It’s rare for a diocesan bishop to approach his 75th birthday knowing that there is no need for him to submit his resignation to the pope.
After all, canon law says that heads of dioceses should present their resignations when they reach that milestone.
But Bishop Joseph Bonnemain is an exception. After he accepted his appointment as bishop of the Swiss Diocese of Chur in February 2021, Pope Francis asked him to serve for at least five years.
He was invited to make that commitment in view of his age — he was 72 at the time — and what the Vatican called the “demanding dimensions” of his new mission. So, when he turns 75 on July 26, he won’t be wondering about his future.
Bonnemain’s appointment was preceded by polemics — and controversy has followed him ever since.
Typically, the Bishop of Chur is elected by the cathedral chapter from a list of three candidates proposed by the pope. But following the retirement of Bishop Vitus Huonder in 2019, the chapter reportedly rejected all three names. Pope Francis then ended the deadlock by appointing Bonnemain, a former episcopal vicar of the diocese that dates back to back to at least 451 A.D and covers seven of Switzerland’s 26 cantons.
At his installation in March 2021, Bonnemain, a member of Opus Dei, said that “ticking people off won’t achieve anything, neither will prohibitions or regulations,” and insisted that the Church must “become humbler, more modest, more honest, and more transparent.”
He has faced pushback from diocesan priests after he issued a code of conduct that enjoined clergy to avoid “sweeping negative assessments of allegedly unbiblical behavior based on sexual orientation,” and refrain from asking “offensive questions about intimate life and relationship status” or about “previous marriages and divorces.”
More than 40 priests refused to sign the document, arguing that the norms would prevent them from teaching Catholic doctrine on sexuality, providing suitable marriage and ordination preparation, and asking questions appropriate to their role in sacramental confession.
Priests also criticized norms requiring them to “recognize sexual rights as human rights, especially the right to sexual self-determination.”
The bishop also faced a backlash after saying that he would not sanction priests blessing same-sex civil unions, and for his proposal (later withdrawn) that marriage between a man and woman should be given a new name, such as “bio-marriage,” to distinguish it from other kinds of unions.
The Diocese of Chur itself has also reliably produced news. In August 2022, a female parish leader recited prayers beside a priest during the Liturgy of the Eucharist at a Mass, prompting Bonnemain to open a preliminary canonical investigation and sign a joint episcopal letter on Jan. 5 this year calling for liturgical norms to be respected.
But while the bishop — who was ordained to the priesthood in 1978 alongside the future Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez — has attracted attention for his leadership decisions and remarks, he has also drawn notice for a more unusual reason: His physique.
In an interview with a Swiss fitness magazine, Bonnemain explained that he took up strength training after suffering back pain, and then found that he enjoyed it. But since his episcopal ordination, he says he’s lucky if he can fit in one session a week.
Still, Bonnemain did find time for an email interview with The Pillar, conducted in December, discussing his agreement with Pope Francis to stay in his diocese until at least age 77, the controversies he’s faced, and his spirituality of exercise.
How would you define Christianity?
Christianity for me is about a personal, living relationship with Christ. He is not a figure of the past, but the center of the cosmos and history.
That means to this day: Christianity came into being through the following of Christ and is still currently realized through this following.
You are a qualified physician. Are there any similarities between being a priest and doctor?
There are similarities not only between a priest and a doctor, but between priests and every upright work in the family, professional life, and society. Jesus said: I came not to be served, but to serve. He gave his life for the salvation of human beings.
Every human being can do all this as a service like Christ — that is, connected with him in discipleship, in his life — be it in the exercise of one’s profession in the midst of one’s family or in the exercise of one’s responsibility in society.
Each of these contributions is a gift for the emergence of a more humane society. All the baptized thus possess a common priesthood, which is realized in everyday life.
Why did you decide not to have a coat of arms after your appointment as Bishop of Chur?
I respect the tradition that bishops usually have a coat of arms. This tradition has arisen not least from the fact that for centuries bishops also held a temporal position of power.
