(Readers may recall the case of the “Bishop of Bling” who had been forced to resign in March 2014 after an unprecedented campaign against him both in the German-language media and in the German Church. A glance at the German Wikipedia article on Bishop Tebartz-van Elst gives an idea of the real sources of the conflict. Even though the following essay of May 2014 is very specific to the German situation, recent events have made it more relevant than ever. First, even without a diocese, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst is still hounded by the German press and Church – he recently had to cancel a minor speaking engagement because of their hostility. Second, cost overruns far in excess of the Limburg situation have recently been reported for building projects in other German dioceses – with no reaction from either the press or the Vatican. Third, since the publication of Mr. Mosebach’s essay a pattern has emerged of Pope Francis working hand in hand with local hierarchies to force out conservative prelates – one thinks of further examples in Paraguay, France and Italy. Finally, we have here a case study of the close collaboration between the media and the progressive Catholic establishment – a relationship that of course has blossomed in unheard-of luxuriance under Pope Francis.
I understand that Mr Mosebach gave a magnificent reading of his essay – my translation can hardly do justice to it. Let me add just a couple of notes. The diocese of Limburg includes the city of Frankfurt (the home of Martin Mosebach) and has the reputation of being one of the most liberal in Germany. Mr Mosebach names neither the newspaper nor the author of the article but a German language internet search will speedily reveal both. “Liberal”, as is usually the case outside the United States, does not mean “progressive” or left-wing, but rather “classic” (economic) liberalism, tending even in the direction of libertarianism. (SC))
Bishop Tebartz-van Elst and the Press
By Martin Mosebach
Is the case of the Bishop of Limburg, Franz Peter Tebartz-van Elst, really already closed? Just look at the plain facts: the German Bishops’ conference had established a commission of investigation to determine how the explosion of costs occurred in the construction of the Bishop’s residence that had been commissioned by the Limburg cathedral chapter. It gave the bishop a great deal of the responsibility for the misguided planning. Another share was borne by the cathedral chapter, which had failed in its duty of supervision. The vicar general was also not spared blame.
What only became clear later was that the bishop had already offered his resignation to the pope in October 2013, which the Holy Father, after reading the report of the commission, then accepted. It is worth keeping this nuance in mind. The bishop was not reprimanded and no ecclesiastical penalty was imposed on him. That was obviously because, after evaluating the circumstances, that had been found inappropriate. The resignation was accepted because the bishop “in the situation that has arisen can longer exercise his office of bishop.” This was the report’s sober and completely accurate conclusion in the face of the wave of contempt and hate that poured upon the bishop from clerical circles and from the “professional Catholics” of the lay organizations. The “Tebartz case” had dominated the headlines of most newspapers in those months when Syria was ablaze, the European currency was threatening to collapse and Christians were undergoing persecution in so many lands. Priests of the diocese of Limburg had refused to pray for the bishop in the canon of the mass, many people (how many really?) are supposed to have left the Church and the bishop was threatened with physical violence. In a word, the odium plebis of which canon law speaks as a reason for the impossibility of exercising the office of bishop, existed without any doubt and would also have existed if the investigation of the bishop had acquitted him of any responsibility.
We have to stress this fact. It was known both to the pope and to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome when they passed over the cathedral chapter when appointing the administrator during the vacancy and named an administrator without the participation of the chapter. Whether a cathedral chapter that had so emphatically fostered the emergence of this odium plebis even before clarification of the facts should participate at all in the appointment of a new bishop is regrettably only a theoretical question for canon lawyers.
I would like to direct my attention not to the guilt, the negligence, the clumsiness or the idiosyncrasies of the unfortunate Bishop – there is something here of all of this- but to the way in which the press had seized upon this case before the facts had been clearly determined. And I intend not to analyze the whole mass of articles that appeared on this topic but just a single one. It can, however, claim to be unique and to have founded a new era in the newspaper in which it was permitted to appear. That paper is a “newspaper of record,” in the language of the news business, which still enjoys among the majority of its readers the reputation of trustworthiness – to the extent that the press, in its essence, can ever be trustworthy. (Karl Krauss, as is well known, disputed that fundamentally, adducing arguments that are hard to refute.)
The newspaper of which I speak has a reputation of being “liberal-conservative.” However, the paper takes a broad view of these concepts; it places great value on the fact that in its pages voices are able to speak that depart from the main line of the editorial staff. At least that’s how it was for a long time; those who didn’t like this newspaper often mocked it just for this effort to achieve balance. They accused it of being “gray” but it was a honorable gray that those readers appreciated who didn’t want to be entertained by a newspaper but to be instructed by it in order to form their own opinion. It did happen now and then that this newspaper engaged in real battles, that it tried to throw its political presence onto the scales – but this was rare.
