Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano may have been able to quote scripture, but that's no indication of his piety

In The God of the Gulag, Volume 1, by Jonathan Luxmoore, which I blogged about last week, the author remarks that “Stalin could quote the Bible at will, and used catechetical language in his speeches and writings”, but adding that he had “little sympathy for its organised expression.” Given that Russian Orthodoxy had been so closely linked to tsarist Russia, with all the repression and inequality this entailed, Stalin’s view of organised religion is not surprising.

But does Stalin’s knowledge of the Bible and his catechetical language make him therefore a “religious” person? No, of course not. He had been schooled at a seminary in Georgia, more to get a decent education than for pious motives, and being a highly intelligent psychopath he knew how to utilise religious quotations for his own purposes, the more readily to give his rhetoric some spurious profundity. By this means he probably fooled many people into thinking that the new religion, communism, really answered the deepest aspirations of mankind.

I mention Stalin because I read an obituary of Bernardo Provenzano, a Sicilian Mafia boss, in the Telegraph on Thursday that described him as “a devout Catholic”. What on earth did it mean? It seems that Provenzano ran his criminal empire from a shepherd’s hut by means of coded messages hidden in the pages of the Bible, carried by trusted couriers to his henchmen. The obituary added, “Paradoxically perhaps, he was a devout Catholic and his coded messages included benedictions such as ‘May the Lord bless and protect you’.”

The obituary describes the violent and murderous career of this Mafia boss, yet goes on to say “yet such was Provenzano’s religious fervour that according to another Mafia supergrass, he appeared at one meeting…dressed as a cardinal.” When he was arrested at the hut, all he took with him was his medicine and his rosary.

None of this in my view adds up to being a “devout Catholic”. What it means is that, like Stalin (though I don’t think Stalin is recorded as ever dressing up in Orthodox vestments) Provenzano had grown up within a peasant Christian culture so that his mind, in all its twisted logic, was an echo chamber of pious exhortations.

As the phrase “devout Catholic” can be thus so misused, I think it should be jettisoned. “Heroic Catholic”, for people who truly deserve it, might suit our post-Christian age a little better.