The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Shkodra, in northern Albania, has declared  that it will excommunicate anyone found to be participating in blood feuds, which are a something of a national sport in Albania, except that they are responsible for hundreds of deaths every month, which most national sports are not.

Westerners might not see anything remarkable in a Catholic archdiocese coming out against systematic fatal violence, especially when it has no political angle—these guys aren’t Zapatistas or Provos, they’re just following a savage and frustratingly persistent medieval honor code—but the Albanian church has always been weird. There was a time when Franciscans in Albania were given a papal dispensation to grow mustaches and carry sidearms. The rules governing gjakmarrja  even specify how priests should be treated in blood feuds: If a priest is killed, the entire parish assumes responsibility for avenging him, but if a priest kills someone else, retaliation must be directed toward his family. I’m not sure what it says about Albanian Catholicism’s historical attitude toward blood feuds that such rules needed to be codified, but it is rather suggestive.

Really I’m just glad to see any signs of life at all from the Albanian church. During the forty-plus years of Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship, Albania was a religion-free zone. There were no priests, because they had all been martyred or sent to prison camps, and there was no home instruction, because a third of the country was being paid by the regime to spy on their neighbors and families, and an informal Sunday school would have led to the imprisonment or deportation of the offending party and his entire extended family. Religious services were completely outlawed, something that not even Stalin managed to do.

So we can hardly blame the Catholic priests of Albania for taking it slow with their catechesis. After so many decades of brutally enforced atheism, I’m impressed that they’ve gotten their parishioners to master the rudiments of the Gospel, never mind the Fifth Commandment.

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