All the more astonishing, then, was a series of articles that dealt with the question of whether the participation of the German bishops in the state pregnancy consultation process might make abortions possible. There were two Catholic authors on the editorial staff who fought passionately against the German Catholic Church remaining in this system of consultation – and with success. And after the publication of a major essay of Robert Spaemann against consequentialist ethics the discussion of this question was over. The defeated forces in the German episcopacy remained quiet – but were determined never to suffer such a thing ever again.
First, the malicious concept of “culture pages Catholicism” was launched to deny spiritual seriousness to the writing laymen who had been otherwise so eagerly courted. But this was just the initial skirmish. Soon, behind the scenes, matters were arranged so that one could no longer speak of “culture pages Catholicism” which dissented from the ruling milieu of the official sphere of the Church. The tone of the newspaper when the subject of the Church came up had clearly changed; not just in the arguments but also in the mood.
Now, it is indeed the case that the interest in ecclesiastical questions among the “liberal,” economically oriented bourgeoisie (which still represented a certain percentage of the subscribers to this newspaper) had become most attenuated. That the articles became more and more polemic, that they offered more and more scope to resentments against the traditional Church – was probably registered by the greater part of the reading public only with a shrug of the shoulders.
That was going to change in the case of the Limburg bishop. Gradually it became clear to a greater circle of readers, which in any case clearly exceeded the percentage of interested Catholics, that this newspaper had resolutely bid farewell to a reporting style concerned with objectivity. It had made the financial carelessness of this cleric into a grand affair, which in the language and persecuting zeal followed the examples of the witch hunts against Minister Guttenberg and his fake doctoral degree or President Wulff and his Wuestenrot cottage.
Finally, a year ago, on June 24, 2013, appeared an article on page 3 of this publication; in a very prominent place and covering the whole page. This essay was, up till then, without precedent. I would like to dedicate myself to it in detail – reluctantly, so painfully embarrassing is this text.
Let me sum up one more time: this article was written before the report of the commission was published. There was a strong opposition movement in the diocese against the bishop. For those not involved, however, its accusations were not really understandable. The bishop was supposed to have spread among his subordinates an atmosphere of paralyzing fear. He was supposed to be “cold.” His residence which, nota bene, would also be that of his successors (it’s not a private home) would be possibly three times as expensive as had first been planned – instead of 3 million euro, the cost was now estimated at 9 million. He was supposed to be “resistant to advice” – ominous words that everyone could so interpret the way he wanted. For example, it could mean that the bishop was not ready without further ado to let himself be manipulated by his own organization. For those knowledgeable of the situation many things speak for this supposition. Tebartz-van Elst had dared to cancel a darling project of his predecessor: the establishment of parishes led no longer by priests, but by laymen, which contradicted canon law. And Tebartz-van Elst did this against the emphatic “advice” of exactly these laymen and of priests intoxicated by a new ecclesiology.
But you would find in our essay not a single line on this very serious conflict, which affected the future of the entire Church – even though this was the foundation of the dissension between the bishop and his synod council, his priest councils and the other post conciliar, abundantly inserted Soviets. As we shall see, this essay involved nothing as pedestrian as “information” – maybe “literature” is the more appropriate term. For our article, whose beginning is so “atmospherically dense” (to use the language of a book review), has as its objective nothing less than to condemn a man to civil death before the pronunciation of the verdict.
“Limburg, June 23. It is cold on Easter Sunday – so cold that just the view of of the windswept square before the Limburg cathedral chills the few bystanders who have wandered here in the evening twilight. The show that will be offered to them a few minutes before 5 o’clock is also not conducive to warming their hearts. As if led by a ghostly hand, a phalanx of clergymen and ministers strides silently around the cathedral, and disappears shortly afterwards into the building. “Grand Entrance” – the man who formed the end of the procession had summarily commanded this to his aghast cathedral chapter. In Rome there’s disarmament, in Limburg rearmament. The cold pierces to the very marrow.”
We can see that a mighty shaman is at work here, whose heart’s desire can even chill the cosmos. We hear that journalists shouldn’t describe complex incidents from the perspective of an insider in order that the clueless reader can follow him. Our author therefore is making efforts to describe the Easter liturgy, of which he is the witness, from the perspective of religious ignorance, which he probably correctly imputes to the majority of his readers. And so he hopes to get a laugh, when he presents the Catholic liturgy as a gloomy, dismal spectacle. But here perhaps is a case of overshooting the mark – for a “Grand Entrance” for pontifical vespers on Easter Sunday is a matter of course that doesn’t need to be “summarily ordered.” By the way, the same is true for every parish church on this greatest feast day of the Church. Incidentally, every Sunday High Mass has to begin with this same “Grand Entrance” which represents the royal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, that paradoxical beginning of the Passion, which at the same time points beyond the suffering and prefigures the second coming.
Is a simple journalist expected to know that? Not every one, but certainly this one, since he had studied theology, taken final vows and had been ordained deacon, before he gave up the clerical state. Given his formation, he would have been eminently qualified to explain the treasure of the rituals of the Church to an unknowing public – even though his knowledge of the languages of the Bible is so shaky that he didn’t know what a phalanx is. But it would have been a shame to drop the comical, combative seasoning in describing a procession that was led not by a ghostly hand but by a crucifix.
“Five years after (Tebartz) taking office no unity can be sensed. The tensions, on the other hand, are all the greater.”
Tensions – an ominous word – now how could they have arisen? What are the two poles between which tensions exist in the diocese of Limburg? The reader learns nothing about this. But there would have been much to report from the recent history of the diocese in which, in the last five decades, anti-Roman sentiments have been nurtured. Of Bishop Kamphaus, the predecessor of Tebartz, we only read, trivializing, that he “stood up to Pope John Paul II longer than all the other German bishops in the battle against leaving the legal pregnancy consultations and he yet only had to offer his resignation at the age of 75.” That is incomplete. After Kamphaus, as expected, had not followed up on his threat to resign, the pope had punished the bishop by relieving him of responsibility for the matter of the consultations. In such a diocese the transition to a shepherd loyal to Rome really cannot happen without tensions – but only informed readers could suspect that. Further down in the text we read:
“The shepherd must have the smell of the sheep, the new pope Francis had to hammer home in Rome to the bishops and cardinals at the beginning of Holy Week. In Limburg it’s rather the scent of finest leather. A black limousine polished to a mirror finish stands before the entrance to the episcopal residence; a tanned man in his middle 50s with a lot of gel in his hair doesn’t depart from the side of the bishop. In the cathedral, the clouds from not one but two censers literally take away the breath of the believers.”
Isn’t it amazing that our author obviously believes he can with class envy arouse emotions against the bishop among his solidly bourgeois readers? It is, once again, atmosphere, only atmosphere – but it becomes ever more poisonous. The rather embarrassing words of the pope may express the experiences of South America, where aftershave is a little inappropriate for a pastor serving in the slums of São Paulo. But the real problem of a diocese like Limburg (well known, of course, to our author) is that it is a church of the wealthy which long ago lost all connection to its own poor – not those in exotic regions. Now the Church and the faithful of the Rhine-Main region do smell of the finest leather – to take up again the specific comparison of our author. The limousine of the bishop is rented, like every other Episcopal vehicle in Germany, at a favorable rate, which might have been known to the author. But “polished to a mirror finish“: does that not awaken associations of luxury, power and control?
One sees the slave who not only washes the auto but, down on his knees, polishes it. But it is no slave but a tanned man in his mid-50s with a lot of gel in his hair. And he not only polishes the bishop’s auto but he never departs from his side. And never from the side of the author as well, who knows what a valuable trump the figure of this man can be in this article devoid of substance. He lets him wander through the article four times until the thick smoke of suspicion, insinuation and innocent hints (The backstairs gossip always closes her defamatory comments with “I didn’t say anything!”) has solidified to calumny. Calumny, which, to be sure, can’t be contested: you can hear our author mockingly remark: “You don’t after all have to concern yourself with it.” This expression fits perfectly in his style. To continue:
“’Crazy Bambi!’ somebody shouted to Tebartz-van Elst soon afterwards.”
Haven’t nasty references to bodily features – in this case to the very large eyes of the bishop – long been taboo in political articles? Comments on the appearance of the chancellor (Merkel), for example, would never have made it past the crosschecking editor. But in that case, of course, one would have had to deal with real power, while open season had been declared for a long time on the bishop. Even though there was insufficient damning material available, the holes in the argumentation could be smeared over with a lot of gel. What stays or rather sticks in the reader’s mind is this: obviously, unheard of things must exist against the bishop – yet they remain unidentifiable.
The construction site on the cathedral mount “was transformed into a forest of plans”, once again an unhappy image but not a concrete accusation that could provide substance for the conclusion that: “expectation turned into disappointment; strangeness changed swiftly into mutual distrust.” The observation is, of course, very damaging that the bishop has a “need for soulless pomp” in the liturgy as is the suggestion that the faithful had asthma attacks because of the quantity of incense. All clichés from anti-Catholic polemics since Luther’s time – how comforting it is that our author can so soulfully write against them. Joking aside, the complaint about soullessness is always most suspicious – it’s almost always evidence of sentimentality and mendacity.
