Brotherly Love: The Christian Ethics of the Godfather

KATHLEEN:

The Godfather? What is it with men and The Godfather?

JOE:

The Godfather is the I Ching. The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom. The Godfather is the answer to any question. What should I pack for my summer vacation? “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” What day of the week is it? “Maunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday.” And the answer to your question is “Go to the mattresses.”

Italian American culture is not something I can fake an understanding of—the liberal servings of pasta, cousins, and fratricide are all foreign to a girl raised on the Central Coast of California. We eat a lot of rice and kale. I have one cousin. 

However, I was recently assigned to watch all three Godfather films for my Christian Ethics course at Oxford, and, though this was not a part of the assignment, essentially watched them all within a 48 hour period. If you are ever tempted to do this yourself my impulse is to stop you… but then again, perhaps total submersion is a whole new way of understanding the dark complexities of the Corleone family.

These films are notorious for not only being some of the best American films ever made, but also for being the go-to favorites of all man-dom. I think the exchange between Kathleen and Joe in “You’ve Got Mail” quoted above explains this phenomenon well. Within the Godfather films one can find the answer to almost every question—how to cook, how to love, how to war, how to throw a tasteful funeral, and how to deal with inner familial conflict. “You broke my heart Fredo…”

But what of the Corleone’s ethics? They are so deeply immersed in Catholic-Italian culture, they do not seem to be able to distinguish between family and faith, Italy and the Vatican. On first impressions, this also seemed foreign to me. Because I am so out of touch with my ancestral roots (scandinavian? Caucasian? British?) it is hard for me to understand a culture where your family is your religion.

So, in analyzing the the Christian ethics of the Corleone family, I eventually concluded that for them, the greatest good is always going to be the preservation of the family. Michael tells his daughter Mary he will burn in Hell for her, because her protection takes precedence over the salvation of his eternal soul.

But at what point is protecting your family destroying your family? Michael continually struggles with the burden of responsibility passed to him from his father. He is haunted by the fact that his father, Vito, was a great man, and struggles to know what it means to be great man himself. As he pulls his family closer, they grow to hate him more.

On further consideration, it seems like a human tendency to closely intertwine one’s family to their religion. It is common to hear the mantra “family comes first” even outside of the Italian American tradition. What’s funny is the Corleone’s strict rule of “don’t ever take sides with anyone against the Family again. Ever.” is one that I was also taught growing up. Essentially, you must never fight your family publicly, only ever privately.

My question is, how can we be sure we are treating our family as a good rather than the good? At what point must we forgive our parents for being flesh and blood alone, and accept that even they cannot be more than that.

I say, love your family as best you can. Treat them with respect and decency, and recall that sometimes the kindest thing you can do for them is to let them go (a lesson Michael finally learns with his son Tony in Godfather 3.)

The life that flourishes is the life that is properly ordered. Love God, then your family, then your friends, then yourself. If your loves are disordered, like Michael’s, so will your life be. Because his family was God to him, he couldn’t see past their own tangled (incestuous) web, on to forgiveness and sanctification.

Don’t be like Michael, even if he is the Godfather.

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