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Jesuits and Dominicans square off anew over Savonarola

NCR Staff

More than 500 years after being burned at the stake as a heretic, Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola -- preacher of fiery apocalyptic sermons, de facto ruler of Florence and today a candidate for sainthood -- can still stir deep passions.

A public tiff in Italy between members of the Dominicans and the Jesuits over the campaign to canonize Savonarola is the latest proof of his enduring power to divide.

Despite having called the church of his day a “harlot” and a “monster of abomination” -- and despite charges of having administered a fundamentalist theocracy in Florence, Italy, analogous to Afghanistan under the Taliban -- Savonarola seems a serious candidate for a halo.

Last year Cardinal Silvano Piovanelli of Florence convened a historical commission in conjunction with the 500th anniversary of Savonarola’s death. Italian media accounts suggest the commission is likely to issue a positive report, which could clear the way for an investigation by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

This past summer L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, paid tribute to Savonarola. The paper called him “a tireless preacher for moral reform of civil society.”

But Savonarola still has influential detractors -- the most visible of whom happen to be Jesuits, the old rivals of the monk’s Dominican order.

An editorial in the 1999 New Year issue of the influential Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica said that “an indiscriminate revisionist spirit” was at work in the effort to rehabilitate the controversial monk.

He was a “contradictory man who inspired opposing passions,” the magazine said. He was capable of “deceit.” It is “probably impossible to give a definitive opinion” about him, the article concluded -- strongly hinting that the requisite certainty of Savonarola’s holiness could not be found.

Jesuits ‘deceived’?

In an interview with an English journalist, Jesuit Fr. Ferdinando Castelli, a writer for La Civiltà Cattolica, was more direct. “He rebelled against ecclesiastical authority,” he said of Savonarola. “We do not believe that he was a religious man worthy of sanctification,” Castelli told London’s Daily Telegraph on Jan. 7.

Meanwhile the Italian newspaper La Stampa quoted a Dominican member of the historical commission in Florence on Jan. 2 as saying that it might be the Jesuits who are “deceived.”

“Savonarola was not a heretic but was burnt for his obstinate fidelity to the gospel,” Fr. Tito Centi said. “He stood against the atrocious agents of Alexander VI, who inflicted every type of persecution on the friar in order to remove him, even unto death.”

“The Jesuits have been anti-Savonarola from the foundations of their order,” Centi said, referring to Ignatius of Loyola’s insistence that Savonarola’s works be burned. Ignatius saw Savonarola as an enemy of the papacy.

The work of the historical commission to date has shown that “the old suspicions of the Jesuits are totally unfounded,” Centi told La Stampa. “These charges repeated over the centuries can be discounted, though they are disagreeable because they come from brothers in the faith.”

Centi’s criticism was echoed by Professor Claudio Leonardi, a Florentine advocate of Savonarola, who also spoke to the Daily Telegraph. “Whoever wrote the [La Civiltà Cattolica] article ... has never read the works of Savonarola and was influenced more by subjective considerations than historic reality,” he said.

Such divided opinions reflect the complexities of Savonarola’s life and legacy. From 1494-1498, Savonarola’s followers controlled Florence after they chased out the successor to Lorenzo (de Medici) the Magnificent. During those four years the city was rocked by running clashes between the pro- and anti-Savonarola factions.

Savonarola captured hearts as a preacher. His powerful apocalyptic visions warned that God would soon scour the world and that Florence, God’s chosen city, had better be ready. Contemporaries speak of the spellbinding power of these sermons; Savonarola’s followers were called piagnoni, or weepers, because he so often moved them to tears.

As evidence of his powerful charisma, Savonarola managed to convince the highly humanistic Florentines to surrender their mirrors, dice, cards, cosmetics and nude paintings and burn them all in the Piazza di Signoria in a towering bonfire of the vanities. He also demanded repression of homosexuals. It is these aspects of his reign that have led to comparisons with the Taliban or to Iran under the ayatollahs.

But Savonarola was also an early democrat, pushing for the creation of a citizen’s council that would form city policy.

He was also a friend to the poor. Under Savonarola, the city created a building society that offered loans at rates well below what was demanded by Florence’s private bankers -- 5 to 7 percent, as opposed to the 32.5 percent that had been standard practice under the de Medicis. One of the charges that led to Savonarola’s downfall was that he impoverished the city by refusing to ever turn away a beggar.

He also patronized the famous painters of his day. Michelangelo would later say that when he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it was the sermons of Savonarola he heard in his mind.

Savanarola was a fierce critic of ecclesiastical corruption, and this is perhaps the most contested aspect of his legacy for those proposing to canonize him. He referred to Alexander VI as a “broken tool,” accusing the pope of practicing simony and of dubious personal morality. He defied the pope by aligning Florence with the French king, Charles, rather than the “Holy Alliance” of Italian city-states championed by Alexander. Toward the end, Savonarola called for a church council that would depose Alexander.

There was never serious question about Savonarola’s doctrine -- his chief theological work, The Triumph of the Cross, is widely viewed as orthodox. In 1558, Pope Paul IV -- who had served in the court of Alexander VI -- said that Savonarola was not a heretic. The question for examiners today is not doctrinal but disciplinary: whether Savonarola defied the authority of the pope in impermissible fashion.

In English the name of Savonarola may be synonymous with religious fanaticism, but many Italians, and Florentines in particular, have a different image.

In an age of corruption, Savonarola represented honest government, making him something of a patron for the current Italian drive to break the grip of cronyism and political patronage that has long dominated their politics.

In a move laden with symbolism, prosecutor Gherardo Colombo took part in a ceremony in Florence on May 23, 1998, marking the anniversary of Savonarola’s death. Colombo is a key figure in Italy’s “clean hands” anti-graft campaign.

Popular with reformers

Savonarola also defended rule by the people against the feudal dynasties and papal politics that for centuries impeded Italian nationalism. As an ecclesial dissenter, Savonarola is popular among today’s Catholics who believe the church could stand some reform.

There are even those who argue that had the Renaissance papacy been a bit more open to Savonarola’s critique, the church might have been spared the agony of the Protestant Reformation.

Whatever the case, Savonarola’s most ardent supporters seem unlikely to be discouraged by anything historical research might uncover. He was a “man of faith who loved Jesus Christ,” according to Dominican Fr. Armando Verde in the International Herald Tribune. Savonarola may have made compromises in the rough-and-tumble of Florentine politics, Verde said, “but on the ethical and spiritual level, absolutely never.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999