And, apropos mendacity, Max Scheler’s observation is unforgettable: “whoever is mendacious doesn’t need to lie anymore.” Yes, our author tells the truth when he complains that the bishop had acquired, (scandalously – the expression is at the tip of his tongue) – “a new Madonna” for the Cathedral. There may be churches in which there are so many images of the Madonna that another one is not exactly necessary, but the Limburg Cathedral was distinguished from all of other cathedrals in Germany in that there was not a single image of the Madonna for the faithful to venerate. The predecessor of Bishop Tebartz had found Marian presence to be superfluous. That Tebartz had now, after decades, created in his church once again a home for the Beata, is something that he could have made emphatically public. He didn’t do so, presumably out of tact towards his predecessor. But such discretion remains unrewarded in the realm of the media, which are entirely occupied with shouting out loud or gossiping to death.
As a laicized monk and deacon, our author should have been able to convey understanding for the fact that the bishop took out of the museum liturgical objects and gave back to them their original function – that which their pious donors had intended. Sacred objects really have no business in a museum; they belong in the sacristy where they of course can also be viewed when they’re not being used. But our author knows already how to give the ugly monkey a little more sugar: “(Tebartz took) from the stores of the diocesan museum a platter so big it’s fit for a turkey, as the bowl for the lavabo.”
The bishop is supposed to be no longer welcome in the parishes “because on his pilgrimages to the Holy Land he preferred the presence of his chauffeur to that of his clergy, and enjoyed himself in the first rows of seats while the flock of pilgrims had to remain in the back by themselves.” How do you luxuriate in an airplane seat with a plastic tray of shrink-wrapped rolls before you? How do you have an exchange of views with the pilgrim group in an airplane? Our author twists the facts like the hysterical women that kill their husbands in the popular plays of Yazmina Reza. And so on and so forth. And when the meager facts have been totally used up, that tanned fellow sneaks by like the white elephant in the Rilke poem. “I haven’t said a thing”, that’s the motto of the prying concierge that could most appropriately serve as the title of our author’s article.
What stones must have rolled away from the heart of our author when the report of the commission indeed found partial responsibility of the bishop for the disorder in his diocese and the pope accepted the resignation request! Where would he have stood if the investigation had found no questionable conduct? Indeed, for a while that appeared to be the case. But we shouldn’t be worried about a journalist like our author. Such people basically don’t take seriously what they’ve written – their contempt for man begins basically with themselves and the superficiality of their actions.
An evil press – evil times, evil customs – so could one lament. But it is not that simple. When I protested about this article to the editor of the newspaper he answered with superior irony that, as a Protestant, he observed “with interest developments in German Catholicism”. At first I was irritated at the man’s undisguised gloating – but then I recognized that he was right. No, this article – and the many other things that have been written by our author and many other Catholic journalists in other respectable newspapers – is only in part a problem of the press and its anti-clerical conventions. It is above all a problem of the Catholic Church in Germany and her undiminished readiness, even when exhausted and weak, to tear herself apart and engage in internecine civil war right up to annihilation.
Our author is after all less a representative of a newspaper for the intelligentsia, than an unofficial spokesman of powerful forces in the German Church, which provide him with information and designate which dignitaries are to be knocked off. After all, before Bishop Tebartz, it was no less than Pope Benedict, that “god-awful theologian,” in the words of our author. The forty years that have passed since the Second Vatican Council have transformed the German church into a snake pit, inhabited by weak, fearful but extremely vicious snakes. The disastrous system of the Episcopal conference and its almighty bureaucracy ensure that no strong personality has a chance anymore to become a bishop. Even those apparently not totally feeble are held on the shortest of leashes. After the “case” of Bishop Tebartz, it may be interesting to see who of the German prelates succeeds to the Limburg diocese. I will refrain from speculating about the necessary character qualifications. I am not qualified to make prognoses for the future.
At the present time I don’t see how the German Church can do justice to its real reason for existence: to reveal to men the supernatural presence of God, give access to the sacraments and witness to the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption. In comparison to this our concerns about a malevolent anti-clerical press are nothing more than the annoyance of a swarm of gnats. Despite our regrets about the disappearance of quality journalism we cannot forget that the Church has tasks other than coming to terms with the newspapers.
(The following is not by Martin Mosebach – SC)
NOTE: We give here the text, which Martin Mosebach presented on May 1, 2014 in Bonn. He had been invited by the Institute for Social Sciences Walberberg which dedicated its annual day dedicated to the ethics of media to the theme: “Expectations of Quality Journalism in Times of Scandal.” Also participating in this symposium in the Hotel Bristol before 250 attendees was the journalist Günter von Lojewski, formerly Intendant of the Station Free Berlin and Martin Lohmann, editor-in-chief of the private tv station K-TV. The names of the newspaper and of the editor were deliberately not mentioned by Mr. Mosebach but can be easily discovered.