German bishops reveal wealth, lose Catholics

The high-spending behaviour of the Bishop of Limburg has promoted other German bishops to reveal the value of their private endowments — and encouraged a growing number of Catholics to leave the Church.

After being accused of lavish spending, Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg has travelled to Rome to meet officials at the Vatican, where Pope Francis has made it clear he prefers Church leaders to adopt a simple lifestyle.

Controversy over Bishop Tebart-van Elst has focused on cost overruns on his luxurious new residence complex and related renovations, now priced at $NZ50 million.

The bishop reportedly can afford this expenditure because German dioceses have untaxed secret reserves called the “bishop’s chair”, known only to the bishop and a few advisors.

In some older dioceses, “bishop’s chair” reserves include age-old property holdings, donations from former princely rulers and funds from German states over the past two centuries.

As pressure increases for transparency in the Church’s financial affairs, some dioceses are now revealing the extent of their “bishop’s chair” funds.

Cologne, the largest and reportedly richest diocese in Europe, announced “in connection with the current discussion about Church finances” that its archbishop had reserves equal to $NZ268 million in 2012.

The small diocese of Trier, Germany’s oldest, had a reserve of $NZ136 million and said part of its earnings went to pay damages to victims of the clerical sexual abuse scandals that rocked the German Church in recent years.

The increasing exodus of disillusioned Catholics from the Church in Germany has even alarmed the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, whose spokesman said the situation in Limburg was proving a burden to the Catholic Church.

Christians in Germany pay a church tax, which in 2012 raised more than $NZ8 billion for the Catholics and more than $NZ7 billion for the Protestant churches.

A Catholic who formally resigns from the Church no longer has to pay this tax.



The Tablet

Associated Press

Image: Vatican Insider

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