For a quarter century and several difficult bishop appointments, the Swiss diocese of Chur has had hot times. The wish of the Catholics of Graubunden, Schwyz and Zurich is a simple one: peace at last.
That's not really how you want church to be: counting down a clock for years until finally the bishop reaches the age limit. But that's how many feel in the Swiss diocese of Chur.
There, the pointer will stand at zero in April: That's when Vitus Huonder turns 75, reaching the age limit at which bishops must offer the pope their resignation from office. Under Pope Francis, the signs are more for pacification – but still, instead of a new bishop, Catholics in the cantons of Graubunden, Schwyz and Zurich would rather have a bit of peace and quiet.
More co-determination of lay people
Swiss tick grassroots democracy. This is tradition since the legendary Rutli oath in the Middle Ages. So would Catholics – who are even less willing to submit to conservative bishops than those in other Western European democracies. Swiss state church law is characterized by Protestant elements and grants the laity more co-determination than the bishops would like – and than is provided for in general church law. This applies, for example, to the episcopal financial administration. And even in the church service there are all kinds of Protestant things, from lay preaching to women in liturgical vestments.
The diocese of Chur has a very troubled recent history. Like his predecessor Bishop Wolfgang Haas (1988/90-1997), who was in a line of difficult bishop appointments of John Paul II. Standing in the late 1980s, Huonder has polarized his flock, which includes rural cantons as well as the financially strong Catholics of the metropolis of Zurich. Dissatisfied even moved to the seat of the bishops' conference president in 2014 to demonstrate for Huonder's ouster.
Doctrine of Huonder as bone of contention
The displeasure is not ignited as elsewhere by an expensive building or by cases of sexual abuse. It is about the doctrine. Huonder, in office since 2007, insists on the letter of the Catholic, and he has never been shy about demanding it as binding. There have been many disputes: about abortion financing, the handling of homosexuality, marriage and family, or the management of the seminary.
The Swiss bishops put up with Huonder dictating the ies, the protesters complained, and, "We have had enough of disciplinarian attitudes, of hard-hearted theology and pessimistic bishops who distrust the faithful."Huonder's supporters have always argued that the bishop is acting in accordance with church doctrine and canon law.
Longer sedis vacancy desired
In an unusual step, two vicars general, Huonder's regional deputies, have now spoken out in favor of a kind of cease-fire: a transitional period of several years until a new bishop is elected. Martin Kopp, vicar general for Urschweiz, suggests six or seven years in which an administrator should lead the strife-ridden diocese. He sees a religious as the ideal appointment. And Kopp is even more explicit: "If next year someone is simply elected from the camp that currently determines the course in Chur, and there is no new beginning, the diocese is dead."The "freedom-thirsty" Urschweiz and also Zurich would "not put up with that".
His counterpart for Zurich, Josef Annen, considers this advance worthy of consideration. "What the diocese desperately needs after decades of disruption is pacification," he says. "A community that is polarized breaks up into irreconcilable camps that fight each other."This contradicts the mission of the Gospel.
Catholics ran strum against ex-Bishop Haas
The situation is reminiscent of the 90s. At that time, Catholics were up in arms against Bishop Haas. The now 68-year-old had been appointed directly by the Vatican – bypassing the rights of the diocese – and through ultra-conservative attitudes and personnel decisions had offended his church people, who were accustomed to co-determination. After years of conflict, John Paul II transferred. Haas in 1997 to the newly created archdiocese of Vaduz in the dwarf state of Liechtenstein.
Haas' successor in Chur, the Benedictine Amedee Grab (86), succeeded in letting grass grow over the discord. But Huonder now seems to be leaving scorched earth once again. Will Rome grant Chur's request for a cure – or start the regular appeal process?