Affirmative Orthodoxy and Excommunication

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.

photo by foxypar4/flickrCC

Affirmative Orthodoxy and Divorce

This is the first in a series of posts looking at difficult Church teachings through the lens of Affirmative Orthodoxy.

Divorce has become epidemic in our society and the Church rightly decries it as a scourge on families and society. But how can we take about marriage from the standpoint of Affirmative Orthodoxy? What would a “positive” approach to a discussion on divorce look like?

What Does the Church Say?

“The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath  which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist. Christian marriage in its turn becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church. Since it signifies and communicates grace, marriage between baptized persons is a true sacrament of the New Covenant.” (CCC no. 1617)

œ’From a valid marriage arises  a bond  between the spouses which by its very nature is perpetual and exclusive; furthermore, in a Christian marriage the spouses are strengthened and, as it were, consecrated for the duties and the dignity of their state  by a special sacrament.’  (CCC no. 1638)

“The love of the spouses requires, of its very nature, the unity and indissolubility of the spouses’ community of persons, which embraces their entire life: ‘so they are no longer two, but one flesh.’ They ‘are called to grow continually in their communion through day-to-day fidelity to their marriage promise of total mutual self-giving.’ This human communion is confirmed, purified, and completed by communion in Jesus Christ, given through the sacrament of Matrimony. It is deepened by lives of the common faith and by the Eucharist received together.” (CCC no. 1644)

“It can seem difficult, even impossible, to bind oneself for life to another human being. This makes it all the more important to proclaim the Good News that God loves us with a definitive and irrevocable love, that married couples share in this love, that it supports and sustains them, and that by their own faithfulness they can be witnesses to God’s faithful love. Spouses who with God’s grace give this witness, often in very difficult conditions, deserve the gratitude and support of the ecclesial community.” (CCC no. 1648)

Divorce  is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign.” (CCC no. 2384)

Teaching through Affirmative Orthodoxy

When  approaching  the topic of divorce and the Church, the key is focusing on what the Church affirms: namely that, as a sign of Christ’s abiding and eternal love for his bride, the Church, the union of man and wife is indissoluble and permanent. If the marriage bond were not indissoluble, one might rightly ask what good the marriage between Christ and the Church is. If the possibility were open that Christ might set aside his bride then the assurance of salvation has no foundation. But we cling to Christ’s promise of fidelity and it is in the image of this promise that the bonds of matrimony are formed. That is why divorce is described as an offence against the “covenant of salvation” — it denies the eternal fidelity of the Bridegroom, Christ, to his chosen ones.

On a more practical note, it is the  indissolubility  of marriage that allows for the total self-giving of husband to wife and wife to husband, most perfectly visioned in the openness to new life that is the mark of a Christian marriage. As we have seen time and again, children best thrive when both parents are present; when one or the other is missing it is almost always more difficult on the child. This formation of the family — mother, father, child — can only be maintained when relationships are stable and permanent.

This is why the Church takes marriage preparation so seriously. By helping couples to discern their intentions and  capacity  to commit to a life-long relationship the hope is that future complications can be minimized. (As anyone who is married can tell you you can never  eliminated  difficulties!) Unfortunately the modern culture’s commitment to radical individual autonomy and self-gratification makes this task even more difficult. It behooves anyone involved in marriage preparation to take this task most seriously and impress upon  engaged  couples the seriousness of the  commitment  they are making.

Finally, it is also important to clear up any misconceptions about what the Church teaches regarding the status of divorced individuals. Many people are under the mistaken impression that any divorced person is barred from  receiving  Holy Communion; in fact there is no such prohibition since, in the eyes of the Church, the couple is merely separated and the marriage still intact. (That does not, however, diminish the grave offense divorce commits against the natural order.) On the other hand, those who have divorced and “re-marry” without an  annulment  compound the offence and engage in “public and permanent  adultery” (Cf  CCC no. 2384) and thus should not present themselves for the reception of Communion (per canon 915). Failure to make this distinction has led to much confusion and kept some people away from the sacrament who might otherwise have benefited from its grace.

Photo by jcoterhals/flickrCC

Affirmative Orthodoxy and…

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know that I’m a  proponent  of what John L. Allen has called “Affirmative Orthodoxy.” In his words this is “a tenacious defense of the core elements of classic Catholic doctrine, but presented in a relentlessly positive key.” Or, as Pope Benedict XVI has said,

Christianity, Catholicism,  isn’t  a collection of prohibitions: it’s a positive option. It’s very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s time to say: we have a positive idea to offer.

Unfortunately, in our evangelization and catechetical efforts, it can be easy to focus on the “thou shalt nots” of the faith, forgetting that these are first grounded in “thou shalts.” But if we want to attract people to the faith — if we truly want to be fishers of men — we must give them something positive to believe in together and not just focus on what we can condemn together.

