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Getting excommunicated is much harder than you think

The Church only ever uses the penalty as a last resort – a shock tactic to bring people back to God

By on Friday, 12 July 2013

A man calls for the excommunication of US politician Nancy Pelosi (CNS)

A man calls for the excommunication of US politician Nancy Pelosi (CNS)

I have quite often met people who have told me that they are excommunicated. Not a single one of them has, in fact, been excommunicated, and their use of the term reflects the way in which it has been subject to misinterpretation. In fact, it is actually hard to get yourself excommunicated. Just to clear up any confusion, let me count the ways.

The first way to get excommunicated is to be excommunicated by the decree of the competent ecclesiastical authority. Elizabeth I, Queen of England, one of the most famous excommunicated people in history, was excommunicated by Pope Pius V for heresy and schism, and the sentence of excommunication was published in the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis of 1570. Elizabeth was given time to appeal against the sentence, but never did so. Actually, the Bull merely recognised an existing fact: Elizabeth had long ceased to be a Catholic. The decree of excommunication formalised an already existing state of affairs.

The most famous excommunication of our own times was that of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was excommunicated for consecrating bishops without the permission of the Holy See. This excommunication was formalised by an apostolic letter of John Paul II entitled Ecclesia Dei, which was dated July 2 1988. Again, this excommunication recognised what had long been a fact: that the archbishop had abandoned any semblance of obedience to the Pope. This excommunication, which applied as well to the bishops consecrated, was later lifted in 2009. This removed an obstacle to the reconciliation of these schismatic bishops, but that reconciliation has still to take place.

The excommunications above are unambiguous, in that they are made so by a papal decree. The Code of Canon Law lays down that there are two forms of excommunication. The first is sententiae ferendae. This is where the person excommunicated is subject to a canonical process or trial, and if found guilty of misdemeanours meriting excommunication is duly sentenced. Once the sentence is published, that person is no longer a member of the Catholic Church. But this is a rare event.

More common is excommunication latae sententiae, or what is often termed “automatic excommunication”, where someone, in committing a certain act, incurs the penalty without any canonical process having to be undertaken. The excommunication of Archbishop Lefebvre falls into this category. By consecrating bishops against the Pope’s will, he went into schism and was excommunicated. The later apostolic letter merely recognised this fact and reminded the faithful of it.

How easy is it to get automatically excommunicated? The Code of Canon Law mentions several crimes that incur the penalty automatically. These include physically assaulting the Pope, stealing the Host for a sacrilegious purpose, a priest giving absolution to a partner in a sin against the Sixth Commandment, a priest who violates the seal of the confessional, and someone who actually procures an abortion.

This last one is likely to have the most application today. As with all canonical penalties, there are conditions attached. The guilty person must act deliberately and freely, be over 17 years of age, and must not be acting inadvertently, but must know the law. Moreover, an actual abortion must have occurred to merit the penalty. Quite often the mother of the child will not incur the penalty, given the circumstances. But the doctors and other medical people will, as they can hardly claim compulsion or ignorance. As for legislators who promote abortion and make it possible, they surely must incur the penalty.

What are the effects of excommunication? The excommunicated person is cut off from the Church and may no longer receive the sacraments (of course, they may not want to). When they die, they should be denied a Catholic funeral, and burial in a Catholic cemetery. This last is but rarely enforced, as far as I am aware. Few countries have Catholic cemeteries these days. But once upon a time, the question of burials was a very sensitive issue.

What I have written above has tried to clear up confusion about excommunication. Canon Law is a difficult subject, and the imprecise use of terms makes it even more confusing. Please note that I have refrained from using the newspaper-speak neologism “incommunicated” and the archaism “defrocked” – these terms should never be used, as they do not correspond to canonical realities. The Code of Canon Law is relatively user-friendly and it is published online, so can be readily consulted.

A few more points about excommunication. This penalty is biblical, and both St Paul and St John make reference to the practice of cutting people off from the community, in order to hasten their repentance. It is useful to remember that the penalty is designed to bring the sinner back to repentance. It can be abused, used as a political tool and even employed for the purposes of revenge – but those would be abuses of Canon Law.

