The insubstantial Bishop of Bling


Golden bishop chess pieceSpringtime always draws attention to the sweet harmonies and scratchy discord between style and substance. The ducks that escort their young across green lawns to brimming ponds, and peck at anything or anyone that dares approach them; young things in coats and tails, summer dresses and cornucopial hats sit sozzled in Cup Day mud.

And this springtime there is the glorious spectacle of politicians who make doubtful claims for recompense and repay them when they are made public, all the while proclaiming their essential honesty; of legislators who criminalise groups while asserting their respect for the rule of law; of spooks who are caught spying on citizens throughout the world, including national leaders, and protest that they do it to protect us.

In the Catholic Church, too, the expansively named Limburg Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst was summoned to Rome by Pope Francis and later suspended from office. This followed protests against a lavish building program that led the tabloids to dub him 'the Bishop of Bling' who spent more than $50 million on his private residence.

Of course there was more to the story than that. The building project included a library, conference rooms, chapel, museum and the restoration of old buildings and walls. The cost was closer to $30 million. And the controversy was part of a wider German debate about the way the state collects funds for churches. Still, $30 million is a great deal of money. In the Limburg church during a time of austerity, a project in such radical contrast with the style displayed by Francis was on the nose. In this case the bishop's style had consequences of substance.

The relationship between style and substance recalls questions earlier asked about Francis — whether the novelties of his papacy were a matter of style or substance, and indeed whether this distinction was particularly helpful. This discussion may illuminate the broader cultural contrasts between style and substance.

People who wanted to minimise the novelty of Francis' actions, words and casual remarks argued that his innovations lay merely in style. They saw the underlying substance to lie in the Pope's adherence to the inner truth of Catholic faith and life. The substance was important. The style in which he spoke and acted had to do with the surface, and was unimportant.

This way of relating substance and style failed to catch the inner logic of the Pope's conduct. The substance of his message does not lie under or behind the style he displays but is embodied in the style.

For him the substance of Christian faith is contained in the conviction that God loves the human world so much that God enters it in Jesus Christ. God's love is embodied in the style of Jesus' life: in his actions and words and in the stories that express his qualities of freedom, faithfulness, hope, trust and compassion. The only way in which the Church can speak persuasively of that faith is by adopting the style of Jesus. It must embody the joy of God's love by going out to people in compassion and simplicity.

The inseparable unity between style and substance is central to Francis. His simple and available way of life, his expedition out of Rome to wash the feet of young men and women at a juvenile detention centre on Holy Thursday, his disdain for any security regime that prevents him from mingling with crowds, his exhortation to Church ministers to smell like sheep and not to be preoccupied with internal Church matters, and his openness to people of different faith and moral codes unite style and substance.

The Bishop's call to Rome should perhaps be seen in this light. The response to his building program suggested a serious gap between his style and the substance of the Gospel. The Pope met this gap with a compassionate process that involved personal conversation, an enquiry and temporary suspension.

The insistence that style should embody substance may not be heard by ducks or young things. But it does speak to politicians, legislators and spooks. We should expect the honesty of politicians to express itself in scrupulous and conservative exactitude when claiming expenses from the public purse. We should expect legislators to embody in the laws they pass a fastidious concern for the personal responsibility on which the rule of law is founded. We should expect spooks to display a respect for the laws of their own nations and the right to citizens to privacy.

When style and substance are separated in public life and in churches we are back in winter.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Golden bishop from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Bishop of Bling, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

I can't help wondering what led the expansively named Bishop at the centre of the bling controversy, who would certainly have made a vow of obedience and poverty, to 'let bling be his thing'. It takes a sort of all-consuming passion to love something with the kind of fidelity required of the Bishop - there would certainly be joy in that but also tiredness could set in due to the work involved in any great love. Rowan Williams says the words 'Blessed are the poor in spirit' seem to mean that when we have learned to rely on the fact that we are loved by God, and nothing else, something extraordinary happens to us that is the deepest source of our reliance. No easy text. But God doesn't let go, so we have to make the best of it!

Pam | 30 October 2013  

ES facile reductionism of substance to style betrays Pollyanna wishful thinking.. Fr Reynolds decried Francis gestapo style in excommunicating him etc;Earlier the popes underlining of male only priests betrays unpopular style & very high substance;his Marian style hardly accords with growing insubstantial anti pietism;; his right hand man cdf Prefect Muller rejected facile strategies for remarried and divorced a position utterly in accord in 'specialissimo modo' with holy father Jesus died on Calvary because he wasn't mr nice guy on substance-his vicar knows the diff too!

Father John George | 30 October 2013  

Andy, Thank you for your exposition of the connection between style and substance as manifested in the life of Pope Francis. Maureen

Maureen Schiemer | 31 October 2013  

This is a worthy article..we have lots of Bishops of bling in our religious back yard, as similarly we have lots of stylish pulpit instructions on living wholesome christian lives, while the sermonisers are substantially involved in sexual aberrations. What is the difference between fraud and aberrant sex. It's a little difficult to make comparisons with politicians spending monies on attending weddings when that expenditure has to be publicised in the long run, while so much of the other is covert.

