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Getting excommunicated is much harder than you think

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”.