Free Frank Keating
The Catholic Church Really Is Like the Mafia

By Timothy Noah
June 16, 2003

Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating has resigned as chairman of the bishops' board investigating pederasty in the Catholic Church. Keating appears to have been pushed out by Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who has fought Keating's efforts to force disclosure of church documents concerning allegations of sexual abuse. Logically, the press ought to be playing Keating's resignation as a story about the church compromising the independence of its panel in order to protect its priests. Instead, the press is mostly playing Keating's presumed sacking as a story about Keating's brutish verbal insensitivity. The gaffe in question was a comparison Keating made (in the June 12 Los Angeles Times) between the Catholic Church and the Mafia:

"I have seen an underside that I never knew existed. I have not had my faith questioned, but I certainly have concluded that a number of serious officials in my faith have very clay feet. That is disappointing and educational, but it's a fact," Keating said.

"To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy," he said. "Eventually it will all come out."

Does the Catholic Church resemble the Mafia? Before delving into this question, we must stipulate that the Mafia kills people, whereas the Catholic Church does not. (It used to, as Joan of Arc and many lesser-known heretics could attest. But let's stick to the present.) More broadly, the Mafia is dedicated to evil, whereas the Catholic Church is dedicated to holiness, which translates (roughly) in the secular world to good. These two stark differences are the reason why so many Catholics have taken offense, or at least feigned offense, at Keating's remark.

But the idea that the Catholic Church resembles the Mafia in other ways is hardly new. It has at least one distinguished adherent in Wilfrid Sheed-novelist, essayist, Slate diarist, and (more to the point) son to Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, founders of the venerable Catholic publishing house, Sheed & Ward. In 1974, Sheed published a book titled Three Mobs: Labor, Church and Mafia. Among other points of comparison, Sheed told Chatterbox in a phone conversation earlier today, is a sense that one belongs to the elect. Of the church, "Clare Boothe Luce said, 'It's like being born into a noble family,' " Sheed explained. "A snob like Evelyn Waugh thought this was the true aristocracy." (Think of the Marchmains in Brideshead Revisited.) The Mafia, Sheed says, is "a parody of class." (Think of the nouveau riche Sopranos.) Aristocrats of any stripe don't take kindly to rude inquiries from outsiders.

To this, Chatterbox would add that the Mafia and the Roman Catholic Church are both rigorously hierarchical and led by individuals whose authority is never to be questioned. Both place a heavy emphasis on omerta, and both were hard-hit by the decline during the second half of the 20th century in institutional loyalty. Both are highly ceremonial (a point that's made to wonderful effect in The Godfather's climactic and very bloody baptism montage).

In general, of course, Sheed finds the Mafia much more thuggish than the Catholic Church. But he suggests that the Catholic Church, in addressing the pederasty scandal, is more arrogant. "I've never seen a piece in the Times" he says, "in which members of the Mafia talked quite so boldly as [officials] of the Catholic Church talk all the time."


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