels”).
Yet reading about the German follies reminded me of a deeper observation I made about money, shortly before the conclave in March. One of my friends asked me, via Facebook, who I wanted to become pope. I responded:
If we’re talking who among existing cardinals is most attractive to me…Schonborn or Tagle, given the choices. [I’d never heard of Bergoglio.] If we’re talking a pure fantasy pope league on my part…I’m not sure what to say because I don’t really think that way. I will say that, despite my theology, I’m not overly interested in the theological leanings of the next pope. I’m more interested in someone who can strike at what I believe is the real root of the problem: a Vatican city-state that, through its bank, is deeply interwoven with powerful financial interests and the kinds of right-wing political and religious forces that frequently accumulate in the presence of such financial interests. Nothing else–and understand me on this–nothing else will change unless that gets cleaned out first.
I still think that is so. And here I would expand “Vatican and its bank” to “worldwide church and its revenue streams.”
We have a variety of particular injustices in the church that demand specialized attention in their own right. Those who are called to focus on, for example, women’s ordination or LGBTQ equality must continue full speed ahead. But, speaking purely for myself, I would like to see a new squad of church reform advocates. They would consist of literally nobody but the driest of accountants and auditors.
Their project would be to examine dioceses, universities, Catholic institutions of various kinds. They would go beyond the pie-charts of annual report booklets and reconstruct the ledgers. Nothing sneaky: they would do shoe-leather reporting and peruse matters of public record. They would let us know the specifics of what they find, and also what they specifically cannot find.
Some of what emerges will surely be the pedestrian crassness of a Tebartz-van Elst: bishops who live in splendor, priests who manage to buy fine furniture and wet-bars at no personal cost to them, officials with interesting compensation packages. But despite Weisner’s “tip of the iceberg,” the real bulk of the iceberg would not, I suspect, be a list of big-ticket purchases by clueless hierarchs.
Instead, the most important revelations might be: donors to the annual diocesan fund. Donors to the local Catholic hospital or college. Donors to the seminary. Relationships among these donors. Donors who donate as a group. Donors to other causes. Donors who like their names on things, whether stained-glass windows or business schools. Donors who donate to each other. Donors with political and commercial connections. Donors who preach political and economic convictions. Donors who are members of certain ecclesial movements. Building and supply contracts that go over-budget. Building and supply contractors who are also donors to the seminary, the annual fund, the college, the hospital.
And then, I speculate, we might find that various injustices in the church do not proceed only from toxic theology and personal prejudice and insulated leadership. We might find that some various injustices exist, in part, because interested third parties have bought them. We might learn that, in so many places and so many ways–from the comic pratfalls of a Bishop Bling-Bling, to bishops who cannot preach economic justice because of who pays their bills, to anti-gay initiatives funded by mysterious largesse–the love of money is truly the root of all evil.