TIME Religion

What It Really Means for Pope Francis to Excommunicate the Mob

Italy Pope
Pope Francis celebrates a Mass in Sibari, southern Italy on June 21, 2014. Alessandra Tarantino—AP

Why the Pope took sides against the Family

Pope Francis used the e-word against the mob for the first time this weekend.

The Holy Father was celebrating mass on Saturday in Calabria, a mob-heavy region in southern Italy, 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.

Calabria is home to the ‘Ndrangheta, a global drug trafficking syndicate. Reports suggest that the group turns over $72 billion per year in the cocaine trade and uses that wealth to entice young people in the region—where the unemployment rate is 50% or higher—to work for it. Last week Pope Francis also reaffirmed his position against recreational drug use and the drug trade.

Francis has condemned corporate financial sins throughout his papacy, particularly for their socio-economic consequences. His pronouncement on Saturday yet again shows how seriously he takes those consequences.

“When adoration of the Lord is substituted by adoration of money, the road to sin opens to personal interest…Your land, which so beautiful, knows the signs of the consequences of this sin,” Francis explained. “The ‘ndrangheta is this: adoration of evil and contempt of the common good. This evil must be fought, must be expelled. It must be told no.”

Pope Francis’ pronouncement was the strongest censure of the mafia so far in his papacy, or in any of his predecessors’ papacies. 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.

Excommunication is usually reserved for grave offenses, and some sins incur automatic excommunication. These traditionally include abortion (the woman who has it and all accomplices), apostasy (total repudiation of Christian faith), heresy (obstinate denial of doctrine), schism (refusing to submit to the Pope and church community), violating the sacred species (throwing away/desecrating elements of Eucharist), physically attacking the pope, consecrating a bishop without Vatican’s authorization, sacramentally absolving an accomplice in a sexual sin, and violating the seal of confession.

Francis is building on a theme of his papacy that financial behavior deserves equal scrutiny and attention as often-hyped sexual sins. Often people think of excommunication as a consequence for an individual, but the Pope’s words were a reminder that communities can sin too—and that a group’s financial behavior affect society as a whole, sometimes violently. Love of money and violent or dishonest behavior are right up there with abortion in his mind. It is another reason Francis has also been working to reform the scandal-plagued Vatican bank, the Institute for Religious Works, and that he has condemned the “idolatry of money” and unfettered capitalism as a “new tyranny.”

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.

Will priests start denying members of the mafia the bread and wine? That remains to be seen, and it would likely be a risky decision. Francis appears unabashed. He’s preaching a bigger message: reconciliation and societal change. Even excommunication is not the end of relationship with the church. The same day, Pope Francis reminded a group of prisoners that God always forgives, meaning that reunion is always possible. “The Lord is a master at rehabilitation,” he said. “He takes us by the hand and brings us back into the social community. The Lord always forgives, always accompanies, always understands; it is up to us to let ourselves be understood, forgiven and accompanied.”

Whether the mafia listens to that message is another matter.

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