Can the Mafia really be thinking of taking out Pope Francis? The question arises because the reformist Argentine pontiff has been poking his new broom into some murky corners since taking over from Benedict XVI in April. One particular focus of his attention is the Vatican bank, known as the Institute for Religious Works (the Italian acronym is IOR).
The bank has been targeted by the European Union on suspicion of facilitating money-laundering, but now the head of the church himself has taken up the task of purging it. And as we reported yesterday, the mafia clans of Calabria, known as the ‘ndrangheta, today richer and more powerful than their equivalents in Sicily, are unhappy about it.
Nicola Gratteri, a public prosecutor in Italy’s deep south, told Il Fatto Quotidiano, an Italian daily, the gang bosses “are really worried. Those who until now have been growing fat on the power and wealth they obtain directly from the church are nervous, agitated.” The new pope, he said, “is dismantling centres of economic power in the Vatican. If the gang bosses could trip him up they wouldn’t hesitate to do so.”
The 76-year-old Argentinian has cultivated an image of simplicity and humility since becoming pope, refusing to move into the lavish papal apartments and travelling around with minimum fuss and ceremony. And he has set his face against those Christians who believe their faith allows them to get away with anything. Of such people he said this week: “It would be better if a millstone were put around [their] neck and [they] be thrown into the sea” because “where there is deceit, the spirit of God cannot be.”
Mr Gratteri disclaimed any inside knowledge of an assassination plot, and if removing the pontiff seemed the only way to preserve their fortunes, hesitate is exactly what they would do. For these men, some worth billions from cocaine smuggling and with the notches of many dead rivals on their gun barrels, are immensely devout. Bad men who pray: how very surprising. We may have felt disgust at the spectacle of al-Shabaab gunmen in Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall getting down on their knees to pray before blasting away at terrified shoppers, but the hard men of Calabria are no better. “Before he kills someone, a Calabrian gangster prays,” says Mr Gratteri. “He appeals to the Madonna for protection.” One recalls what the police found when they finally tracked Cosa Nostra boss Bernardo Provenzano, on the run for 42 years, to his squalid hideout in Sicily in 2006: one Bible open on a cushion, four more dotted around, a rosary at his bedside. Mr Gratteri reports a survey of gang bosses in Italian jails which found that 88 per cent of them profess to be devout.
One comes back to the old Bob Dylan aperçu: “To live outside the law you must be honest.” To survive psychologically as either a member of al-Shabaab or the Mafia it is essential to believe firmly that your cause is just, and that God will therefore heed your prayers when you turn to Him. The British would-be jihadists heading off to Syria probably have as strong a sense of righteousness and moral obligation as George Orwell and his comrades, heading off to volunteer for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War.
But even those believers who know that they are doing wrong have frequent recourse to the Catholic Church, because forgiveness is in its very marrow. Joe Kennedy, father of the more famous John Fitzgerald, had a long affair with the film star Gloria Swanson. Of his attitude to adultery she said: “He believed you could wipe the slate clean just by going to confession. It worked for him like sleeping pills for other people.” But he only visited tame confessors who would only give him a few Hail Marys for penance. Swanson went on: “He never wanted to take the chance on running into some smarty-pants priest there in a dark confessional from some poor diocese where he didn’t have any real-estate holdings.”
The bosses of the ‘ndrangheta have been bolstered for many decades by tame priests and bishops, delighted and honoured to attend their weddings, bless their babies and share an ostentatious coffee in the town piazza, to make sure the locals know the score. And as part of the same cosy arrangement, the gangs have long been in secret cahoots with the Vatican Bank, it is widely believed, to their mutual benefit. These suspicions go back decades. Neither Pope Benedict nor John Paul II were interested in cleaning the Vatican’s Augean stables. Both had what they considered more important fish to fry. Besides, as foreigners they would have had the greatest difficulty in penetrating the Byzantine and armour-plated confines within which the Vatican does its work, as the lame results of Benedict’s efforts at reform revealed.
But now there is a smarty-pants pope – a native Italian speaker not compromised by being an actual Italian – who believes the church has a real mission in the world, and that blessing the babies of unreformed gangsters, and taking their ill-gotten gains, is inconsistent with it. No wonder the bosses are nervous.