Bishop Vitus Huonder of Chur © CBA
The Swiss diocese of Chur is always good for headlines – or rather its bishop. On Friday, Vitus Huonder, who is still very fit, will reach the age of 75. The personnel merry-go-round is circling – but what will be?
This is not really how you want church to be: counting down the clock tower for years until finally the bishop reaches the age limit. But that's exactly how many in the Swiss diocese of Chur feel. They hope that soon after Friday the hands there will be back to zero: Because Vitus Huonder, who is still very fit, will turn 75 and must offer the pope his resignation from office. According to his critics, the conservative shepherd is one who likes to dismiss liberal requests of his flock with the attitude: Here I stand – I can't help it.
In the cantons of Graubunden, Schwyz and Zurich, there has long been a climate of ecclesiastical friction. Large differences in opinion and mentality collide in a small space. Like his predecessor Bishop Wolfgang Haas (1988/90-1997), Huonder has polarized his flock, which includes not only the rural cantons but also the financially strong Catholics of the metropolis of Zurich.
Discussion about conservative positions
Across the country, the bishop of Chur also acts as a loudspeaker for the conservative wing of the church – while his fellow bishops in the Swiss Bishops' Conference often have to struggle to recapture Huonder's verbal thrusts on sexuality, church interdiction or the protection of life. The Swiss gay umbrella organization even unsuccessfully filed criminal charges against the bishop in 2015: for publicly inciting violence against homosexuals.
Huonder, in office since 2007, insists on the letter of the Catholic, and he never shies away from demanding it as binding. Sometimes there were disputes about abortion funding, sometimes about how to deal with homosexuality, about marriage and the family or the leadership of the seminary. Dissatisfied people marched to the seat of the bishops' conference president in 2014 to demonstrate for Huonder's ouster. They complained: "We have had enough of disciplinarian attitudes, of hard-hearted theology and pessimistic bishops who distrust the faithful."
Huonder's supporters defend themselves against criticism
But it is also true that the Swiss are grassroots democrats. This is tradition since the legendary Rutli oath in the Middle Ages. And Swiss state church law also grants the laity more co-determination than many bishops would like – and than is provided for in general church law. This applies, for example, to the episcopal financial administration and to experimentation in church services.
Huonder's supporters, on the other hand, have always maintained that the bishop is acting in accordance with church doctrine and church law. It was the doctrine, not the person, that the critics disliked, he said. The critics, on the other hand, see this as Huonder's conflict strategy: to rush ahead and then to take one's own person out of the game by referring to the official doctrine.
Successors for the bishop's chair in Chur have been traded for some time already. A request was also sent to Rome to appoint an administrator instead of a new bishop on a transitional basis. Above all, many Catholics want a bit of peace for the quarreling diocese. Martin Kopp, Vicar General for the Urschweiz, formulates drastically: "If someone is simply elected from the camp that currently determines the course in Chur, and there is no new beginning, the diocese is dead."
Candidates for 2017 have included Fribourg Auxiliary Bishop Alain de Remy (58), formerly chaplain of the Swiss Guard, articulate and conservative; Chur Auxiliary Bishop Marian Eleganti (62) as a possible compromise candidate; Andreas Rellstab (50), once vicar general but now a parish priest in self-imposed exile in Zurich; and Capuchin Minister General Mauro Johri (69).
Also named were the two abbots of Einsiedeln: the former, "Twitter abbot" Martin Werlen (55), a liberal and explicit candidate of the "left" in the diocese, and his incumbent young successor Urban Federer (48). Both, however, are said to lack ambition for the difficult post in Chur. Huonder's shadow and vicar general Martin Grichting (49) is quite different, but his polemics have left a lot of scorched earth in the diocese. For whom the bell tolls, the bells of Chur will toll.