Pope Francis has declared a sort of holy war on the Mafia. And it's not unreasonable to believe that the Mafia may fight back.
On Saturday, the pope traveled to Calabria, the heartland of one of Italy's biggest organized crime enterprises, the 'Ndrangheta, and, in front of a crowd of more than 100,000, blasted the 'Ndrangheta as example of "the adoration of evil and contempt of the common good." Then he dropped the hammer:
Those who in their lives follow this path of evil, as mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated. [Pope Francis]
This is a big deal. Southern Italy's mobsters are a pietistic bunch — an overwhelming majority are active Catholics, and religious celebration is an important part of their public image and local legitimacy.
"During the making of a recent documentary for Italian television, I visited many of the fortified bunkers that 'Ndrangheta bosses have built in case they need to go to ground," Mafia researcher John Dickie told CNN last November. "Not one was without its crucifixes, its statuettes of saints, its paintings of the Virgin Mary.... Religion offers the Mafias a way to bind their organizations together, and gives them the feeling that they are extorting and killing in the name of a cause more noble than their own greed."
When Dickie was writing that, a prominent anti-Mafia prosecutor, Nicola Gratteri, had just told an Italian newspaper that the 'Ndrangheta was "getting very nervous" about the pope's push for financial transparency at the Vatican Bank, and "will seriously consider" taking him out. That was for potentially damaging changes to Mafia money laundering operations — it was business. Excommunication — barring the mobsters from membership and participation in the church — is personal.
Now, Pope Francis wasn't formally excommunicating all mafiosi, Vatican spokesman Rev. Ciro Benedettini clarified — that's a legal process. In some ways, Francis' cut was deeper. In these unscripted comments, the pope suggested to mobsters that they should refrain from taking part in the sacraments, and also attempted to "isolate mafiosi within their own communities," Benedettini said, signaling that as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, these aren't "uomini d'onore," or "men of honor."
Pope Francis isn't the first pontiff to warn the Mafia of eternal punishment — in 1993, Pope John Paul II traveled to Sicily with a message for the Sicilian Mafiosi: You will "one day face the justice of God." La Cosa Nostra didn't try to kill John Paul II — though Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Ağca did try in 1981 — but it did apparently respond to his admonition by bombing several Roman churches a few months later, including the Basilica of St. John Lateran — the pope's home church, in his role as Bishop of Rome.
That reaction to Pope John Paul's relatively mild rebuke lends some credence to fears of a Mafia hit after Pope Francis' frank condemnation. And the Mafia isn't above killing prominent figures or men of the cloth, either — in 1993, Cosa Nostra hit men murdered Rev. Pino Puglisi outside his Palermo church, apparently for urging local residents to break their silence on mob activity. In 1994, Rev. Giuseppe Diana was gunned down after testifying about the Naples-based Camorra mob, and threatening to refuse communion for mafiosi. In 1992, the Mafia killed crusading organized crime prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.
Of course, it's relatively unlikely that the 'Ndrangheta, Cosa Nostra, Camorra, or other factions that make up the Italian Mafia — Apulia's brach is called Sacra Corona Unita, or United Sacred Crown — would try to kill the pope for generally excommunicating them. Parish priests in small-town Calabria and Sicily will probably still serve the Eucharist to mobsters, and professional killers can't really think they're in good standing with their God.
Besides, the Mafia depends on the cooperation and goodwill of the communities that support it. And like the mafiosi themselves, those communities in Southern Italy tend to be overwhelmingly Catholic and take their religion seriously. If it became known that the Mafia had ordered the murder of a pope, especially a popular one, all hell could break loose.
If the Mafia were to take the grave step of taking a hit out on the pope, it would probably be because of money or another existential threat to the criminal enterprise, not the wounded egos or piety or mobsters. Pope Francis' efforts to reform the Vatican Bank, or Institute for Religious Works, are reportedly a threat to the Mafia — and anyone else who might have abused the bank's discretion or opacity to hide money.
In November, John Dickie downplayed the idea of a Mafia hit:
The Mafias rarely kill without first carrying out a cost-benefit analysis. Even a rudimentary projection of the likely consequences of a hit on the head of the Catholic Church would show it to be a catastrophic own goal. A much more probable scenario is that the Church will carry on reforming its finances, but at its habitual leaden-footed pace. Meanwhile, the dirty money will be spirited away. [CNN]
But the murder of a modern-day pope over money wouldn't be unprecedented... at least in fiction.
Francis Ford Coppola's third and final installment of the Godfather trilogy is the least-loved, and least remembered, but a key plot development involves a struggle for a massive European real estate company that ends with the murder of a barely veiled Pope John Paul I — who really did die just 33 days into his pontificate, of what was determined to be natural causes. The fictionalized pope was poisoned by a fellow prelate, for crossing a Mafia boss trying to defraud Michael Corleone out of $600 million and control of the company.
Did that happen in real life? No. Could it happen? Well, since we are talking about the church, here is the apostle Paul writing to his acolyte Timothy (1 Timothy 6:10): "For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows."