PITTSBURGH -- When Pope Francis declared last week that organized crime figures are excommunicated from the Catholic Church, he wasnt 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 its meant to help a person who is involved in some kind of action to know what theyre doing is seriously wrong, said Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik.
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.
Past popes also have 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.
The popes 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, said Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus and professor of law at Duquesne University, who has represented numerous dioceses.
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.
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.