National Catholic Reporter ®

May 3, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 36

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By way of Naples, a cautionary tale; a counter-example
in Austria’s Groër; Arinze’s take on religious pluralism

The moral of this story? The Vatican watched, waited, and allowed the crisis to pass. Commentators who insisted that the pope “had to do something” are still waiting for an action that seems likely never to come. 

     It could break that way with Law as well.


For all those Americans who are convinced that the Vatican will simply have to remove Cardinal Bernard Law from Boston, especially if he faces a criminal indictment, I offer this week a cautionary tale: Cardinal Michele Giordano of Naples.

     The “Giordano model” suggests that the Vatican is capable of riding out storms of greater intensity than one might imagine.

     Giordano, 71, has been cardinal of Naples since 1987. Italian prosecutors first began investigating him in January 1997, when his brother Mario Lucio Giordano was indicted for running a loan-sharking ring that offered loans at rates of up to 300 percent. Investigators found that most of the cash to finance the scheme had come from the cardinal, an amount equivalent to roughly $800,000. 

     The charges had special resonance since Giordano is the archbishop of Naples, the capital of southern Italy, the poorest region of the country, where unemployment rates reach as high as 40 percent. The thought that pennies from the archdiocese’s poor were being exploited to finance usury was thus particularly galling.

     The case generated church-state tensions when police insisted on examining confidential documents of the Naples archdiocese, in addition to the financial records that Giordano provided. The Vatican also protested that Italian investigators had not informed them that Giordano was a target of investigation, a notice they should have given under the terms of the concordat between the Holy See and Italy.

     At one stage, prosecutors revealed that they had tapped Giordano’s phone, which led the astonished cardinal to complain to the press: “I could have been talking to the pope!”

     The case went to trial, making Giordano the highest-ranking church official ever to stand in the dock facing criminal charges. Judge Vincenzo Starita, who heard the case without a jury, eventually found Giordano innocent of all charges on Dec. 22, 2000. The cardinal never set foot in court, exercising his right as a cleric under Italian law to be absent.

     Giordano’s alibi, and the basis on which he was exonerated, was that the money that went to his brother came out of personal funds he had saved over 50 years as a priest. Giordano acknowledged that he was guilty of poor record keeping in failing to distinguish his own funds from those of the archdiocese. In essence, the argument for the defense boiled down to Giordano being guilty of naiveté, not fraud. 

     Either way, the situation did not cast the cardinal in a favorable light.

     I recall clearly that at every stage of the story — when the investigation was first announced, when the charges were filed, when the trial began, and right up to the day the verdict was announced — rumors abounded that Giordano was going to be sacked by the Vatican. One version had him heading off to a monastery, another that he would be brought to Vatican City and given a job where the Italian civil authorities could not reach him. 

     As is currently the case with Law, local newspapers were full of stories about how Giordano had lost the confidence of his people, of how he could not govern the archdiocese, of how embarrassed and angry the Vatican must be, and how it was only a matter of time until the axe fell.

     Things got so bonkers that when the blood of St. Januarius failed to congeal on Dec. 16, 2000, that too unleashed new speculation that Giordano’s end was near.

     The legend is among the more colorful, or bizarre, bits of church lore in this part of the world. The story goes that on Dec. 16, 1631, the people of Naples prayed to Januarius, their patron saint, to spare them from an eruption of Vesuvius. The saint’s blood, preserved in a jar, supposedly liquified, taken as a sign of a positive response, and in fact Vesuvius did not erupt. Since then the people gather each year on Dec. 16 to see if the blood liquifies. In 2000 the blood stayed dry, and many interpreted it as an augur of misfortune for Giordano.

     Yet, Giordano remains.

     The moral of this story? The Vatican watched, waited, and allowed the crisis to pass. Commentators who insisted that the pope “had to do something” are still waiting for an action that seems likely never to come. 

     It could break that way with Law as well.

     Of course, there are important differences between Law’s situation and Giordano’s. For all the hostile press coverage Giordano drew, Italian culture is still more deferential to clerical authority than the United States, and hence the broad popular pressure on Giordano to step down was less intense. (In fact, many Italians simply assume their public officials are corrupt, so the charges against Giordano in some quarters drew shrugs rather than outrage). Moreover, loansharking, however reprehensible, does not seem as grotesquely irresponsible as shuffling around serial sexual abusers. 

     But every time my cell phone goes off with an American colleague trying to track down the latest rumor about Law’s impending dismissal or transfer to Rome, I tell them the Giordano tale. 

     Don’t be surprised, I say, if a year from now we’re still talking about how the pope “has to do something.”

     A footnote: Magistrates in Naples last July requested that Giordano be brought to trial again, this time in connection with the acquisition of real estate. The cardinal is among several people suspected of tax fraud and false accounting during the purchase of three warehouses on the outskirts of Naples. Magistrates Pio Avecone and Rossella Catena suspect the archdiocese paid an extra $440,000 dollars and believe this sum was withheld from tax authorities. The case is still pending.

