Pope Francis’ recent remarks in which he said mobsters are excommunicated were widely welcomed, but they’ve left some Catholics wishing for an equally robust condemnation of other groups that prey just as violently on the innocent and vulnerable.
In a homily in the Calabrian town of Sibari on June 19, the Pope said the ‘ndrangheta (Calabrian mafia) adore evil and money, have turned from Christ, and have “contempt for the common good.” He said those who take this “road of evil, such as the mobsters, [are] not in communion with God. They are excommunicated.”
Francis chose to make the one-day visit to the southern Italian town after a series of recent mafia killings whose victims included a 3-year-old toddler and a 69-year-old priest. The Pope said he wanted to speak out because “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.”
Italians were largely grateful for his words and his clear demonstration of compassion. And given the history of the church, in which unequivocal opposition to the mafia hasn’t always been so clear, the Pope’s comments were seen as timely, courageous, and overdue (although Francis has already strongly condemned the mafia on at least two previous occasions, in May 2013 and March this year).
But some Catholic question why the Pope appears to hold back the same condemnation for those Catholics who condone or practice a worse crime, such as the mass killing of unborn children. Catholics involved in similarly grave sins such as abortion, especially Catholics in public life, are causing just as much scandal, they argue.
The church teaches that any Catholic directly involved in procuring an abortion is excommunicated. The teaching is less clear whether Catholic politicians who promote abortion face the same penalty, although Benedict XVI stated they risk excommunication by taking such a position.
Notwithstanding this lack of clarity, such offenders are not called out so readily, and even have opportunities to be seen in public with the Pope.
“Why is it routine for politicians, many of them Catholic, who support the slicing up of fetuses to get their photo ops?” Roger McCaffrey, the former publisher of “Latin Mass” magazine, told me. “And if the reply is that ‘the Pope is a head of state,’ then what do we make of head-of-state Pius XII’s failure to meet with Hitler or Mussolini?”
McCaffrey said he hears some Catholics respond by saying, “Well, Christ sat down with Pharisees and prostitutes.”
Others believe that the Pope’s seeming reluctance to similarly single out these Catholics is primarily because organized crime is clearly seen as sinful and scandalous by the world at large.
One prominent Catholic source in Rome, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “The reality is the existence and practice of the mafia scandalizes the secular world, and when today’s church sees the secular world scandalized, she reacts.” By contrast, he added, when a Catholic scandalizes God, the hierarchy tend to speak only of mercy.
A case in point was when Pope Francis last year strongly condemned a Vatican official taken to court because of financial crime, even though his case had yet to be heard in court. But in response to a papal aide accused of sexual sins at about the same time, he implied that, because it was not a secular crime (such as financial misconduct or the sexual abuse of minors), the aide’s sins were therefore less grave.
“The problem with the contemporary church is that it sets up an artificial division between mercy and truth,” the Rome source said, alluding to the tendency of the Pope to respond with words of mercy with regards to most sins, but words of truth when it comes to scandals in the eyes of the world. “It’s as though somehow they’re opposed to one another, as though there’s a natural antagonism between mercy and truth.”
But he said that cannot be the case, because Christ is mercy and truth incarnate. It is therefore an act of mercy and charity to tell someone, or a group of people in this case, that their actions, in truth, have placed them — or risk placing them — outside of communion with the church.
The Pope is no doubt already aware of this, and conscious that the church never rejoices that a Catholic has been excommunicated — a punishment whose primary purpose is to help the offender recognize his sinful ways and repent — he prefers to remain silent and pray for the person in question.
But perhaps to be consistent, next time a pro-abortion Catholic politician asks him for a photograph, he will be as charitable to him as he is with the Mafia, reminding him publicly of the true consequences of his actions and the perils facing his soul.
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