Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst flew first-class to Africa on a church mission to the poor. The trip was to India.
BERLIN — Pope Francis temporarily relieved a spendthrift German bishop of his post Wednesday, taking an extraordinary step against a Catholic official whose penchant for luxury living appeared to clash with the new pope’s efforts to foster a more humble church.
Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst had dominated tabloid headlines for weeks in Germany as details emerged of a multimillion-dollar renovation of his official church residence in the western town of Limburg. Analysts said the pope’s rare personal intercession in the matter, just months into his papacy, sent a strong signal that he intends to back up his rhetoric about shifting the church’s focus to the world’s poor with tough actions.
Bishops have near-absolute powers over the finances of their dioceses. To be disciplined over profligate spending is rare, analysts said, and it’s rarer still when the orders come directly from the pope, rather than from other Vatican bodies.
Francis has also launched an ambitious effort to clean up corruption at the secretive Vatican bank, removing officials who stood in the way of reforms and moving swiftly against those accused of misdeeds. He has said that he wants “a poor church for the poor,” and he has urged church officials to live humbly.
Leaked photographs of fancy upgrades to Tebartz-van Elst’s residence clashed with the personal example set by Francis, who lives in a far less swanky guest apartment on the grounds of the Vatican. The bishop was called to Rome this month for an audience with the pope. German media reported that he flew Ryanair, a budget airline known for its uncomfortable seats.
Tebartz-van Elst, 53, has been placed on leave pending an audit of the construction project, leaving open the possibility that he could return to his post. He was installed as a bishop in 2007 by Francis’s predecessor, the German Pope Benedict XVI. Limburg is a sleepy, medieval town of 33,000, but the diocese of 682,000 people includes Frankfurt, Germany’s financial capital.
“In the diocese, a situation has developed” in which Tebartz-van Elst “cannot, at the present moment, continue to exercise his episcopal ministry,” the Vatican said in a statement Wednesday. The bishop was offered “a period of stay outside the diocese,” the statement said, without elaborating. Another local church official will temporarily assume Tebartz-van Elst’s duties.
Earlier this month, prosecutors in Hamburg opened an investigation into whether the bishop had lied in an affidavit after the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported last year that he had flown first-class to India on a church mission to serve the poor. The threat of legal action may also have influenced the Vatican’s decision Wednesday, analysts said.
Top German Catholic officials, usually cautious in their public statements, greeted the decision with apparent relief, saying that the bishop had damaged the church’s domestic image.
“This was a good decision,” said Stefan Vesper, leader of Germany’s largest organization of lay Catholics. “The whole thing has really shocked us as German Catholics. I can’t imagine that he could come back. He has lost so much trust.”
The head of the German bishops’ conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, also met with Francis in Rome last week and has harshly criticized Tebartz-van Elst. He said in a statement Wednesday that Francis’s decision has “opened a space to return to inner calm and to create a new basis for discussion.”
Analysts said Francis’s move affects far more than the 24.3 million German Catholics.
“Francis is really sending very strong signals about a change in behavior that he wants,” said Jason Berry, a Catholic journalist who has written extensively about church finances. “He really wants these men to put greater emphasis on helping the poor and marginalized peoples of the world. That is a very different agenda from what we’ve seen from the last two popes.”
“This is not a soft-glove form of punishment,” he said of the decision to place the bishop on leave.
Tebartz-van Elst’s alleged financial indiscretions exploded into view in Germany in recent weeks, with many churchgoers outraged that their money was being used to fund sleek black leather furniture, satin bedsheets and fine Italian bathroom sinks in a renovation whose costs had ballooned from a half-million dollars to $43 million.
In Germany, the government taxes churchgoers and distributes the revenue to their churches or congregations. Some churches deny services such as marriage and christenings to people who have avoided paying the taxes by keeping their names off the government rolls.
Catholic officials have said that the money to renovate the bishop’s residence didn’t come from public revenue but from the church’s coffers, though they say that the funding will be part of the investigation in the coming months. Tebartz-van Elst has said that the total bill was for multiple construction projects and that the expenses were especially high because the renovations involved buildings designated as historical landmarks.
At times, the affair made the church the butt of jokes.
“15,000 euros for a bathtub? I was ripped off!” read a full-page advertisement for a home-improvement chain last week, using Tebartz-van Elst’s face and an idiomatic form of “ripped off” that can also mean “laid on the cross.” The store promised cheaper bathroom fixtures.