Was Pope Francis too lenient on the Bishop of Bling?

German Catholics can't forgive a $20,000 bathtub

Pope Francis
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino) )

Pope Francis is mostly getting a thumbs-up from Catholics for suspending Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, a.k.a. the "Bishop of Bling," from his diocese in Limburg, Germany.

The bishop's sins? A luxurious living space worthy of MTV Cribs. Elst reportedly spent $42 million on his bishop's residence, according to the Christian Science Monitor, including:

  • $3 million on a marble courtyard with holy water fountain
  • $474,000 on built-in cupboards
  • $600,000 on works of art
  • $33,000 on a dining table
  • $20,000 on a single bathtub

Granted, the complex also includes living quarters for nuns, offices, and a private chapel. But Tebartz-van Elst initially told his parishioners that the project would cost $7.4 million. He reportedly spent more than half of that — a cool $4 million — on his own living quarters alone.

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To make things worse, he is also being investigated for a trip he took to India to "support social projects in and around Bangalore," according to Der Spiegel. On the way there, he reportedly flew first-class on the upper deck of a Lufthansa jumbo jet, which, as Der Spiegel pointed out, offers such amenities as "champagne, caviar, and a bed." The estimated cost of his round-trip ticket: $9,634.

In contrast, Pope Francis drives a 1984 Renault around Vatican City, has been praised for visiting the poverty-stricken favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and has asked Catholics to "become a little poorer in order to be more like Jesus."

That is why it's a little surprising that the Vatican didn't come down even harder on Tebartz-van Elst. Reports put the bishop's suspension at two to three months — a punishment John L. Allen, a National Catholic Reporter correspondent in conversation with The Guardian, called a "soft landing."

Of course, no final decision has been made. But so far the Vatican has refused to suspend the bishop permanently, or use strong language to condemn his actions.

This is an especially sensitive issue in Germany because the Catholic Church receives an estimated $6.9 billion a year from a state tax on registered churchgoers. "The separation between state and church in Germany still doesn't go far enough – now is the time for critics to raise their voices," German artist Oliver Bienkowski told The Guardian.

The punishment of Tebartz-van Elst also coincides with a broad push by Pope Francis to focus the church on poverty issues, and reform key Vatican institutions, like the Vatican bank.

The bank, in particular, has been implicated in several embarrassing scandals for the church. The most recent was the arrest in June of Vatican accountant Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, who has been accused of a plot to transfer $27 million in undeclared funds from Switzerland to Italy. Concerns were also raised after a report by Reuters found large transactions by the foreign embassies of countries like Iran and Iraq, creating worries of "money laundering and other illicit finances."

Pope Francis promised reform, making the bank release its first-ever public financial report. (It's net profit in 2012 was $117.4 million). If he wants to expand the Vatican's role in Europe, the only continent to experience a decline in the number of Catholics between 1990 and 2010, he needs to make a statement about corruption in the church. Handing down a stiff punishment for the Bishop of Bling would be a good start.

Image: Bishop Limburg Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

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