Free Frank Keating.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
June 16 2003 6:56 PM

Free Frank Keating

The Catholic Church really is like the Mafia.

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."

Advertisement

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 omertà, 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."

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

Yes, Black Families Tend to Spank More. That Doesn’t Mean It’s Good for Black Kids.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

Politics

The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 6:23 PM Bryan Cranston Reenacts Baseball’s Best Moments to Promote the Upcoming Postseason
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.