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No, Pope Francis did not officially excommunicate the mafia

Pope Francis gives his general audience at St Peter's square on June 18, 2014 at the Vatican.
Pope Francis gives his general audience at St Peter's square on June 18, 2014 at the Vatican.

By now, the news is everywhere: the Pope has declared the mafia excommunicated from the Catholic Church: "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," he said on Saturday in the Italian city of Calabria. But did Francis really excommunicate the entire mafia from the Catholic Church?

Here are some things to consider.

Francis made the remarks during an outdoor mass in Calabria, the power base of the notorious mafia crime syndicate known as the 'Ndrangheta. Francis was in the area to meet with the family of a three-year-old boy who was gunned down last year by the mafia. Nicola "Coco" Campolongo, along with his grandfather and another adult, were shot in their heads. The car they were in was then doused in gasoline and set on fire.

Though his comments were harsh, they really shouldn't come as a shock. One of the defining themes of Francis' papacy has been his consistent call for economic justice, which, on many occasions, has manifested itself in his indictment of economic exploitation — something the mafia is known for. As Eric J. Lyman reported for USA Today, the 'Ndrangheta, with a reach extending stretching as far as Germany and Austria, amasses a revenue of around $75 billion — about 3.5 percent of Italy's gross domestic product. According to CNN, much of this profit comes from the global cocaine trade. The 'Ndrangheta, which number around 6,000 members, specialize in drug trafficking, murder, bombings, counterfeiting, gambling, frauds, thefts, labor racketeering, and loansharking, according to an FBI profile. It makes sense, then, that such a corrupt organization would receive condemnation from the Pontiff of the poor.

But 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. In Roman Catholicism, an official excommunication is a strict censure that deprives the excommunicated of fellowship with the rest of the Church body. When a Church member is excommunicated, she is not allowed to take communion. Excommunication, though severe, is not irreversible. According to Canon Law, the censure is "medicinal," meaning it's given to a Catholic in the hopes of urging him to repentance.

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."

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed some quotes by Chad Pecknold to Chris Haw. We regret the error.