Last Saturday, Pope Francis cracked down on the Italian Mafia, urging, “Those who in their life have gone along the evil ways, as in the case of the mafia, they are not with God, they are excommunicated.” The pope did not bandy words when he denounced the mafiosi in a recent homily he preached in Calabria, which is a hotspot for crime in southern Italy. The local Calabrian mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta, were one of the main targets in Francis’ dire warnings. He accused them of “the adoration of evil and contempt for the common good.” In March, Pope Francis even warned, “[H]ell … awaits you if you continue on this road… You had a papa and a mamma. Think of them, weep a little and convert.”
Of course, this is a continuation of the pastoral example set by Pope John Paul II, who condemned the Sicilian mafia in 1993, which led to fearsome threats against clergy. One wonders about the future response from the ‘Ndrangheta. This is a call to repentance by the Pontiff. As my friend Chad Pecknold told Vox, the vocabulary of excommunication is “just something he said in a homily — which is not a vehicle for disciplinary pronouncements.” Moreover, excommunication is “only for individuals,” not entire organizations. Indeed, one is “self-excommunicated” by living in unrepentant, un-confessed sin. One grievous example includes the case of Nicola Campolongo, who was the victim of an alleged mafia hit in January. The three-year-old boy and his grandfather were both found shot and burned in a car.
The Bishop of Rome shows no signs of letting up in this conflict. “This evil must be fought against, it must be pushed aside. We must say no to it,” Francis declared, “Our children are asking for it, our young people are asking for it. They are in need of hope and faith can help respond to this need.” This latter point is incredibly important since unemployment is high in southern Italy, which translates into many youth without job prospects. This heightens their willingness to seek after organized crime for their livelihood. Sadly, Calabrian government officials tend to be corrupt or ineffective in combating an organization whose fronts, syndication, drug trafficking, extortion, and predatory loans supposedly make up at least 3% of Italy’s GDP. Tristyn Bloom over at the Daily Caller observed that the mafia have so infected all parts of the community (including the clergy) that “the that local bishops now require seminarians to study organized crime in a course called ‘The Church and the ‘Ndrangheta.’”
All of this is quite ironic since the mafia likes to portray itself as very religious and family-centered. Because of their strong identity with Roman Catholicism, the criminal leaders of the ‘Ndrangheta and others expects some winks and nudges from the Church. A blog post from The New Yorker shed light on something most insightful: “[T]he Mafia, and not only the Mafia, has appropriated the Catholic culture of forgiveness as a kind of license for anything.” It is not uncommon to find a mechanistic and transactional view of grace in the pews, in which nominalRoman Catholics think they can live a life of vice while enacting certain rituals to be made innocent once again. This is a gross distortion of “penance over purity” that can lead to schizophrenic morality in the mafia and others.
In addition, the mafiosi fall into another trap that is common in European circles. One’s religious identity can become a nude socio-political statement. Indeed, faith can even become an issue of natural birth rather than conviction or practice. One is reminded of the joke in which an Irish fellow walks into a bar during “The Troubles.” “We don’t serve Protestants here,” the bartender warned the fellow, “So are you a Catholic or a Protestant?” The fellow replied, “I’m actually an atheist.” The bartender retorted, “Well, are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?” Such an anemic understanding of the Christian life can become a real problem when criminal organizations get involved.
Pope Francis’ condemnation of the ‘Ndgrangheta exhibits his rejection of dangerous moral inconsistency. Perhaps this is another example of “evangelical Catholicism,” which seeks a more consistent witness from its members. One may say that Francis is working to help his flock realize that there is a subjective as well as objective side to the Christian life that cannot be ignored. Either way, one prays for safety and success as the Vatican undertakes this risky campaign against an entrenched nemesis.