Q. One hears much today about excommunications, that people such as politicians who are not sufficiently pro-life or not against the death penalty or who question some doctrines should be excommunicated. I know from history that excommunication used to be a big stick the Church used against people, even emperors, who didn’t measure up. But I thought this type of punishment was obsolete. I read that the pope recently lifted the excommunication on four traditionalist bishops. What is excommunication exactly?

A. Excommunication is one of the sanctions or "punishments" Christians have applied to other Christians who seriously violate the Christian or Catholic rule of life. An excommunicated person is forbidden any liturgical ministry in the Mass or other public worship of the Church and may not receive any of the sacraments. Other consequences refer
to excommunicated clergy or others
who hold some public office in the Church.

The occasional need (and I need to emphasise "occasional"; these are not punishments applied helter-skelter against Catholics who hold any unpopular or supposedly unorthodox positions not in line with what other members of the faith would prefer) of the Christian community to isolate serious offenders from participation in community activities goes back to biblical times. The Gospels and letters of the New Testament refer on several occasions to situations in which the offender should be expelled from their midst (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 5).

These sanctions were more significant and powerful in past centuries when the Church and at least some civil governments had more intimate and close bonds than they have today. Partly for this reason Church practices regarding excommunication were sometimes more complicated and certainly more severe than now.

Excommunications may be automatic or applied in individual cases by a proper Church authority. Present Catholic law provides automatic excommunication for only seven serious offences: desecration of the Blessed Sacrament, doing physical violence to the pope, (for priests) absolving an accomplice in sin, (for bishops) consecrating another bishop without mandate from the pope, direct violation of the seal of confession, procuring a successful abortion, and rejecting the Church through heresy, apostasy or schism.

Many circumstances, such as the age of the individual (no automatic excommunication applies to individuals under the age of 18) and fear or ignorance present at the time of the action, affect whether an excommunication actually occurred. No Church penalties at all apply to anyone under the age of 16 (see canons 97, 1323, 1324).

It is also essential to remember that such severe penalties, whether in the New Testament itself or in Church law, are intended for the good of the community and for the healing of the one who has sinned against that community. Thus no excommunication or other punishment is permanent and irrevocable. It always includes the invitation to repentance and return. For an excommunicated person, talking with a priest is a good place to begin that process.

It should be obvious from what I’ve said that, while present laws are much simplified, this part of the Church’s legislation remains complex. This is because the Church wants to make them applicable only in the most serious cases, only when individual consciences are respected, and only when absolutely necessary for the common good of Catholics and others whose spiritual life could be negatively affected.

As I said above, this decision must be made with full knowledge of Church legislation, not in the heat of conflict or anger (which has much of the time been difficult to achieve), and with care that the processes required by Church law before such sanctions are imposed are followed meticulously. -

By Father John Dietzen

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