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

“Love for Jesus and His Church must be the passion of our lives!”

I have been pondering for the past two days Archbishop Dolan’s presidential address at the USCCB General Assembly on Monday. If you haven’t read it, I heartily recommend the entire thing. (You can also watch the address on the USCCB web site; it’s in the first video at about the 39:30 mark.) The whole address is an eloquent reflection on the state of the Church in America while highlighting the archbishop’s deep spirituality and wit.

If you don’t have time to read ten PDF pages, here are some of my favorite quotes:

One thing we can’t help but remember, one lesson we knew before we got off the plane, train, or car, something we hardly needed to come to this venerable archdiocese to learn, is that “love for Jesus and His Church must be the passion of our lives!”

Perhaps, brethren, our most pressing pastoral challenge today is to reclaim that truth, to restore the luster, the credibility, the beauty of the Church “ever ancient, ever new,” renewing her as the face of Jesus, just as He is the face of God. Maybe our most urgent pastoral priority is to lead our people to see, meet, hear and embrace anew Jesus in and through His Church.

. . . . .

Our world would often have us believe that culture is light years ahead of a languishing, moribund Church.

But, of course, we realize the opposite is the case: the Church invites the world to a fresh, original place, not a musty or outdated one. It is always a risk for the world to hear the Church, for she dares the world to “cast out to the deep,” to foster and protect the inviolable dignity of the human person and human life; to acknowledge the truth about life ingrained in reason and nature; to protect marriage and family; to embrace those suffering and struggling; to prefer service to selfishness; and never to stifle the liberty to quench the deep down thirst for the divine that the poets, philosophers, and peasants of the earth know to be what really makes us genuinely human.

. . . . .

The Church we passionately love is hardly some cumbersome, outmoded club of sticklers, with a medieval bureaucracy, silly human rules on fancy letterhead, one more movement rife with squabbles, opinions, and disagreement.

The Church is Jesus — teaching, healing, saving, serving, inviting; Jesus often “bruised, derided, cursed, defiled.”

The Church is a communio, a supernatural family. Most of us, praise God, are born into it, as we are into our human families. So, the Church is in our spiritual DNA. The Church is our home, our family.

. . . . .

We who believe in Jesus Christ and His one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church interpret the sinfulness of her members not as a reason to dismiss the Church or her eternal truths, but to embrace her all the more! The sinfulness of the members of the Church reminds us precisely how much we need the Church. The sinfulness of her members is never an excuse, but a plea, to place ourselves at His wounded side on Calvary from which flows the sacramental life of the Church.

Like Him, she, too, has wounds. Instead of running from them, or hiding them, or denying them, she may be best showing them, like He did that first Easter night.

Photo by Gun Powder Ma/Wikipedia

The Church: Our Safeguard Against Self-Destruction

For the past four weeks I’ve been facilitating a formation course for Catholic school teachers in Springfield on Catholic Social Doctrine. This past week we explored chapter four of Pope Benedict XVI’s social encyclical, Cartias in Veritate (Charity in Truth).

One quote from our reading stuck out at me in particular:

The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction. [my emphasis]

image by Zahorí/FlickrCCThe pope is speaking plainly here about the impact of unjust consumption and hoarding of resources by industrial nations without regard to the impact on underdeveloped nations or future generations. However, I think we can also read a spiritual truth into this statement; namely, that without the Church, the Body of Christ, we cannot avoid the self-destruction of our souls. It is the Church’s duty to safeguard the faithful and preach the Gospel unto their salvation. Without that preaching, preserved through the teaching of the Apostles and their successors, we are doomed to annihilation.

Benedict’s statement also points to a greater reality: that, while mankind is perfectly capable of destroying itself, we cannot save ourselves. It is only in community that we will avoid self-destruction. And not just any community will do — it must be a community rightly ordered, with Christ at the head. Without the Church we would not have the Sacred Scriptures, the sacraments, the teachings of Christ; in other words, we would not have the means of grace necessary to avoid our destruction.

Pope Benedict alludes to these realities again in the closing words of this chapter:

Truth, and the love which it reveals, cannot be produced: they can only be received as a gift. Their ultimate source is not, and cannot be, mankind, but only God, who is himself Truth and Love. This principle is extremely important for society and for development, since neither can be a purely human product; the vocation to development on the part of individuals and peoples is not based simply on human choice, but is an intrinsic part of a plan that is prior to us and constitutes for all of us a duty to be freely accepted. That which is prior to us and constitutes us ” subsistent Love and Truth ” shows us what goodness is, and in what our true happiness consists. It shows us the road to true development.

What Our Lord said about His Church

When Our Lord was starting the Church, so to speak, at the Last Supper, He took care to give to it the Four Marks He wished it to have. In His discourse afterwards in the Upper Room, He told the apostles He was offering eternal life to all flesh (read John xvii, 1-3) ; that the apostles themselves were His appointed witnesses and workers (John xv, 16; xv, 27); and He prayed that His disciples should be all one (John xvii, ii ; Xvii, 20-21); and that they should be made holy in the truth (John xvii, 17-19), getting their holy life from His as the branches from the Vine (John xv, 4-5).

If there is a true Church of Christ still on earth, we must expect it to show those four marks still.

– Rev. F.H. Drinkwater, Catechism Stories Part I: the Creed (1939)

Radcliffe on Leaving the Church

I don’t often link to other commentary on the web (the best way to find out what I’m reading on a given day is to follow me on Twitter), but this piece by Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., about whether to leave   the Church in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal is too good to pass up:

Why go? If it is to find a safer haven, a less corrupt Church, then I think that you will be disappointed. I too long for more transparent government, more open debate, but the Church’s secrecy is understandable, and sometimes necessary. To understand is not always to condone, but necessary if we are to act justly.

Why stay? I must lay my cards on the table; even if the Church were obviously worse than other Churches, I still would not go. I am not a Catholic because our Church is the best, or even because I like Catholicism. I do love much about my Church but there are aspects of it which I dislike. I am not a Catholic because of a consumer option for an ecclesiastical Waitrose rather than Tesco, but because I believe that it embodies something which is essential to the Christian witness to the Resurrection, visible unity.

When Jesus died, his community fell apart. He had been betrayed, denied, and most of his disciples fled. It was chiefly the women who accompanied him to the end. On Easter Day, he appeared to the disciples. This was more than the physical resuscitation of a dead corpse.

In him God triumphed over all that destroys community: sin, cowardice, lies, misunderstanding, suffering and death. The Resurrection was made visible to the world in the astonishing sight of a community reborn. These cowards and deniers were gathered together again. They were not a reputable bunch, and shamefaced at what they had done, but once again they were one. The unity of the Church is a sign that all the forces that fragment and scatter are defeated in Christ.

Really: go read the whole thing.