Canon Law and Bishops of Bling

Q: In the past year or so there have been quite a few revelations about Catholic bishops living in lavish homes as if they were royalty….  What does canon law have to say about this?  –Robin

A: Robin is right about the revelations.  German readers in particular are undoubtedly aware of the removal of the Bishop of Limburg—now known worldwide as the “Bishop of Bling”—from his diocese back in 2013, primarily because of the scandal caused by his extravagant expenditures on the episcopal residence there.  In the U.S. just a few months later, the Bishop of Atlanta publicly apologized to his diocese for spending over $2 million on a new bishop’s residence.  What’s going on here?

In matters concerning the propriety of a diocesan bishop’s expenditures, there are a couple of different canonical issues that may potentially be in play.  The first one, not surprisingly, concerns the scandal that can be caused when a bishop spends excessive amounts of diocesan funds on items for his own personal comfort.  Canon 387 speaks about this in general terms, which are nevertheless quite clear: a diocesan bishop should be mindful that he is bound to give an example of holiness, charity, humility and simplicity of life.

The concept of “simplicity of life” can be a subjective one, but whatever our personal opinions may be about what the term really means, it is not synonymous with poverty.  It’s worth noting here that, as was discussed at length in “The Priesthood and the Vow of Poverty,” the diocesan clergy take no vow of poverty anyway.  They are, on the contrary, entitled to remuneration which is consistent with their condition, since clerics dedicate themselves to ecclesiastical ministry (c. 281.1).  They stand in contrast to those priests who are members of religious institutes, such as Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits, who specifically vow poverty when they make their religious profession.

Now in the extreme case of Limburg, Germany’s Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, it should be pretty obvious that spending (to cite only one example) 213,000 Euros on a fish-tank for one’s personal residence does not necessarily present the faithful with an example of simplicity of life.  Unfortunately, while Bishop Tebartz-van Elst’s spending habits may be hard to match, his fine taste is not unique; in 2002 the Bishop of Rockville Centre in the U.S. reportedly spent $120,000 on three oriental rugs (among other things) for his living quarters.  Such purchases would already appear scandalous enough if a bishop were making them with his own personal funds—but using the diocese’s money in this way is of course even worse.

At the same time, however, it’s important to keep in mind that the Holy Father, and not the laity, is the ultimate judge of what may constitute a violation of a bishop’s need to show “simplicity of life.”  In many parts of the world, diocesan bishops live in grand homes; superficially their living-quarters may suggest to outsiders that they are living more like royalty than successors to the Apostles, and yet closer scrutiny may reveal that public outrage is unjustifed.  In actual fact, many of these large episcopal residences also include living-space for the clergy working in the diocesan chancery, and they sometimes even contain the chancery itself!  When one considers that a huge, multi-storey building may be housing (let’s say) the bishop plus eight priests of the diocese, and that all their offices and meeting-rooms are also under the same roof, the size of this “bishop’s residence” may in fact be far more reasonable than it initially appeared.

On top of that, let’s keep in mind that a bishop’s home may have been bequeathed to his diocese by a wealthy parishioner, in which case it didn’t cost the diocese a cent.  The point here is, sometimes people are loudly critical about a bishop’s “lavish lifestyle” without doing their research—and the Church is not automatically obliged to comply with their demands for change.  If offense is taken where none is actually given, how is the Church to blame?

But if the scandal caused by bishops’ immoderate spending can vary in the eyes of the beholder, such purchases may raise a different canonical issue that is far more concrete.  It concerns the administration—in this case, involving purchases and expenditures—of the temporal goods of the diocese.

Let’s remember that a diocesan bishop is the diocese’s chief executive (cf. cc. 381.1 and 391.1) and that naturally gives him authority over diocesan finances.  This means that for the average, everyday buying and selling of ecclesiastical goods and property, a bishop has every right to make decisions on his own authority.

But canon 1277 lists some cases where the bishop’s okay is not enough.  For those financial actions which are of major importance, the bishop is required by law to consult the diocesan finance committee and the college of consultors.  And for acts of extraordinary administration, the bishop actually needs their consent.  There’s quite a lot going on in this canon, so let’s take it apart.

We took a look at the diocesan finance committee in another context in “Is Nepotism Still an Issue in the Church?” but in previous columns we have never yet run into the college of consultors, so it’s worth a closer look.  As per canon 502,  every diocese must have a college of consultors, which consists of no fewer than six, and no more than twelve priests of the diocese.  All are appointed to the college by the diocesan bishop for a term of five years, and the college has all the authority given to it by law—one of those laws being the abovementioned canon 1277.  As we just saw, this canon obliges the bishop to consult his college before taking any administrative actions which are of major importance.  So the next question is, what constitutes “major importance”?

It’s a perfectly reasonable question, and yet the code fails to provide any precise definition.  This is presumably because when it comes to financial matters, a major expenditure in one part of the world might be small change in another.  Spending (let’s say) $10,000 in Malawi could easily be viewed as a “major” financial event—while in Chicago or Milan, $10,000 may buy relatively little!  The code thus leaves the interpretation of this term largely up to the bishop.

But when it comes to acts of “extraordinary administration,” the law is much more specific.  The same canon 1277 observes that Episcopal Conferences are to determine what will constitute extraordinary administration in their respective territories.  (See “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain from Meat Every Friday?” for more on what an Episcopal Conference is.)  In different parts of the world, therefore, it’s possible to see that the sums of money which are officially considered to be “extraordinary” vary widely.  In the Philippines, for example, the Episcopal Conference has established that any administrative act involving $20,000 U.S. (or its peso equivalent) or more is to be considered “extraordinary.”  In contrast, Australia’s Episcopal Conference has established a more complicated method of calculation: any act which would commit a diocese to an annual repayment of either 50 cents per capita or A $100,000, or would cost a diocese annually 20 cents per capita or A $40,000, is considered “extraordinary.” In keeping with the variations in the general cost of living, Australia’s bar is thus much higher than that of the Philippines.

What difference does it make?  The bottom line is, every bishop who wants to incur a large diocesan expense first needs to establish what the amount will be, and then he must determine whether he needs either to consult with his finance council and college of consultors (for expenditures of “major importance”) or actually obtain their consent (for acts of “extraordinary administration.”)  Expenditures requiring consent can of course be blocked, leaving a bishop who’s eager to make a large purchase legally out of luck.  In short, for extremely large purchases, a bishop cannot act entirely on his own—if he does, he is violating the law.

Returning therefore to our original issue, if a diocesan bishop unilaterally spends a sum of diocesan money so high that he was required by law to run it by his finance council and college of consultors first, he shouldn’t be surprised if Rome calls him to account for this.  Since the numerical amounts involved aren’t a matter of subjective opinion, there isn’t necessarily a lot of room for him to argue.  We don’t know the exact details of the conversations between Pope Francis and the Bishop of Limburg, but it’s quite possible his spending, even if separated out into individual purchases, may have exceeded the limits set by the German Episcopal Conference for acts of extraordinary administration.  If so, that would have left him open to papal criticism apart from any scandal he caused.

Bishops have a lot of power in their dioceses—and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  But when it comes to spending diocesan funds, there are some strict legal limitations on their buying-power.  Canon law provides diocesan bishops with plenty of leeway when it comes to their purchasing decisions, but nonetheless there are clear boundaries which they cannot cross without the advance consultation and/or approval of others.  If they do, they may be forcibly reminded that they are ultimately under the supreme authority of another Bishop, here in Rome.

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