As I said, this can be tricky. So beginning Monday, as an exercise for myself, I will be publishing a weekly series of blog posts demonstrating how some of the harder teachings of the Church can be presented first from a positive point of reference. The subjects I will be tackling are

  • Divorce
  • Excommunication
  • Contraception
  • Closed Communion
  • Gay Marriage
  • Abortion

I hope that you will find these posts interesting and helpful. I invite you to leave comments on the posts, especially if you’ve ever wrestled with how to answer questions about these doctrines from friends, family, or others. See you tomorrow!

The Third Possibility

Presented with a strong challenge to one’s deepest convictions, three basic psychological possibilities present themselves: rejecting the challenge through a tenacious defense of those convictions; recognizing the merits of the challenge, and adjusting one’s ideas and behavior as a result; recognizing the merits of the challenge, and rearticulating one’s convictions in an effort to demonstrate that they satisfy the aspirations of the challenger better than the proposed alternatives.

Applied to the collision between Catholicism and modernity, one could say in extremely broad strokes that the first possibility dominated most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the Syllabus of Errors and the anti-modernist campaigns. It was a largely defensive reaction against secularism that still has echoes in influential circles of Catholic thought. The second possibility carried the day at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and has defined the project of Catholic liberalism ever since: the drive to reform the church to better reflect some of the core values of modernity, such as tolerance, pluralism, and democracy.

Much of church politics in the post-Vatican II era, again painting with a very broad brush, can be understood as a clash between these two impulses. To some extent, the third possibility has remained a path not taken, which is what makes the emerging outlines of Benedict’s magisterium especially intriguing.

– John L. Allen, “2007’s neglected story: Benedict XVI and ‘Affirmative Orthodoxy'” (January 3, 2008)

“The New Evangelization and the Year of Faith” Notes and Resources

Earlier today I gave a presentation entitled “The New Evangelization and the Year of Faith” at the National Catholic Education Association’s CACE annual meeting in San Diego. What follows is the PowerPoint and notes for the session as well as the resources I recommended to those present.

Thanks to everyone who attended my session and may God bless you in the work of the New Evangelization!

Notes –  “The New Evangelization and the Year of Faith” (October 22, 2012)

Outline/Notes (PDF)

Church Documents



Video: Fortnight for Freedom Prayer Rally – Springfield, IL

Yesterday our diocesan bishop, the Most Reverend Thomas John Paprocki, hosted a prayer rally outside the Illinois State Capitol as part of our observance of the Fortnight for Freedom. I was particularly impressed with this rally’s focus on prayer as the primary strength of the Church. Bishop Paprocki was one of the architects of the Fortnight for Freedom and his consistant message has been that the Fortnight should be an event centered on prayer and education — not partisan posturing.

The rally was recorded; I offer it here, the day before we celebrate our Independence Day,  as one example of how the Church participates in the public life of our nation in a spirit of affirmative orthodoxy.

(Any complaints about the shaky camera work can be directed to your humble servant, who forgot the tripod.)

Good Celebration of Liturgy

Last month my office, in conjunction with our diocesan Office for Worship and the Catechumenate, offered a workshop on the Roman Missal, Third Edition  to the faithful of our diocese.

The introductory section, which I presented, was a brief (10 minute) overview of why good liturgical celebration is important to the life of the Church. We recorded the workshop and I offer my section below. You may notice from the context that the audience at this particular workshop was almost exclusively Catholic school teachers and staff.

My office also created some catechetical materials designed to be used by students in grades 2-12. They can be downloaded from our diocesan web site.

How Young Catholics Will Save the Church

Last night I had the pleasure to present a Theology on Tap talk at St. Boniface parish in Edwardsville, IL. Entitled “How Young Catholics Will Save the Church,” it was my own thoughts on the gifts young Catholics bring to the Church and how those gifts will help the process of renewal in the Church. While I didn’t have an opportunity to make a video recording of the talk (I forgot my tripod!) I did have an audio recorder going.

As I warned the group last night, these thoughts are in no way systematically laid out; they are closer to an extended  reflection  based on my own experiences as a young adult Catholic and what I have gleaned from other sources. I welcome any critique or correction to these thoughts.

Click to Play: How Young Catholics will Save the Church

Growing in Holiness through Middle Management: Part IV – The Kingly Ministry of Christ

Christ Driving the Money Changers Out of the Temple (Valentin de Boulogne, 1618)

(Looking for the start of this series? Go to Part I, Part II, or Part III.)

Of the kingly ministry, Pope John Paul II says

Because the lay faithful belong to Christ, Lord and King of the Universe, they share in his kingly mission and are called by him to spread that Kingdom in history. They exercise their kingship as Christians, above all in the spiritual combat in which they seek to overcome in themselves the kingdom of sin (cf. Rom 6:12), and then to make a gift of themselves so as to serve, in justice and in charity, Jesus who is himself present in all his brothers and sisters, above all in the very least (cf. Mt 25:40). (Christifideles Laici, 14)

Through the kingly ministry, then, we are called to overcome sin and Satan — through prayer and participation in the sacraments — and, through the life of holiness thus gained, to give that life as gift to others.

