ROME – If there were fantasy leagues for Catholic bishops around the world, in which you could gain or lose points depending on how your chosen roster of prelates performs in a given week, right now I’d be looking to draft 74-year-old Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi of Trieste in northeastern Italy.
In sports fantasy leagues, you not only look for good players but also game situations likely to highlight their skills set. You may be interested in a strong running back, but if the next game is one in which his team is likely to rely mostly on the pass, then you’ll hold off.
By that logic, now may be just the right moment for Crepaldi to shine.
As my friend and colleague Jason Horowitz of the New York Times recently reported, Trieste has become the epicenter of Italy’s raucous “no pass” movement, meaning opposition to the Italian government’s mandate that a pass certifying vaccination for Covid is now a requirement for employment and virtually every other form of public life. A port city, Trieste’s dock workers object that the mandate impedes their right to work, which is a fundamental guarantee of the Italian constitution.
The large “no pass” protests mounted by workers in Trieste have attracted others to the city, including anti-establishment groups and vaccine skeptics of every hue.
Now Trieste is also an epicenter of a new wave of Covid infections, recently recording an average of 336 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants, as opposed to the national average of 53 cases per 100,000. Trieste’s infection rate has tripled in recent days, bucking the broader Italian trend of successfully resisting the new outbreaks across much of Europe.
The no-passers were at it again Saturday, with more than 8,000 thronging through the streets of the city surrounded by a phalanx of some 400 police officers and security personnel. Even before the protest began, organizers announced they had no intention of complying with a request from Mayor Roberto Dipiazza that they deploy volunteers to check that everyone taking part was wearing a mask and observing social distancing guidelines.
Many observers have connected the dots between these two facts – widespread anti-green pass protests and a spike in infection rates – to suggest that the demonstrators are responsible for spreading the disease. It’s a charge that leaders of the movement testily reject.
“To assign a blame to our protests that isn’t given to other civic events seems the latest ‘health’ excuse for the repression of dissent,” organizers said in a statement.
Italy being Italy, in the midst of all this people naturally turn to the local bishop for leadership. Even though a solid majority of Italians go to church only rarely or never, especially in the more secularized north, they still can’t help expecting the church to come through when the chips are down – perhaps because, as much as they may no longer quite trust the Catholic Church, it’s still seen as far more reliable than the government.
That’s where Crepaldi enters the picture.
Born in a small town in Italy’s Veneto region in 1947, Crepaldi earned doctorates in both theology and canon law at Rome’s Lateran University before going on to run the office for social problems and labor in the Italian bishops’ conference.
In 1994, Crepaldi was named undersecretary of the then-Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace, where he worked under the secretary at the time, Irish Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. When Pope John Paul II named Martin the Vatican’s Permanent Observer to the UN in Geneva in 2001, Crepaldi took over his job and held it until being named to Trieste by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
Those who knew Crepaldi from his Rome years remember him as friendly, astute, and fairly diplomatic, i.e., cautious. In broad strokes, he was also seen as more conservative than his predecessor, Martin.
Crepaldi was, and remains, devoted to the memory of the late Vietnamese Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Thuận, who headed the Council for Justice and Peace from 1988 to his death in 2002, and founded an international observatory for the social doctrine of the Church in Văn Thuận’s honor.
Both Crepaldi’s caution and his basic conservatism have been clear also in Trieste.
He rarely makes waves or headlines, though he did raise eyebrows in 2019 when he declared in an interview that the church’s social doctrine does not recognize any “right” to migrate but rather a right to “not migrate,” i.e., to enjoy the social and economic conditions necessary for a dignified life in one’s own country. He also struck a fairly hawkish note on Islam, arguing that there are elements within Islam incompatible with integration into democratic societies and that it’s an “illusion” to think Islamic doctrine on those points will “evolve.”
All this explains why Crepaldi may be just the right guy to confront the gathering storm in Trieste: He’s conservative enough to have street cred with the no-passers, but cautious and institutional enough to see holding things together as his top priority.
He’s acknowledged that he can’t help but be sucked into what he’s called the “vortex of polemics,” recently joking at a book presentation that “there are those who want the bishop to issue rules requiring a green pass even to get communion, and those who want the bishop to go down to the piazza and demonstrate with the no-passers.”
His responses so far seem to indicate an effort at a balancing act.
Crepaldi has criticized police crackdowns; after tear gas and water canons were employed to disperse protestors in mid-October, Crepaldi insisted the way forward isn’t “displays of force but dialogue.”
Recently, however, Crepaldi has also tried to cajole the insurgents into taking the Covid threat more seriously. In a homily this past Wednesday for the feast of St. Justus, the patron of Trieste, he was fairly sharp.
“The Church’s journey isn’t a walk in the park, it’s something challenging within human history,” he said. “We’re experiencing that now, especially with the pandemic and all the agonizing questions it raises.”
“The situation has to be faced with realism and wisdom, including here, where the virus has started to spread again,” Crepaldi said. “That can’t be done with demonstrations that end up dividing our civil life, but rather with renewed trust and the will to overcome an unprecedented and complicated test together.”
Not only was that a fairly explicit disavowal of the sort of public demonstrations Trieste has seen, but the word “trust” also seemed an implicit rejection of vaccine skepticism and the conspiracy theories that sometimes circulate in those circles.
To sum up, Covid is the most pressing global crisis of the moment, Trieste is a laboratory for how the tensions will play out, the Catholic Church inevitably will be a protagonist, and the local bishop has the profile of someone who could make a difference.
In other words, sounds like Crepaldi’s big game to me … we’ll see whether he leaves it all on the field.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr