Was the Sicilian Archbishop Correct to Ban Godparents?

Archbishop Salvatore Gristina of Catania, Italy, issued a decree to end abuse of the tradition — but is that the best response? Catechesis is needed, experts say.

Infant baptism is now the norm, but it was once mainly for adult converts.
Infant baptism is now the norm, but it was once mainly for adult converts. (photo: Shutterstock)

There are no godparents allowed at baptisms in the Archdiocese of Catania on Italy’s island of Sicily for the next three years, as decreed by Archbishop Salvatore Gristina

He suspended the custom for baptism and sponsors for confirmation, blaming families using the positions to cement relationships with criminal elements rather than fulfill the “true ecclesial function” of accompanying their godchildren on their journey of faith. 

In the decree, Archbishop Gristina stated that the selected godparents or confirmation sponsors often do not even meet the canonical requirements for the role. As explained in Book IV of the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law, a godparent must be a Catholic in good standing “who leads a life of faith in keeping with the function to be taken on.” They are to assist the baptized to fulfill their Christian obligations and “insofar as possible, a person to be baptized is to be given a sponsor.”

This abuse of the godparent role by the mafia is not new in Italy. In 2014, The Guardian reported that the archbishop of Reggio Calabria, a city known as the stronghold of the Ndrangheta crime syndicate, “proposed a moratorium on godparents to Pope Francis for the same reason.” According to Catholic News Agency, Pope Francis declared during Mass before some 200,000 people: “Those who in their lives follow this path of evil, as mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated.” 

Earlier this year, the Vatican created a working group to study how best to separate criminal organizations like the mafia from Catholic traditions.

The ban in Catania brings relief to many clergy. According to The New York Times, “The Rev. Angelo Alfio Mangano, of the St. Maria in Ognina church in Catania, said that now he no longer has to deal with ‘threats against the parish priest’ to pressure them to allow ‘spiritually questionable characters’ to be named as godfathers.”

 

History of Godparents

“Godparenthood began with sponsorship during the rite of Christian initiation,” according to Timothy O’Malley, Ph.D., the University of Notre Dame’s director of education for the McGrath Institute for Church Life and associate professor in the Department of Theology. “When adult initiation was the norm in the early Church, sponsorship ensured that one was ready,” he told the Register. He noted that initiation gradually moved toward infancy, in which case the focus on preparation was more on parents. 

“Sponsoring became godparenting by no later than 800 [A.D.]” O’Malley explained. “The spiritual and the material were linked in the role. Godparents had a certain importance in the life of the child, especially in the age when kinship was much more expansive than it is today.”

In principle, he said, the idea was for godparents to take over the parent’s role of spiritual guide in the event of their deaths. 

But that is not always the aim in every case. 

“Godparenting could be — and has been — abused,” he said. “Once one forgets the spiritual dimension of godparenting, of Christian mentorship, you can be left with — at best — a kind of honorific [role]: This person is important to us, and I want them to be in the life of the child.”

This isn’t necessarily all bad, O’Malley argued. “After all, it breaks apart the kind of closed-off, romanticized approach to the family. There are others that are included in the life of the family.” The bad part, he said, is when family ties are bound together in mafia-like situations. “It is a perversion of authentic Christian kinship, which should be an image of the gratuitous grace of Christ.”

 

The Mafia Up Close

Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, president and founder of Ignatius Productions, senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and EWTN TV and radio host, told the Register that he does not know the details of the decision to ban godparents in Sicily, but he has experienced the terrifying ruthlessness of the mafia in the U.S.

“While I was in the novitiate for the Jesuits living in Chicago in 1970, a friend of mine was murdered in front of me to get at me,” he said, relating how he was 21 years old and doing community organizing to help the poor fight against housing that was below city code. One house was owned by the mafia. A threat was sent through Holy Family parish, where the priest-to-be was working, for him to back off or he would be blamed for the murder of a friend. Two weeks later, the novice Pacwa was beat up and his friend was murdered.

In a police lineup, Pacwa identified the man who beat him up, but he was only charged with assault. No one was ever charged for the murder. To get him safely out of Chicago, Pacwa went away to take classes at the University of Detroit. 

“Although I don’t know the specifics [of the godparent ban], I can tell you that what they are involved in in that region of Sicily is smuggling cigarettes,” he said. “What he [archbishop] is doing is a very courageous thing, but I’m not sure if it’s prudent. He could be putting his own life at risk. In the mafia, this is seen as business: The godparents make sure they [godchildren] are taken care of and get a good job, and they encourage grave evil such as engaging in the drug trade.”

 

Should There Be a Ban?

In pushing back against mafia abuses, is the Archdiocese of Catania losing something good in an effort to stop something bad? Is banning godparents a case of “false antiquarianism,” as Pius XII called it? It was something he condemned as selectively keeping some parts of ancient customs while discarding other parts. 

Jesuit Father Robert McTeigue, a professor of philosophy and theology, considered that possibility with the Register. His latest book is Real Philosophy for Real People: Tools for Truthful Living and the host and producer of The Catholic Current radio show. “Abuse doesn’t take away use,” he said. “The thing to do is teach people properly.” 

The custom of having godparents, Father McTeigue explained, began in more uncertain times when life expectancy was shorter and parents wanted support ensuring their children would be raised in the faith, he explained. “Although the situation has changed in many ways, good parents still introduce competent, trusted adults to their children and give them another set of role models.”

“I don’t know what the archbishop is dealing with,” he admitted, “but a lot of things get abused, and that does not mean we should take it away. We don’t want to say, ‘This is why we can’t have nice things.’”

 

Catechesis Needed

While he is sad to hear reports of the mafia using the custom of godparents for their own purposes, Father McTeigue said we should note that, closer to home, the role is also often abused by neglect rather than by manipulation. “I’d like to see catechesis all the way around for everyone,” he said. “If a couple only got married in the Church so Grandma wouldn’t disinherit them, I don’t have great expectations for them to teach the faith. Especially with COVID and lost access to the sacraments, let’s have that conversation about what the sacraments mean to us.” 

An example, Father McTeigue said, is that people will say the Eucharist is the source and summit of their lives but do not live that out. “If people really took the Eucharist seriously, the lines for confession would be as long as for Communion,” he said. “We need to recommit and know the catechesis so well that we can explain it to our children in desperate times.” 

Father McTeigue referred to the situation in Japan, where St. Francis Xavier and his missionaries arrived in Japan in 1549 and converted many, but during the 17th  century, westerners and missionaries were expelled and even executed. Catholics went underground and kept the faith alive so that, more than two and a half centuries later, when the borders opened up, it was discovered that thousands of villagers, through their ancestors, had kept the faith and continued the sacrament of baptism.

“Challenging times are coming, and being casually Christian is not going to be enough,” Father McTeigue said. An important part of that, he said, is taking the selection of godparents seriously: choosing someone who truly will seek to support parents in passing down the faith to the next generation. 

“Faith has to be a constant engagement,” said Father McTeigue, “something we do together.”