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Pope Francis: Some “Catholics” are not really Catholics

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 24, 2014

Considering the subject of my last In Depth Analysis (Speaking clearly about dangerously imperfect communion with the Church), Pope Francis’ statement last Thursday that mobsters are excommunicated calls for additional comment. What did the Pope say, and how is it to be understood?

The key sentence in his homily in Calabria on June 19th is this: “Those who in their lives have taken this evil road, this road of evil, such as the mobsters, they are not in communion with God, they are excommunicated.” Our first question, then, must be about the meaning of “this evil road, this road of evil”. The antecedent to which “this evil road” refers is found earlier in the same paragraph:

When adoration of the Lord is substituted by adoration of money, the road to sin opens to personal interest.... When one does not adore the Lord, one becomes an adorer of evil, like those who live by dishonesty and violence…. The ‘ndrangheta (Calabrian mafia) is this: adoration of evil and contempt of the common good.

What are we to make of this?

The first thing to notice is that the Pope is here giving a homily to a specific audience. He is not articulating a point of Catholic teaching to the whole Church. The Magisterium is not engaged. We cannot, therefore, leap to the conclusion that Pope Francis is teaching that all who devote themselves to evil are formally excommunicated latae sententiae (that is, as an automatic result of their violation of a particular Church law).

Still less is the Pope pronouncing a sentence of excommunication (ferendae sententiae, that is, by a specifically passed sentence). For Francis describes the condition of these sinners not as an external judgment but as simply being “not in communion with God”. It is perfectly legitimate to assume that by “not in communion with God”, Francis means both not in communion with Christ and not in communion with the Church, for St. Paul’s letters reveal these to be exactly the same thing. But again the Pope appears to be talking about a condition, not a specific sentence, of excommunication.

Imperfect and Severed Communion

In my earlier essay, I wrote:

By a formal repudiation of something essential to the Church’s constitution, communion is wholly severed; membership is lost. Even without a formal repudiation, in any sort of persistent rejection of essential ecclesial authority…communion is at least impaired. It is fractured if not decisively broken; at best, it is rendered incomplete…. With respect to fractured or imperfect or impaired communion, this fracturing may be recognized as a complete break by excommunication. When that happens, the situation is clarified and all doubt is removed.

In this homily, Pope Francis is talking about those who are guilty of “adoration of evil and the contempt of common good”. Obviously, adoration of evil alone covers everything, but Francis presumably specifies contempt for the common good to make the human impact clear. From the congregation’s perspective, I suppose, it is one thing for someone to adore evil in the abstract; it is quite another for him to act in evil ways that harm us.

More to the point here, it is obvious that the adoration of evil is an absolutized description of a spiritual state that must inescapably not only fracture but decisively break our communion with Christ and the Church. The Pope does not fear to describe this as the habitual mindset of the Calabrian mafia, though he is also referring to all those who adore evil, which he sees as rooted in the “adoration of money” (cf., 1 Tim 6:10) and, even more fundamentally, in the failure to “adore the Lord”. There is scope for a lifetime of meditation here.

But is Francis therefore arguing that all those who fail to adore God are decisively out of communion with Him? I suspect the answer is yes if we are referring to those who consciously refuse to adore God, thus seriously embracing some evil as a substitute (pride, power, wealth, pleasure, etc.). And certainly there is a broader sense in which people can be very distant from God (though He is obviously never far from us) through their ambivalence toward and neglect of the Good, of which God is the sole source.

Principles and Signs of Separation

In any case, the Pope insists, in this Calabrian homily, that certain commitments are sufficient to create a real break between the soul and God, and therefore a break between the person and the Church. He specifies the decision to be a “mobster” as one of them. This raises a delicate question. Is every mobster living in mortal sin? Well, not necessarily: Mortal sin requires that we both understand the gravity of an evil and consent to it fully. Obviously there could be many mitigating circumstances, from a failure to recognize the evil to a lack of freedom in the position in which one finds oneself.

Yet the Church could make formal excommunication automatic for all mobsters latae sententiae, as she has for all who participate in abortions, or she could excommunicate all mobsters as a class ferendae sententiae. This would be a huge wake-up call even for those (if any) who are not guilty of mortal sin. It would force people to clarify their commitments, to recognize God’s will more clearly, to face reality and make a decisive choice.

However, that is not what Pope Francis was doing in this homily. What he was doing was stating that there are some commitments, choices and actions which either fracture or completely break our communion with Christ, even without a formal sentence of excommunication. He was demonstrating by example that it is not wrong to speak clearly about those who, despite their continued use of the Catholic name, have rebelled against God and ceased to be members of His Church.

See my continuing discussion of Francis’ ecclesiology in: More on Communion with the Church from Pope Francis.

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Jun. 25, 2014 9:36 AM ET USA

    I think Pope Francis tries to teach about such things through the example of people whom almost everyone considers bad actors. Some people sympathize with abortionists, but nobody really has any sympathy for the Mafia. He establishes the principle of broken communion by talking about the case of the mafia. Once people understand and peaceably accept the principle that Communion with God and the Church can be broken, then its application can be understood in other more contested situations.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jun. 24, 2014 10:57 PM ET USA

    Tough language. The baptized enjoy rights, and even the most egregious sinners have rights to the sacraments if they first seek that of Reconciliation so that they might participate in the sacraments of the living. It's notable that toward the unbaptized who oppose the rights of the Church the language remains much more merciful. Crime is deplorable, but even more so are the spiritual crimes of those pastors and educators charged to love souls but lead them astray. A great area for tough talk.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jun. 24, 2014 6:01 PM ET USA

    Defender: This could certainly apply to politicians who knowingly vote to kill babies. As I wrote in my larger essay, it seems clear that Nancy Pelosi has broken her communion with the Church or, as Pope Francis termed it, she is "excommunicated". But note that this is not by decree. Francis did not "do" anything to mobsters in his homily. He simply recognized their spiritual condition. The point of my essays on this is that we must realize it applies in other situations as well.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jun. 24, 2014 5:57 PM ET USA

    loumiamo7154: It would be ridiculous to characterize Protestants as a group as deeply committed to evil, and they are certainly not claiming to be in communion with the Catholic Church. What is interesting about Protestants is that they are by their baptism, in fact, incorporated into the Body of Christ, a status they retain if they do not knowingly reject it. As has often been said, if you're baptized validly, you're baptized Catholic. So this is complex, with no parallel to mobsters!

  • Posted by: Defender - Jun. 24, 2014 4:51 PM ET USA

    So why doesn't this apply to the politicians who knowingly vote to kill babies, say, or vote for SSM, or the host of other anti-Catholic things they do? Are they not knowingly and wantonly voting for the sin(s) and receiving money for it (campaign contributions) so they can do even more of it? If the Bishop of Rome can collectively do this, why is it so hard for a bishop to excommunicate a few politicians who use "Catholic" as it suits them or lectures the Church on how things should be?

  • Posted by: loumiamo7154 - Jun. 24, 2014 3:52 PM ET USA

    So then Dr. Jeff, following the logic of ur last sentence, is it also "not wrong to speak clearly about those who, despite their continued use of the (Christian or Evangelical) name, have rebelled against God and ceased to be members of His church"?

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