The clear differences in the style of Pope Francis as opposed to his predecessors, both as Bishop of Rome and in his former position as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, have electrified the world media. Here, they exclaim, is a clergyperson who is “walking the talk” about living to serve others. Few places seem to relish this new approach more than Der Spiegel, the German newsweekly issued forth from Hamburg, in the mostly-Protestant north of the country. On Sep. 14, in an article now translated into English, the magazine declares:
Last week Rudolf Voderholzer, 54, the bishop of the Bavarian city of Regensburg and one of Germany's younger church leaders, was taken to task at the Vatican by the pope himself. In an admonishment to the German bishop and others attending a seminar for new bishops in Rome, Francis said: "Be close to the people and live as you preach. Always be with your flock, do not succumb to careerism and ask yourselves whether you are truly living as you preach."
Now, there’s nothing in the official text of the speech to suggest a direct attack on Voderholzer or anyone else. In fact, the official text doesn’t even contain the exact words Der Spiegel is quoting here, though the English Spiegel text is a translation from the German; there might have been some modification in the process.
Regardless of translation, the current pope’s emphasis on austere and authentic living is clear, and it gives Der Spiegel a chance to bash both the German Catholic hierarchy and Francis’ predecessor, who just happens to be German as well:
“This is a new message for German princes of the church. Many of them have long cultivated a lifestyle oriented toward strict dogmas, prestige and a career within the church, much like former Pope Benedict XVI. But now that his successor arrives at meetings in an old car, there has been a fundamental shift. Loyalty to the pope is being completely redefined, and not just in Regensburg, where Voderholzer's predecessor Gerhard Ludwig Müller, a fervent devotee of former Pope Benedict, alienated many Roman Catholics.”
After repeating the much-told bit about Pope Francis’ eschewing of the papal apartments for more modest quarters, Der Spiegel again hones in on national Catholic officials:
“In Germany, on the other hand, many bishops apparently haven't come to terms with Francis's insistence that they set a credible example of poverty. The costly new residence of Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the bishop of Limburg in western Germany, is only one especially conspicuous example of the pomposity, or at least the pronounced attachment to prestige, of the country's Catholic Church leaders.”
The problem is, there’s little to connect whatever it is the German bishops are doing, or have done, with anything Benedict did, or Francis said, especially given the newest pope’s very recent ascendancy to the chair of Peter.
Yes, going forward, a bishop might find it difficult to adopt a lavish lifestyle, but is that because they’re following Francis’ example or fearing a backlash? Where is the backlash?
In the case of Germany, we won’t know because all of those quoted in the Der Spiegel piece appear to be Catholics whose views support those of the author and, presumably, editors.
No person-in-the-pew is surveyed, instead, selected Jesuit clerics and lay leaders who want the pope to either clamp down on sexual abuse cases or whelp more about austerity. There’s no one out there who supports the status quo in the German church, and one has to wonder if that’s actually possible -- someone must approve of what these bishops are doing.
But presenting both sides, of which two must exist, isn’t something Der Spiegel seems overly fastidious about. Indeed, this meat-axe approach to Benedict and his peers seems more in tune with the late satirical magazine Wittenburg Door than with anything we saw in the real Wittenberg.