* * *

     The obvious counter-example to the “Giordano model” is the case of Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër, appointed as the successor to the beloved Cardinal Franz König of Vienna, Austria, in 1986. 

     Gröer had been a Benedictine abbot, and in 1995 the Austrian press reported that a few men who had been novice monks under Gröer at a seminary near Vienna some twenty years earlier were accusing him of sexual abuse. Gröer maintained silence, saying only that the charges were “defamations.”

     The pope sent the head of the Benedictine federation, at that time American Fr. Marcel Rooney, to investigate the situation. His report was never made public.

     Because Gröer refused to answer the substance of the charges, the Austrian public drew the impression that he was guilty, and pressure mounted until Gröer resigned on Sept. 14, 1995. The outrage did not really abate, however, until two and a half years later, when four leading Austrian bishops announced publicly that, “We have come to the moral certainty that the accusations raised against Gröer, are in essence true.”

     Those bishops were Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Gröer’s successor; Johann Weber of Graz; Archbishop Georg Eder of Salzburg; and Bishop Egon Kapellari, then of Carinthia.

     Many Austrians demanded that the pope take the unprecedented step of defrocking Gröer. He never did so, though Gröer did reportedly agree to stop functioning as a cardinal and to avoid public appearances.

     Gröer and his defenders, however, most notably conservative Bishop Kurt Krenn of Sankt Pölten, have never stopped insisting that the cardinal was the victim of a media campaign, and recently there have been hints of a rehabilitation.

     In June 2001, for example, Austrian President Thomas Klestil gave Krenn an award on the occasion of his 10th anniversary as bishop of Sankt Pölten. Gröer came to the event dressed in full cardinal’s finery, and Krenn paid tribute to Gröer, who he said “prepared me well for the office of the bishop.” Also in attendance was the apostolic nuncio to Austria, Archbishop Donato Squicciarini. 

     More recently, Krenn has stated to the Austrian media that the four bishops who pronounced on Gröer’s guilt were “mistaken” and has asked for an apology. So far none has been forthcoming, but there is every indication Krenn intends to keep up the pressure.

     Hence alongside the “Giordano model” we have the “Gröer model,” which teaches: Even if Law does resign, don’t assume that this will be the end of his story.

* * *

     Much to the astonishment of some of my colleagues in the American press, the normal business of the Vatican continues despite the turmoil in the U.S. church. On April 30, for example, Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Nigerian who runs the Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and who is frequently mentioned as a frontrunner to be the next pope, lectured at the Lateran University on “Catholic Theology and the Reality of Religious Pluralism.”

     The occasion was the 30th anniversary of the Lateran’s specialization in “the science of religions.”

    The Lateran is known as “the pope’s university,” because it is attached to the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the pope’s church as bishop of the diocese of Rome. Traditionally, the Lateran, administered by the Vicariate of Rome, is regarded as the most theologically conservative of the major pontifical universities.

     Certainly Arinze, himself a staunch theological conservative, broke no new ground in his address. He noted that religious pluralism is a growing fact of life, given the ease of modern travel and the growing mobility of persons. On that basis, Arinze said, “the objective and authentic study of other religions is not optional. It is obligatory.”

     He went on to strike all the notes of caution that are typical of the Vatican these days, mostly along the lines of how theologians must never forget that Jesus Christ is the lone savior of humanity, and that Catholicism is not simply one among many vehicles of salvation.

     “If all roads lead to the same mountain,” Arinze cracked at one point, “then the missionaries might as well stay at home.”

     Arinze seemed to suggest that the point of studying other religions was to enable more sophisticated missionary efforts. “If you want to evangelize Thailand, you must know something about Buddhism,” he said. “If you want to evangelize the Arab countries, you must understand Islam.”

     Inevitably, Arinze quoted Dominus Iesus, the September 2000 Vatican document on religious pluralism. He noted that the document actually encourages theologians to continue exploring the theological implications of pluralism. He said that when theologians complain to him about the seemingly negative stance of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which issued the document, his response is, “I’m on that congregation. Be calm, be calm.”

     Whatever one makes of his speech, Arinze is still a striking figure. His large grin and gentle good humor have a way of winning people over. He also has a politician’s instincts. When his host presented him with a couple of books as a gift, Arinze immediately hoisted them aloft so a photographer could get the shot. After his talk, I watched him work the room. A couple of members of the Focolare movement came up to him, for example, and he smiled, shook hands, and quipped: “You Focolarini always know where the action is!”

     I still believe Arinze is a longshot as a papal candidate. But watching him April 30, I find myself thinking that at least from the point of view of filling the public stage, the church could do worse.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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