Social Justice Clericalism?

The headline of a recent news article caught my eye: “N.H. lunch lady fired for feeding student who couldn’t pay; vendor accused her of $8 theft.” Mascoma Valley Regional High School lunch clerk Bonnie Kimball thought she was doing what she was told to do by the company (Café Services) – an ethical act, feeding a high-schooler who might be in difficult circumstances and unable to pay for food.

I couldn’t help thinking of a similar case, which involved a cleric, a prince of the Church, in fact – Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the Apostolic Almoner of the Office of Papal Charities. The cardinal has been making headlines in Italy for breaking the law “out of charity,” turning on power to about 400 inhabitants of a grossly over-occupied building in Rome’s center.

The cleric called the situation “desperate” and said he will take “full responsibility,” even paying the bill of around $337,000 to the electric company. There is more to the history of this building, however, than providing emergency housing for the marginalized.

According to the Rome-based newspaper Il Messagero, besides the inhabitants – both Italians and immigrants – the building houses a night club (Spin Time Labs) with a capacity of 1000 people, but no emergency exits or fire-alarm; a restaurant; a brewery school; a cinema; and rooms where tango classes are held. There’s also a tavern that offers lower prices than the average Italian restaurants in the area.

According to Il Messageroin 2018, there were over 125 public events in the building, to the chagrin of the nearby residents who were disturbed by the loud music.

The cardinal had been keeping abreast of the power shutdown via a Sister Adriana, who has lived and worked in the building for six years. Sister’s reports about the escalating situation (the building was without power for almost a week) led the cardinal to take the situation into his own hands by breaking the law and literally breaking the seals of the meters the power company had installed.

The cardinal characterized the move as an act of compassion and mercy, putting these before the rule of law. But there seems to be no little grandstanding – and considerable peril – in this gesture, no matter how well intended.

The cardinal is a citizen of a foreign country, the Vatican City State, so he cannot be prosecuted under Italian law. Was the cleric using his special clerical status, which comes with immunity, to break the Italian law? Couldn’t the problem have been resolved differently, avoiding the offense to the legal system, to say nothing of highly politicized headlines and media attention?

The pope’s almoner could simply have paid the bill before the power company shut the electricity down and sealed the meters, given that he was being kept informed about the situation.

It is interesting to observe what Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin had to say about Krajewski’s act, commenting that it was intended to “attract attention on [sic] a real problem.” Yes, but acts of charity and compassion are usually done in silence. As Jesus taught us about almsgiving, “when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” (Matthew 6:3-4)

Cardinal Krajewski with the pope

Any person other than someone with status like that of Cardinal Krajewski’s would have met with severe consequences for breaking the law and breaking the sealed meters, which are private property. The company is expected to bring charges to the police and carabinieri.

With good reason. The Catechism of the Catholic Church [2408] calls for respect for the goods of others, specifying: “The seventh commandment forbids theft, that is, usurping another’s property against the reasonable will of the owner.” The Catechism allows for narrow exceptions “in obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing . . .) is to put at one’s disposal and use the property of others.”

But that was hardly the case here. And commentators in Rome have pointed out that breaking the law unnecessarily – and then making a public parade of the act – invites others to do the same, and threatens the breakdown of the good order necessary for any society to conduct its essential business.

The fact is that the cardinal did not suffer any penalty and was praised for “heroism,” when he was in no danger of losing his job or facing other consequences. Indeed, he became an instant celebrity in certain European quarters.

Other than promising to pay the power company bill (actually not paying it personally but using Church funds to do so) the cardinal did not offer a public apology for breaking the law. In light of recent discussions going on within the Vatican over the abuse crisis, we might ask: is this clericalism?

Do claims of pursuing social justice give clergy special or superior status? We have laws precisely so that people cannot do whatever they want by simply proclaiming, on their own authority, that what they are doing is right.

Is Cardinal Krajewski above the law while a lunchroom clerk, a law-abiding citizen, suffers severe consequences for far milder actions?

The Church has a divine mission and calls people to live with compassion and responsibility as they journey on their way to the Divine City. Both Catholic clergy and laity have a duty not only to live lives of integrity and compassion, but to abide by the law of the land except in the most extreme cases when law perpetrates injustice.

As the early Christians did, modern Christians should “obey the established laws. . .so noble is the position to which God has assigned them that they are not allowed to desert it.” (CCC 2240)

In sum, if we would like to understand how clericalism unfolds, remember the case of the clerk and the cleric: one is fired the other is enjoying headlines and celebrity status.

Ines Angeli Murzaku is Professor of Church History at Seton Hall University. Her extensive research on the history of Christianity, Catholicism, Religious Orders, and Ecumenism has been published in multiple scholarly articles and five books. She edited and translated with Raymond L. Capra and Douglas J. Milewski, The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano, part of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Dr. Murzaku has been featured frequently in national and international media, newspapers, radio and TV interviews, and blogs. Her latest book is Mother Teresa: Saint of the Peripheries.