The Church excommunicates as a last resort and as a shock tactic to bring people back to God. And it excommunicates, at least nowadays, very rarely. Excommunications are lifted when the excommunicated person repents, or at least gives some sign of repenting. The Church aims always to be lenient to sinners against ecclesiastical unity, though this is often misrepresented, as in the famous case of Bishop Richard Williamson.

It is interesting to note that this one technical term from the lexicon of Canon Law still fascinates the general public, even though it may be imperfectly understood. “You’re excommunicated!” sounds a lot more thrilling than any sentence that contains a word like “delict”, “process” or “rescript”.

  • Marie Dean

    Remember that only a bishop or a priest who has been given exact faculties for lifting excommunications can do that. Merely repenting and going to Confession does not lift the excommunication. I have seen such faculties and the words are exactly written out, such as giving permission to a particular priest to lift the excommunication for abortion. Some bishops in some dioceses give all their priests this faculty, but most do not. In fact, a bishop may want to meet each person involved in an excommunication owing to abortion, and lift that penalty personally, as one bishop in Ireland does.

    Anyone aiding and abetting an abortion if Catholic are also automatically, latae sententiae

  • Marie Dean

    I have been corrected that the interpretations of some in the States regarding automatic excommunication for aiding and abetting abortion are wrong, and looking carefully at the Canon, it is not there in the 1983 version. However, some bishops have denied, after warning certain politicians, Holy Communion to Catholics seen in grave sin because of their strong pro-abortion positions. In 2008, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann instructed Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to not come up for Holy Communion until she took “the necessary steps for amendment of her life which would include a public repudiation of her previous efforts and actions in support of laws and policies sanctioning abortion.” This has happened in other dioceses with other politicians but not all, of course. And, this correction is not the same as automatic excommunication.

  • aspiring lay capuchin

    But Father Alexander it is a threat. Should the church be threatening people? Everyone has different opinions and holds their faith with different degrees of firmness. The church should be explaining to people and trying to correct them. During John XXIII’s time the Society of St. Pius had different views and they were promptly excommunicated and this carried on for more than 30 years until lifted by Benedict XVI. The point is the church should use mercy and forgiveness but using the THREAT of excommunication. Why should the church threatened people? Jesus Christ NEVER used threats to get his way? Before excommunication they used INQUISITION!

  • Jason Pascucci

    You entirely missed Canon 1364.

    Can. 1364 §1. … an apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication; in addition, a cleric can be punished with the penalties mentioned in ⇒ can. 1336,…

    If you need definitions of those, they’re in there too:

    Can. 751 Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

    So, were you being intentionally misleading or are you unqualified to write this article?

  • Dixie

    Hah! I was excommunicated for a ‘delict’ committed 37 years ago; this was lifted only recently. The penalty was applied instantly. There was no canonical trial.

    Excommunication is a sanction reserved for Traditionalists, so the premise of the article is correct, for the most part.

  • Irenaeus of New York

    Jason said of Father -
    So, were you being intentionally misleading or are you unqualified to write this article?

    “Respect for the priestly dignity has always been one of the most characteristic traits of the Christian community;”
    -Pope Pius XII

    Are you part of the Christian community or are you just having a bad day?

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Good on you, Irenaeus! My thoughts exactly!

  • Jason R. Pascucci

    “This lofty dignity demands from priests that they react to their exalted office with the strictest fidelity.” – Ven. Pope Pius XII, _Menti Nostrae_.

    “Great is the priestly dignity, but great also is his ruin if he is not faithful to his duties, because unfortunately it is true that the corruption of the very good is a frightful thing. “Optimorum corruptio, teterrimum”” – Pope St. Pius X

  • Jason R. Pascucci

    I’m willing to entertain a third possibility if one is presented, Father.

  • Irenaeus of New York

    So you are disturbed because he did not fit your favorite canon in the article?

    Why don’t you read up on detraction and calumny while you are at it.

  • Irenaeus of New York

    I should think he is above your entertainment.

  • Jason R. Pascucci

    No, I’m disturbed that the facts of the matter lie entirely against the thrust of the article. Maybe you’d like to take on the actual point of my response in a realistic way, instead of attacking the tone? Or, do you also agree the original article is intellectually indefensible as being proportionate to the truth, and you just don’t like it being pointed out in public?

