When Pope Francis declared last week that organized crime figures are "excommunicated" from the Catholic Church, he wasn't making a formal legal declaration against any individuals by name.
But by venturing into southern Italy with its historically ambivalent relationship between church and mob -- with some priests actively fighting its influence but others lulled by the generosity and public piety of local dons -- the pope was drawing a bold line in saying there can be no compromise with those involved in the "adoration of evil."
"The term (excommunication) is not meant to be a penalty, but it's meant to help a person who is involved in some kind of action to know what they're doing is seriously wrong," said Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik.
Mob leaders who conduct a "double life" of piety alongside "horrendous evil" need to cease, he said.
The pope made his comments while visiting the southern Italian region of Calabria, which is still reeling from the recent killing of a 3-year-old boy in an apparent mob attack on his grandfather.
"When instead of adoring the Lord, one substitutes the adoration of money, one opens the path to sin, personal interests and exploitation," Pope Francis said in a homily at an outdoor Mass to the estimated crowd of about 250,000 near the town of Sibari. "When one does not adore the Lord God, one becomes an adorer of evil, like those who live lives of crime and violence. Your land, which is so beautiful, knows the signs and consequences of this sin. This is what the 'Ndrangheta is: the adoration of evil and contempt for the common good."
He added: "Those who follow the path of evil, like the mafiosi do, are not in communion with God; they are excommunicated!"
Past popes have also spoken out against organized crime, but Francis is the first to use the word "excommunicated," according to Vatican watchers. He has previously prayed with victims of mob violence and formally beatified a priest killed in 1993 by the Mafia.
Organized crime takes various forms in Italy -- with the so-called Mafia in Sicily, the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria and the Camorra in Naples -- but has common roots in the clans of pre-unification Italy. It is marked by extortion from local businesses and involvement in fields as varied as construction, drugs, human trafficking and political corruption.
And it has often been entangled with the local Catholic churches.
"It was always good for the Mafia to be seen as religious, as pious, donating to festivals and building chapels or churches or things like that," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter and author of books on the Catholic hierarchy.
Nicholas Cafardi -- dean emeritus and professor of law at Duquesne University, who has represented numerous dioceses, is a canon lawyer and was an original member of the U.S. Bishops' National Review Board on sexual abuse issues -- said it remains common for business owners in southern Italy to be shaken down for protection money by the same mob bosses who would join them at the communion rail on Sundays.
"It was very common in Sicily for Mafia dons to go to church and I'm sure some of them still do, although it's going to be more uncomfortable now," he said.
The pope's words may not change the hearts of hardened murderers, "but it might help the people who are trying to take away the power of organized crime," Mr. Cafardi said in a phone interview from Italy, where he is spending the summer. "There's a movement of priests and young people to basically drive it out of business, make it a shameful thing to be associated with."
Some priests have been attacked for such efforts -- including one who was beatified last year, two decades after his murder -- and Francis is taking some risk in decrying them, he said.
"He said it out in the open. These people carry guns, and they've killed priests and bishops."
In 1993, John Paul II said to those responsible for Mafia-related murders in Sicily: "Convert! One day, the judgment of God will arrive!” Bombings on churches followed, and while no one claimed responsibility, few doubted the connection, according to "Witness to Hope," a biography of John Paul II by George Weigel.
Bishop Zubik said he didn't plan to make a specific pronouncement against any local crime figures or organizations.
Rather, he said, the pope's words are a reminder that murder and a wide range of other mortal sins are considered so serious that a Catholic should go to confession and repent before receiving communion, Bishop Zubik said.
"If we find ourselves doing this very harmful action to others, we need to get our act together," he said.
But he added that Pope Francis' words need to be seen as part of his "penchant for always speaking about mercy."
"Mercy is freely given, but it's also got to be freely received."
Under Catholic canon law, a pope or bishop can issue a specific statement excommunicating someone for a specific act.
But also, someone is considered to have automatically excommunicated his or her self by certain actions. Those include: procuring an abortion, involvement in heresy (false teaching), apostasy (rejecting the faith) or schism (dividing the church), being involved in a forbidden organization, physically attacking the pope or violating the confidentiality of the confessional.
While murder isn't specifically listed, involvement in an organization that operates on murder and theft could well qualify, Mr. Cafardi said.
The pope's warning doesn't just apply to Italy, Mr. Cafardi said.
"We have organized crime in America as much as any other country in the world," Mr. Cafardi said. "The sale of drugs is a form of murder."
And those criminals might seem respectable, added the Rev. Lou Vallone, pastor of St. John of God in McKees Rocks and St. Catherine of Siena in Crescent.
"Whether it's Wall Street financiers who are embezzling, whether it's a street gang of semi-illiterate teenagers and adults fighting for their turf or a drug cartel using people as mules, that's organized crime," Father Vallone said. "Francis' challenge is, hey, when you place this group and this activity above what you were called to by baptism, you have separated yourself from the unity of the church."
The pope's statement "wasn't a canonical decree. It was a statement of the obvious in a place where it isn't so obvious."
He added: "You can't separate your life like this -- Monday through Friday (be) involved in this organization that does violence, and then on Sunday march down the aisle to receive the body of Christ."
Peter Smith: Petersmith@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @pg_petersmith.