Since the Second Vatican Council, it has become clearer that the leaders of the Church exercise an exclusively spiritual pastoral ministry. Therefore, I wanted to emphasize with the renunciation of a coat of arms that I understand my activity in the Church as a fraternal activity and that the Christ-Sign of the Cross is sufficient for me. So I tried to stylize a Cross with the horizontal motto combined with a vertical bar.
Some Catholics have criticized your comments about same-sex civil partnerships, while some secular Swiss have objected to your (withdrawn) “bio-marriage” proposal.
Do you think your remarks were misunderstood? If so, what point were you trying to emphasize?
One risks being misunderstood every time one speaks in public. I have always stated, in keeping with the faith of the Catholic Church, that people with same-sex feelings or orientation deserve our full respect. They can be integrated and actively participate in the Church as full members.
Same-sex sexual behavior, on the other hand, cannot be approved. Based on biblical revelation, the sacrament of marriage is the lifelong, indissoluble fidelity of a partnership between a man and a woman, oriented toward mutual welfare and the procreation and education of offspring. Within the framework of this marriage, sexual life, which is a great gift of God, finds its full development as a mutual gift.
I respect, however, the democratic decision in our country to legally recognize same-sex partnerships on the part of the state. However, in my opinion, using the term “marriage for all” [“Ehe für alle” in German] creates confusion. Different realities are named with the same term, which does not serve the understanding.
That is why I initially advocated calling what the Church has always called marriage — and what civil society has called it for centuries — “bio-marriage.” That is, in the sense of original, unchanged, genuine. This would create a conceptual difference from the new, so-called “marriage for all.”
The code of conduct that you introduced in the Diocese of Chur in April 2022 has been criticized by a group of priests in the diocese. How do you respond to the criticism, and what is the purpose of the new code?
The new code has one overriding purpose: it is about effective prevention. This code contains very concrete suggestions and proposals or instructions on how to behave professionally in the field of pastoral care in relation to closeness and distance issues in interpersonal situations.
It is about criteria of safety, for all the faithful as well as for pastors, so that everyone knows how to behave correctly. Even the group of priests who criticized the code say they agree with about 95% of the content. However, I can understand that the wording of some points may cause difficulties in understanding.
I am ready to act according to this code because I am convinced that it is in harmony with the Catholic faith, otherwise I would not have signed it. At the moment [December 2022], several introductory meetings are taking place so that everyone can get to know the content of the code, deepen it, and also raise possible objections. The most important thing is that providers of pastoral care are able to understand its basic meaning and internalize the ways of acting described in the code.
Media reports always describe Chur as a “divided” diocese. Do you agree with that assessment? If so, what do you think is the cure for division?
First of all, the Diocese of Chur consists of seven different Swiss cantons, which are geographically, politically, culturally, and linguistically very varied. This brings with it great diversity, which is a distinct richness, but also many differences.
At the same time, it cannot be denied that there is an internal tension between two orientations regarding the understanding of the Church. This tension is not much different from that which also exists in the worldwide Church and which Pope Francis very often brings up. The Church must not be something museum-like, but dynamic and evolving. But it must also not be an experimental field for arbitrariness.
As I mentioned earlier, Christ is the center and standard [Mitte und Massstab]. The remedy for the tensions present in the Church is that we all find ourselves in Him. I am happy to quote St. Paul here to describe the goal-oriented “strategy”: To become all things to all.
Pope Francis has asked you to serve for at least five years as Bishop of Chur. How do you feel about working beyond the customary retirement age of 75?
As long as I have the strength to do something for the Church’s mission, I am willing to serve as a bishop as long as the pope sees fit.
You have been interviewed by the website Fitness Tribune, and emphasized the importance of fitness. Is there a spiritual element to keeping fit?
I have been asked this question many times. Human beings are known to be a unity of body and spirit. Just as we take care of inner growth, we also take responsibility for our health, for maintaining our physical strength. Also, through the body, we communicate with God and others.