Shirley McHugh | 31 October 2013  

Poetic! The opening paragraph is a cracker, Andrew! Isn't Pope Francis a breath of fresh air - another cracker! Makes one wonder what he might have done in the matter of certain recent, recalcitrant bishops in this country and in his responses to the child sexual abuse crises and Vatican banking habits largely ignored by some of his predecessors. I reckon we could have a pretty good shot at an accurate answer to those questions.

john frawley | 31 October 2013  

Pope Francis' demand that the outer expression of Christianity is in accord with its inner truth is a welcome statement of where he stands on this matter. He is not one to shy away from hard decisions nor is he unable to delegate. He has certainly stepped away from any "Yes Holy Father" comedy script he could have easily been entrapped into. He appears to see the purpose of the Church as to embody Christ in its life and actions. It is not there as primarily either a bureaucracy or an unresponsive hierarchy. It is a living body. This may all seem very strange to some members. He may well have jolted some out of slumber. He has mentioned that he is 76 and does not expect to be in the job forever. Most Catholics would hope he remains in the position for a long time. These are hard and terrible times for the world. It is exactly in these circumstances God sends someone like Francis to lead and restore. His advent as Pope is both fortuitous and propitious. May his reign continue to be blessed and guided.

Edward F | 31 October 2013  

The most probable explanation of the suspension is not to be found in the notion of "poverty"--but in the loss of confidence. Priests and people had lost trust in the Bishop, creating a situation where he could no longer hold the respect of and govern the diocese. This loss pre-dated the discovery of his $$$ excesses. We might draw from this that silence re. the authoritarian style, the hybris, or stonewalling of bishops is more than complacency, it is complicity. A healthy Church needs a strong dose of freedom of expression, so that public opinion within the Church can form. This requires a "magnetic centre" around which disparate feelings and thoughts can coalesce...i.e. lay leadership and clerical leadership. English speaking culture tends to think that "voting with your feet" makes a difference. But it doesn't.

richard shields | 01 November 2013  

“A preferential option for the poor” should be maintained in everything we do as a Church. Here is a good place to start: our Catholic schools. If we find that we cannot afford to keep our schools open to the poor, the Church should be ready to use its resources for something else which can be kept open to the poor. We cannot allow our Church to become a church primarily for the middle-class and rich while throwing a bone to the poor. Practically speaking, the Catholic schools must give up general education in those countries where the State is providing it. The resources of the Church could then be focused on Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and other programs which can be kept open to the poor. These resources could then be used to help society become more human in solidarity with the poor. Remember, the Church managed without Catholic schools for centuries. It can get along without them today. The essential factor from the Christian point of view is to cultivate enough Faith to act in the Gospel Tradition, namely, THE POOR GET PRIORITY. The rich and middle-class are welcome too. BUT THE POOR COME FIRST.

William Horan | 02 November 2013  

Thank you Andy for providing a refreshing connection between style and substance.

Wayne Brabin | 05 November 2013  

In Pope Francis's R4 Rome (and in scented Limberg too), it is Autumn. Almost into the depths of a Winter of Discontent with the bling and kitsch excesses of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst. We here might well spring forward, whereas they fall back … in both time and tide.

Humming 'Springtime for Hitler in Germany' | 13 November 2013  

Thank you. Relating to your ending (not so much a Conclusion, more as a seeming climate-change caution ?) from the second last para's last sentence - "We should expect spooks to display a respect for the laws of their own nations and the right to citizens to privacy. When style and substance are separated in public life and in churches we are back in winter." Today, we are now left wondering whether, as according to PM the Hon. Tony Abbott, his Government's ASIS/ASIO are truly back on-track working for our national good, since as the PM so imprudently suggested (ABC 7.30 Report) the ALP's ASIS spooks in indonesia possibly had not. Ah, whatever, in reality we have known (only since 1604 !) that "An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country." (Wotton) And that Spies Spy. And learned that certain cooperative Spying-Nations cluster. And realised that the national laws of the democracies have been compromised for the sake of their anti-terrorism restrictions upon individual freedoms and civil rights, available to be used mainly by their spooks and law-enforcers alike domestically. And accept that such nations' Style is to pretend that espionage and covert-activities just aren't happening; but of course that the Substance is quite different. Whether we like it or not, given all the Wikileaks' and now lately Snowdon's (Merkel) revelations showing that the respective ASISs and the ASIOs of nations all are beavering away at the very limits of whatever is legal domestically, with their scantest regard for any other rule than "don't get caught". Oh, That's a chill wind - I'd better put on a cardie.

Cold-war Spooky style | 14 November 2013  

anyone watched Fellini's 'Roma', lately? the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Name | 16 November 2013  

You don't have to look overseas for Bishops and Archbishops of Bling. They are here in Australia and you can see them in Brisbane and Sydney especially. Will the Pope do anything about them?

Carmel | 05 December 2013  

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