    On my part, there is no deception involved, so calumny is out. There is no intent to harm a good name in specific – any more than your rhetorical use of “Are you part of the Christian community…” was an attempt to harm my good name. I’m pretty sure we’re all supposed to be big boys here.

    There is, however, the correctly formed intent to repudiate the balance of the original article, and in my second response, to respond critically to your quote, containing as it did no content really relevant to the matter at hand, but raising its own tangential points.

    You aren’t required to like it.

    For my part, I am utterly disinterested in what has been termed by the spiritual authors “human respect”.(Here’s a nice, easy-to-understand article on that last subject, it’s worth reading, I think: )

  • John Morrison

    You miss the point formal excommunication generally is more applicable for outrageous sins by powerful persons.If one commits amortal sin with the 3 conditions(same as for 1st degree murder), one is dejure barred from Eucharist and other sacraments.Only sacrament open is sacrament of PENANCE(pre VAT II Consequentialism)to take the Eucharist in state of mortal sin is sacrilege.Baltimore Cathechism pre Jesuitical VAT II.

  • bosco49

    Maybe I’m obtuse, but I did not take Jason R. Pascucci’s posting as attacking the good Father in his capacity as a priest per se, but rather as the author of an article (in itself not necessarily a priestly function) with whom issue was being taken in respect of the scholarship and opinion presented therein.

  • TieHard

    yes its your tone that grates….but interesting point

  • James M

    If priests mislead, even unintentionally, it is even more important to say so, precisely because of the status & function of the clergy & the priestly dignity which is sometimes misused to shield them from criticism. To suggest that someone should not be criticised, merely because of their status, is to subvert common sense and Christian morals alike. If Apostles can deserve to be called “Satan”, can betray Christ, or can desert Him, what can possibly justify not criticising evil clergy of every rank. In no way is this incompatible with veneration for the priesthood.

  • Tridentinus

    The Canon 1398 reads “Qui abortum procurat, effectu secuto, in excommunicationem, latae sententiae, incurrat.
    A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae

    The reason for divided opinion hinges upon the interpretation of the word ‘procurare’, ‘procure’. For myself, it is inconceivable that everyone who facilitates an abortion by voting in favour of legalising it, counselling in favour of it, consenting to it, carrying it out is not guilty of the very same crime and is automatically excommunicated.

    The fact that Pelosi and Biden were given Holy Communion in the Basilica of St Peter at the Pope’s inauguration Mass.was a great and grave scandal and makes a mockery of the Church’s opposition to abortion. I cannot see how the Pope and the Curia could not be aware that this was going to happen. Was it that they were not prepared to risk a ‘diplomatic incident’? Had they told them in advance not to come up for Communion imagine how it would have forced the bishops to stop prevaricating and have given a boost to the pro-life movement.

    Seeing so many high-profile, pro-choice Catholics escaping censure by the Church must dishearten the campaigners and cause the Faithful to wonder whether abortion is not wrong after all.

  • Marie Dean

    Thanks Tridentinus, this is the crux of the matter for many who interpret the law. What is procuring? This needs to be more carefully clarified by the bishops

  • Tridentinus

    Indeed it does.

  • $17919843

    Interesting I know of at least two priests that voted for pro choice MP`s I cannot fault them in any other way but they both seem to put their politics ( Labour) before their religion.

  • Heynalbeads

    I was told that confession and absolution (which is dished up on behalf of God), is all embracing, so excommunication for those who aren’t interested has little impact, and for those who want back in – 3 Hail Mary’s, 2 Our Fathers, a bit of Rosary, and you’re back in the fold.
    Or are there something’s which God does not forgive?

  • ostrava

    If a Catholic votes for a pro-choice candidate for Parliament God knows but the priest does not – it is difficult to see that excommunication could have much practical effect. Given that most electors, clerical and lay, vote by party rather than according to the candidates’ views on any one issue, there must be an awful lot of excommunicates around!

    What do you do if all the candidates in your constituency are pro-choice?

  • Prince Monolulu

    Fidel Castro was excommunicated, but Hitler was not. And now that Stepinac has been made a saint, it seems quite likely that Mussolini will follow suit .

  • Jane

    The canon law guy, Cardinal Burke, did say that Irish politicians that vote pro-choice (for abortion ‘rights’) are to be denied communion because it is a grave sin. Canon law denys Pelosi communion but doesn’t excommunicate her,

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