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"The Sopranos"' Mob Catholicism
To the characters on this HBO hit, killing, lying, stealing and cheating on your wife aren’t sins. But going gay sure is.
By Mary Beth Crain
Vito Spatafore’s brutal end—and we do mean end—in the last episode of “The Sopranos” was quite possibly the grandest moment yet in the show’s ongoing gleeful expose of mob Catholic hypocrisy. As evil Phil Leotardo watches, his henchmen tape terrified Vito’s mouth shut and beat him to death. Later we find out that they also shoved a pool cue up his you-know-what, an appalling act that performs the dual function of making it look like a twisted gay murder while inflicting the ultimate final insult.
But do Vito’s killers suffer any pangs of conscience? Do they believe, for one moment, that they’ve done something bad? Hell no! In fact, bolstered by perverted Mafia logic, they actually congratulate themselves on having performed a service to humanity and manhood itself, not to mention Vito’s own family, and of course, Jesus and the church.
When the mob discovered that Vito was gay, everybody had a self-righteous field day, jumping on their moral high horses and riding roughshod over their once beloved cohort turned abominable cocksucker.
On Vito’s self-appointed grand jury sat, among others:
1. Paulie Walnuts, a ruthless thug who excels in beating innocent young guys to a pulp and who recently disowned his poor old mom and threw her plasma TV out the window of her nursing home suite when his nun aunt confessed to him on her deathbed that she was his real mother.
2. Christopher Moltisanti, a vicious sociopath who had his fiancée whacked, blew away a waiter who justifiably wondered why his tip was so low, and was always Tony’s first choice to chop up the bodies of their victims, which he did as nonchalantly as though he were sawing logs for firewood.
3. Silvio Dante, Tony’s consigliere, who helps his boss decide who shall live and who shall die, and whose shining hour of despicability came last season, when he dragged poor, helpless Adriana out of his car and shot her in cold blood.
4. Master executioner Phil Leotardo, prouder than all get out of his 27-plus hits, who particularly enjoys torturing his victims before putting out their lights.
In true “Sopranos” fashion, none of these stellar examples of moral rectitude sees any irony whatsoever in declaring Vito guilty and sentencing him to death for “making a mockery of the sacraments” and being “a disgrace to his family.” Although mistresses and prostitutes are a requirement of mob life, somehow adultery and extra-marital sex are not considered an affront to the sacraments. By the same token, killing, stealing, worshipping false idols, or taking the name of the Lord in vain (I once tried to keep track of how many times has Tony uttered his favorite expression “Jesus Fucking Christ!” but lost count) are not considered out of line by any stretch of God’s imagination. The fact that the men of “The Sopranos” live a life dedicated to breaking, on a regular basis, every one of the Ten Commandments doesn’t stop them from stepping into God’s shoes and passing judgment on one of their own who murdered and stole like the best of them, but whose only crime, in their eyes, was that he had the unmitigated gall to become a faggot.
While there are many progressive Catholics around the world with a true sense of compassion and moral integrity, the mob Catholics of “The Sopranos” are the product of an outdated, suffocatingly traditional Catholicism that prefers ritual to reflection, obedience to individual discernment, routine confession to genuine atonement. The killers turn up regularly at church for weddings, baptisms, communions, funerals and festivals, happily going through all the Good Catholic motions. Meanwhile, their wives who, by and large, have never made the acquaintance of an original thought, parrot everything “Father” says like clueless children or bleating sheep. And when it comes to what Father says about homosexuality, “The Sopranos” ascends into the rarified realm of true, unblemished absurdity.
After Phil presides over the killing of Vito, his own brother-in-law, he comforts his distraught sister—who has no idea he’s her husband’s murderer—with the sanctimonious observation, “You know, maybe it’s better this way. You wouldn’t want him to be a model for the children, after all.” And when Vito’s widow asks, “Where is everybody? Why haven’t they come to pay their respects?”, Phil’s wife replies, “Well, honey, you know homosexuality is a sin. Be as the Father says, ‘Hate the sin, love the sinner.” With homosexuality in the priesthood estimated at 75 to 90 percent, that line alone would have broken the old Colgate Laugh-O-Meter.
The incongruous juxtaposition of violence and Catholicism in Mafia life is nothing new, of course. Who can forget that stupendous sequence in The Godfather, in which Don Michael Corleone’s pious presence at his infant nephew’s baptism is intercut with scenes of the carrying out of all the bloody hits he’s ordered? But “The Sopranos” plays with that juxtaposition until we’re forced to ask ourselves what religion really is, what it’s really supposed to do, and where the hell is God, anyway?
In its highest form, Catholicism is a test of one’s mettle, a challenge to live in imitation of Jesus, the incarnation of all virtues. In its lowest form, it’s a spiritual convenience store, where absolution comes cheap and the swallowing of a wafer, a brief confession or a candle and a prayer are all it takes to square things with God. “The Sopranos” Catholics shop at this convenience store a lot, and one of the many good things about the show is that viewers, Catholic or not, are bound to see themselves in its merciless mirror and just might do some long overdue soul searching. What do all of us have in common with the residents of Sopranoland? Where is the hypocrisy in our own lives? How many times have we mouthed the word of God while sinning, not once but over and over again? How many times have we remained silent in the face of intolerance and oppression? Who among us would have had the courage to stand up and fight for Vito, or to speak out against his death?
“The Sopranos” is Grand Guignol and black comedy, a brilliant marriage of savagery and self-deception. On the one hand, there’s nothing more hilarious than a bunch of murderous gangsters holding themselves up as perfect role models for their children while condemning a gay man who loves his kids with all his heart. On the other hand, the whole thing’s so chilling you’re tempted to run to church and light a candle for these miserable wretches who’ve traded their consciences and their souls for the fleeting rewards of money and power. As the Dalai Lama said, when asked why he prayed for the Chinese invaders of Tibet, whose atrocities against his people can never be forgotten, “Oh, we must pray for them. Because they are the ones who need prayer most of all.”
Or, Father forgive them, for they know not what they do?
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Contributing editor Mary Beth Crain's last piece for SoMA was "God or the Girl": A Final Assessment.
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