"While unauthorised ordination is always a grave crime against Church law, automatic excommunication would not apply in certain circumstances."
VATICAN CITY – The Vatican said bishops’ ordinations that are not authorised by the pope generally bring the penalty of automatic excommunication, but there can be mitigating circumstances – including fear of reprisal, necessity or serious inconvenience.
The clarification, issued by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, appeared to respond to the situation of recent ordinations of bishops in China against the orders of Pope Benedict XVI. The text was published on June 10 by L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper.
In China, the most recent ordinations have involved bishops loyal to the Vatican, who were said to have been intimidated or forced to participate as ordaining ministers. The normal penalty for participation in such an ordination is automatic excommunication.
The Vatican clarification said that while unauthorised ordination is always a grave crime against Church law, automatic excommunication would not apply in certain circumstances, in particular if the participating bishop acted “out of grave fear, even relatively grave, or out of necessity or out of serious inconvenience”.
Such circumstances need to be verified and evaluated for each participant, it said, and in the end “each of them knows in their heart the degree of their personal involvement” and therefore whether the penalty of excommunication applies.
However, the Vatican added, the issue does not end there. Ordaining bishops without a papal mandate is such a serious crime that the very act provokes scandal and confusion among the faithful, and this scandal must be repaired through acts of communion and penitence, it said.
It said the participating bishops also need to explain their actions, and, in view of their explanations, the Vatican may find itself in the position of having to censure them in some way.
If additional information arrives demonstrating culpability, the Vatican could later declare that a bishop had been excommunicated, or impose other sanctions, if this was deemed necessary to “repair the scandal and dissipate the confusion among the faithful”.
The statement said the Church considers excommunication a “medicinal” punishment designed to motivate the guilty to repentance. “Once he has demonstrated that he is sincerely repentant, the person acquires the right to be absolved of the excommunication,” it said. - CNS