This is the “servant leadership” end of administration — our responsibility for overseeing that the organizations we lead carry out there missions. On the surface this may seem like the least interesting ministry we engage in — but in truth it is one of the most vital, for it is the bedrock on which a well-functioning organization rests.

Indeed, the most important job of an administrator is making sure that the right people are in place to carry out the work that needs doing. Hiring the wrong person derails your momentum, demoralizes good employees, and costs more time and money.

As a result, we need to take our time to make sure that we are hiring the right individuals. This includes knowing what qualifications, education, and experience the job requires “ not just hiring the pious mother who always attends daily Mass because “she obviously has an interest in churchy stuff.” Unfortunately I think we have many parishes where faithfulness is confused with qualification. While we certainly want the people working in our parishes and schools to be faithful Catholics, we also want them to have the qualifications necessary for the job.

Sometimes this will mean waiting to hire until the right person comes along. As I alluded to above, hiring the wrong person will ultimately cost more in the long run. Patience in the hiring process is a virtue and ensures that the right people are “on the bus” as Jim Collins puts it.

Exercising the kingly ministry also means ensuring that resources are properly allocated. This means budgeting! I know a lot of people hate filling out annual budgets (I do too!) but, as a vice-president of finance I worked with was find of saying: “Budgets are moral documents.” By that he meant that budgets tell us where our real priorities and values lie. If we say we want a robust youth ministry in our parish, are we giving the youth minister the resources necessary to carry out that vision? If we want to bring in new members, is there a line item for evangelization and the RCIA? These are hard questions, but necessary if we are honest about what it is we want to accomplish in our parishes.

Finally, the role of the kingly ministry means that we need to call a royal feast every once in a while! Celebrating our accomplishments and acknowledging successes demonstrates the virtue of hope. It is very easy to get bogged down by everything that is wrong in the Church — difficult parishioners, low Mass attendance, dwindling school enrollment. By celebrating the good that we do we remind ourselves that, with Christ’s help, we are bring about the Kingdom of God — and it’s not a fruitless struggle.

Growing in Holiness through Middle Management: Part III – The Prophetic Ministry of Christ

No Communication | Photo by Leonard John Matthews/flickerCC

(Missed the beginning of this series? Check out Part I and Part II.)

Of Christ’s prophetic ministry, Pope John Paul II says

Through their participation in the prophetic mission of Christ, “who proclaimed the kingdom of his Father by the testimony of his life and by the power of his world,” the lay faithful are given the ability and responsibility to accept the gospel in faith and to proclaim it in word and deed, without hesitating to courageously identify and denounce evil. United to Christ, the “great prophet” (Lk 7:16), and in the Spirit made “witnesses” of the Risen Christ, the lay faithful are made sharers in the appreciation of the Church’s supernatural faith, that “cannot err in matters of belief” and sharers as well in the grace of the word (cf. Acts 2:17-18; Rev 19:10). They are also called to allow the newness and the power of the gospel to shine out everyday in their family and social life, as well as to express patiently and courageously in the contradictions of the present age their hope of future glory even “through the framework of their secular life” (Christifideles Laici, 14).

The prophetic ministry calls us to give witness to the Gospel in word and in deed. I don’t think we have much problem accepting the latter. In fact, if anything I think we are too comfortable with the idea of evangelizing through our lives: we tend to over-quote the famous admonition (attributed to St. Francis) to “Preach the Gospel always; if necessary, use words.” This can lead to the (false) idea that words are never necessary, which in turns leads to complacency about naming the reason we live as we do in the world.

The role of the prophet is to speak the truth. In the Old Testament, the prophets called the Chosen People, who had turned from the proper worship of God to follow idols and false teachers, to return to a proper relationship with the God of Israel. They did this with a firm love, without watering down God’s call.

So, too, in administration. Our role, as partakers in the prophetic ministry, is to speak truthfully to those who work for us. We do this, first and foremost, by the feedback we give.

Unfortunately, for many people, this probably just means an annual review, but I don’t find them particularly helpful. Annual reviews aren’t frequent enough to allow employees to learn from mistakes, enjoy praise for a job well done, or grow in their roles. Taking a cue from the Manager Tools podcast, I’ve instituted 30-minute one-on-one meetings every other week with the directors who report to me. This allows for better communication, more immediate feedback, and better oversight of what is going on in the department I oversee.

Honest, forthright feedback is how we encourage good employees and help mediocre employees improve. Unfortunately their are times when all the feedback in a world won’t improve someone’s performance or attitude. At those times, as a VP for mission I worked with once said, we need to “invite people to live out their passions elsewhere.” Or, as Jim Collins puts it, we need to get the wrong people off the bus.

The truth is that bad employees are toxic to the work environment. If allowed to remain for too long they will demoralize teams and actually drive good employees to find work elsewhere. By participating in the prophetic ministry of Christ — by speaking truthfully and with authority — we can avoid sabotaging our work by ensuring that people know what the expectations are and that they are consistent across the organization.