A leading member of the Canadian mafia has had a church funeral, which has aroused comment, which you can read about here, in a report from the National Post. Be warned: the article betrays a woeful lack of precision with regard to Catholic practice. Many of the people quoted in it seem, well, poorly informed. But the article raises one important question: when, if ever, should the church refuse to bury someone?
I have the Code of Canon Law before me as I write, and the following is surely of interest:
Canon 1184 §1 Church funeral rites are to be denied to the following, unless they gave some signs of repentance before death:
1° notorious apostates, heretics and schismatics;
2° those who for anti-Christian motives chose that their bodies be cremated;
3° other manifest sinners to whom a Church funeral could not be granted without public scandal to the faithful.
§2 If any doubt occurs, the local Ordinary is to be consulted and his judgment followed.
Canon 1185 Any form of funeral Mass is also to be denied to a person who has been excluded from a Church funeral.
The law on this matter seems clear, and the application and interpretation seems pretty plain as well: a mafia boss is obviously a “manifest sinner” and his Catholic funeral would certainly cause scandal to the faithful.
The Church was certainly right to refuse to bury the late Erich Priebke, the notoriously unrepentant Nazi war criminal, who died last October in Rome, and whose funeral was eventually carried out by a non-Catholic group.
At the same time, the Church was surely wrong to refuse a Catholic funeral to Edith Piaf who died in 1963. That refusal seemed very unkind. But times have changed. More recently a Catholic funeral was granted to President Mitterand, whose Catholicism was at least questionable. And there have been others, whose names I will not mention, particularly those connected with the world of entertainment, who have been buried by the Church, even though they were not paragons of virtue. But one assumes their good will at the end.
That really is the crunch point with the mafia boss in Canada. Was he repentant? One usually gives every sinner the benefit of the doubt, but in some cases one really has to draw the line and say no. It is also worth pointing out that in refusing a Catholic funeral to a mafioso one is making a powerful point about the sinful nature of the mafia itself: this might just make people think twice about colluding with organized crime. Moreover, too often we think of the mafia as glamorous rather than what it is, sordid and squalid, violent and cruel: a Catholic funeral might serve to cover up the true nature of this particular “family”, and to have a sacramental of the Church instrumentalised so would be very wrong indeed.