Bishop’s Election in the Swiss Diocese of Chur Highlights Local Catholic Divisions
The three-candidate list proposed by the Holy See was rejected by the diocese’s Cathedral Chapter, who have the ecclesiastical privilege to elect their bishop, reportedly for being too progressive.
Switzerland’s Diocese of Chur, which was supposed to welcome a new bishop following the vote of the cathedral chapter on Nov. 23, is still vacant — because the cathedral’s 22 canons unexpectedly have rejected all three candidates proposed by the Vatican.
A year and a half after Bishop Vitus Huonder retired at the conclusion of a 12-year tenure in May 2019, the trilingual diocese, which extends over seven Swiss cantons, including that of Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city, and encompasses 308 parishes, remains in uncertainty pending Pope Francis’ reaction to the failed election. In the meantime, the diocese will be run by apostolic administrator Bishop emeritus Peter Bürcher of Reykjavik, Iceland, who has been in charge since Bishop Huonder left office.
Since the 15th century, by virtue of the 1448 Concordat of Vienna and then the 1948 papal decree Etsi Salva, the Chapter of Chur has been enjoying the rare ecclesial privilege of electing its bishops. According to that procedure, it is the responsibility of the apostolic nuncio of Switzerland to identify three possible candidates (after consulting the bishops’ conference, the cathedral chapter of Chur, as well as some clergymen, nuns and lay people from the diocese) and submit the list, known as the terna, to the Holy See. After getting Rome’s approval, the terna is then sent to the canons of Chur, who must elect one of the three candidates.
The canons of Chur are priests who are appointed by the diocesan bishop. It is mostly considered an honorific nomination, but they play an important role in the election of the bishop which is an important responsibility for the diocese.
Their unexpected and mysterious decision not to accept any of the candidates nominated by the Vatican, unprecedented in the diocese’s history, has raised a lot of questions in the country’s press. Although the bishopric has not yet issued any public statement, the minutes of the chapter meeting, which was supposed to remain secret, were leaked to some media a few days later.
According to the leaked minutes, the canons concluded that none of the three candidates had the ability to properly serve the diocese. In their view, Mauro Giuseppe Lepori, general abbot of the Cistercians in Rome and second candidate on the list, doesn’t have the necessary knowledge of the diocese and its customs, while the third candidate, Vigeli Monn, abbot of Disentis in the canton of Grisons, “was never active in a parish and has never distinguished himself through spiritual or theological contributions in recent years.”
As for Canon Joseph Bonnemain, a 72-year-old diocesan priest of Chur who tops the terna, the majority of the chapter considered him too old to take office. The document also revealed (without going into detail) that his ideological evolution as a long-time member of the diocese, did not convince some of the canons to support him.
Furthermore, the report mentioned that some canons also accused the bishops of the German-speaking Dioceses of Basel and St. Gallen, as well as the abbot of Einsiedeln, of interfering in the run-up to the election by trying to directly influence the nomination of the candidates.
A well-informed anonymous source inside the diocese told the Register that the canons saw this move as an attempt to bring Chur into line with the far more progressive Dioceses of Basel and St. Gallen (the only two other dioceses of Switzerland to have the right to elect their bishops), many members of which are known for their openness with regards to women’s ordination or clerical marriage.
“For years, the Diocese of Chur has put the brakes on liberal advances by the Swiss Bishops’ Conference, which were not compatible with the teachings of the Church,” the source told the Register, claiming that Father Monn and Father Lepori are, in the canons’ view, both part of this progressive movement within the Church.
“Moreover, Joseph Bonnemain, the only diocesan priest of the list, is already 72½ years old,” the source noted. “He would have been an interim solution that nobody wanted.”
Another key element that may have worked against Father Bonnemain is the fact that he is considered an advocate of the so-called “dual system” of the Swiss ecclesiastical government, which consists, on the one hand, of bodies of public ecclesiastical law (which are run by laypeople and deal with administrative, financial and real estate matters) and of canonical instances (which represent the episcopal authority and focus on pastoral care, and theological and spiritual matters).
As the same anonymous source pointed out, this government system would enable the laypersons who manage the finances of the Catholic Church in Switzerland to put pressure on bishops who would not “follow the moral and ideological standards of the time and the secular majority opinion.”
Added the source, “Some of these [bodies] publicly stated that they would block the funds to the diocese of Chur depending on the result of the election and the canons did not want to elect a supporter of such a system which gives the lay the power to blackmail clergymen.”
The Register sought comments from the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, which hadn’t responded at the time of publication, and from the diocese of Chur, which refused to comment about the matter pending the Pope’s final decision.
Decades of Tensions
While some interpreted the rejection of the terna as a provocation and a clear insult to Rome (since the canons seem to have questioned the Holy See’s discernment in its choice of the candidates), some other commentators, on the contrary, saw it as an attempt to extricate the diocese from local influence over the election process.
Indeed, according to this assessment, this unprecedented refusal to exercise the right to elect a bishop could demonstrate a desire to have this prerogative definitively suppressed and to directly deal with the Vatican in the future. It would thus secure a concrete separation between the Church and the state within the diocese.
But this controversy is also the result of years of growing ideological and theological division within the diocese of Chur, which dates back at least to the election of Bishop Wolfgang Haas in 1988.
In 2010, in an interview to Swiss newspaper Die Südostschweiz, the former rector of the Chur University of Theology, Albert Gasser, harshly attacked then-Bishop Vitus Huonder for his polarizing positions, his authoritarianism and his will to appoint as a successor his vicar general vicar Msgr. Martin Grichting, who was known for his conservative views and his hostility towards the Swiss dual system which implies for the lay a right of co-decision regarding the businesses of the Church.
Furthermore, Bishop Huonder’s refusal to allow a chaplain of his diocese to co-organize an ecumenical church service for gay and lesbian people during the annual Zurich Pride Festival in July 2010 permanently incurred the wrath of a whole segment of his diocese.
Now that the terna has come back to Rome without the approval of any of its three candidates, the future of the diocese is in Pope Francis’ hands. He could come up with a new list, but this option appears very unlikely, as Urban Fink, an expert on the ecclesiastic life in Switzerland and the electoral procedures in Chur, explained to the Swiss Catholic information portal Cath.ch.
In his view, the most likely scenario is that the Pope will directly appoint the next diocesan bishop of Chur. If so, he could choose one of the three candidates rejected by the chapter, or pick another candidate on the advice of the Congregation for Bishops in Rome.
Since the cathedral chapter has decided not to exercise its right to choose its bishop this time, the canons automatically lost any oversight over the election and will have to comply with the Holy See’s decision.
Another possible option would be for the Pope to maintain the current apostolic administrator in office for a few years, hoping for tensions to gradually subside, although Bishop Bürcher will turn 75 at the end of this month.