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Pope Francis excommunicating Italian gangsters may have been misinterpreted

On Saturday, June 21, Pope Francis gave an homily for a young boy who was killed by gangsters and said that everyone in the Italian mafia is excommunicated, but now some experts are saying that he didn't really excommunicate them.
On Saturday, June 21, Pope Francis gave an homily for a young boy who was killed by gangsters and said that everyone in the Italian mafia is excommunicated, but now some experts are saying that he didn't really excommunicate them.
Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images

On Monday, June 23, Brandon Ambrosino of Vox published an article suggesting that recent reports that Pope Francis excommunicated all members of the Italian mafia during an homily he gave on Saturday, June 21 may have given people the wrong idea. The Pope recently traveled to Calabria, a region in southern Italy that is the base for a notorious criminal organization called the 'Ndrangheta. While he was there, he spoke about a three-year-old boy named Nicola Campolongo who was killed by gangsters along with his grandfather and an unnamed woman from Morocco in January of 2013. All three victims were shot in their heads and set on fire. Pope Francis said he hoped there would "never again" be violence committed against children and then went on to make a statement that may have been misinterpreted by some people in the media.

Elizabeth Dias of Time offered her thoughts on the Pope's statements about Campolongo's death on Monday, June 23. Her analysis seems to indicate that she understood him to mean he literally excommunicated all of Italy's gangsters with one simple proclamation.

According to Dias, "The Holy Father was celebrating mass on Saturday... when he deviated from his prepared remarks and announced that the mafia are excommunicated. 'Those who go down the evil path, as the Mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated,' he said. The thousands who had gathered underneath the hot sun cheered."

Dias then went on to explain what excommunication means for members of the Catholic church. Essentially, it means that practicing members can no longer participate in one of the most important Christian rituals as a consequence of committing acts such as having an abortion, refusing to submit to the Pope's authority or consecrating a bishop without the Vatican's permission.

According to Dias, "Excommunication does not mean that a person is banned from the church, but it is a public recognition by church authorities that a person is no longer part of the Catholic community. Technically excommunication means the excommunicated party has chosen to separate him or herself from the church through their own un-Catholic choices. The Pope doesn’t excommunicate, but people excommunicate themselves by their behavior. Excommunication also does not mean a person is denied from heaven and the afterlife (that’s 'anathema')—one’s baptism is still effectual, meaning it still carries its sacramental worth.

"... Life together, Pope Francis is reminding the world, is at the core of the Catholic message. That’s why excommunication means something. When someone is excommunicated, they are ex-communion, out of communion, and they cannot participate in the sacrament of Eucharist, a public action by a group of people setting themselves apart for the Christian life."

Ambrosino might argue that Dias did not correctly interpret what the Pope said. He argues that the pontiff's condemnation of the 'Ndrangheta was not an official disciplinary act against them.

According to Ambrosino, "Francis' critique of the mafia should not be seen as an official excommunication, according to Chad Pecknold, an assistant professor of theology at Catholic University of America. ...As Pecknold explained it to me, the Pope's comment was 'just something he said in a homily — which is not a vehicle for disciplinary pronouncements.' Further, excommunication is 'only for individuals,' and not entire organizations. Rather, said Pecknold, what Francis was doing was simply describing the 'self-excommunication' the 'Ndrangheta is already experiencing because of their 'serious sin.'

"Chris Haw, author of Jesus for President, and PhD student in theology at Notre Dame, told me to think of excommunication like a flashlight: 'It just illuminates what's already the case.' In other words, rather than officially shutting out mafiosi from the Church, Francis was describing their own self-alienation from 'the common good.'

"So Francis did not officially kick the mafia out of the church. What he did was describe what he imagined to be the spiritual state of those who engage in the kind of behavior that results in the death of children and the exploitation of the poor. Those people, said Francis, are 'not with God.'"

Dias would probably agree with Ambrosino's perspective. In her article, she wrote that she thinks Pope Francis views "love of money and violent or dishonest behavior" as being just as bad as other acts that have been traditionally punished by excommunication. This point of view makes sense, because it is consistent both with the Bible (all sins are equally bad in the eyes of God) and the Pope's positions on topics such as capitalism and the importance of taking care of poor people and children.

However, the two writers seem to differ on their understanding of Catholic theology. If Dias is right, the Pope literally excommunicated anyone associated with organized crime in Italy on Saturday. He may need to go through the proper procedures to make it official, but otherwise it's a done deal. If Ambrosino is right, the Pope just spoke out against injustice as many priests and ministers have for thousands of years. It will be interesting to see which one of them is right in the days ahead as the people of Italy and the world at large respond to what the Pope said.