Excommunication is a widely misunderstood part of the Church’s pastoral practice. Many people believe that excommunication is used to “kick people out” of the Church whenever they disagree with a bishop or priest. Others believe that it is used to threaten people with eternal damnation. Few know just what excommunication signifies and its purpose in reconciling people to the Church.
What Does the Church Say?
“They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion.” (Lumen Gentium [Dogmatic Constitution on the Church], n. 14)
Excommunication is “a severe ecclesiastical penalty, resulting from grave crimes against the Catholic religion, imposed by ecclesiastical authority or incurred as a direct result of the commission of an offence. Excommunication excludes the offender from taking part in the Eucharist or other sacraments and from the exercise of any ecclesiastical office, ministry, or function.” (CCC)
“An excommunicated person is forbidden: to have any ministerial participation in celebrating the sacrifice of the Eucharist or any other ceremonies of worship whatsoever; to celebrate the sacraments or sacramentals and to receive the sacraments; to exercise any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, or functions whatsoever or to place acts of governance.” (Code of Canon Law, c. 1331)
Teaching through Affirmative Orthodoxy
Excommunication, unsurprisingly, is connected to our understanding of the Church and its members. As the Second Vatican Council made clear, membership with the Body of Christ is bound by the profession of faith (believing what the Church believes), participation in the sacraments (particularly Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist), and communion with the visible institution, embodied in the College of Bishops with the Bishop of Rome at its head.
Those who break with any three of these bonds sever their relationship with the Body of Christ. For instance, a person who denies the bodily resurrection of Christ professes a different faith than the Church. Similarly, a cleric or religious who engages in obstinate disobedience to a bishop or superior to which their obedience has been pledged has indicated that they have put themselves outside the governance of the Church.
A decree of excommunication is merely the formal acknowledgement of this ruptured relationship and a call to repentance. This is why excommunication is called a “medicinal” remedy — it’s purpose is not punitive, but to call the person to reestablish that which has been broken. Indeed, those who are excommunicated are not considered outside the Church, but members in need of reconciliation and healing. Similarly, excommunication does not imply anything about the state of the person’s eternal soul; God alone knows that.
Helping people to situate excommunication in the context of the bonds that keep the members of the Church connected is a useful way to help them understand the issues at play when a person is declared to be excommunicated from the Church. Of course, it must also be stated that excommunication can be abused — St. Joan of Arc and St. Mary Mary MacKillop being two famous examples! This is why the Code of Canon Law spells out under what circumstances excommunication is incurred. It is not to be taken lightly.
That having been said, excommunicated members of the Body of Christ should be treated with the love and dignity which calls them to renewed commitment to their faith. Indeed, shunning members who have been excommunicated or otherwise ostracizing them may simply drive them further from the Church and the sacraments. Although they are not permitted to receive the Eucharist they are still obligated to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days; their presence at the liturgy should not be a cause for scandal but an incitement to prayer for their eventual reconciliation.
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