10 things you may not know about…excommunication

Posted by Paddy MacLachlan

Pope Gregory IX excommunicates Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century


1. Excommunication is a form of censure that deprives, suspends or limits membership of a religious community. It is the most serious penalty that the Catholic Church can inflict and is rarely imposed except in cases of grave offense.

2. In Catholic canon law, excommunication is described as a “medicinal” penalty; the excommunicated person is encouraged to change, repent and return to full communion. This makes it different to an “expiatory penalty”, which is designed to extract recompense for a wrongdoing, and vastly different to a “vindictive penalty” whose only function is to punish.

3. If a person is not a baptized Catholic, they cannot be excommunicated. By the same token, excommunicated Catholics are still Catholics. They remain bound by obligations such as attending Mass, even though they are barred from receiving the Eucharist.

4. The authority to excommunicate is limited to the pope, general councils, bishops, papal legates, vicars capitular and vicars-general or it may be imposed by an ecclesiastical court (ferendae sententiae). However, some excommunications may be incurred automatically (late sententiae) by the very commission of the offending act, e.g. apostasy, heresy, abortion, violation of the seal of confession, ordaining a bishop without papal mandate, etc.

5. In the Middle Ages, formal acts of public excommunication were sometimes accompanied by a ceremony where a bell was tolled, the Book of the Gospels was closed and a candle snuffed out — hence the idiom “to condemn with bell, book and candle”.

6. Before the 1983 Code of Canon Law, introduced by Pope John Paul II, there were two degrees of excommunication: vitandus, which meant being totally shunned by other Catholics, or toleratus, which allowed a limited amount of contact. This distinction no longer applies.

7. There are three ‘conditions of guilt’ which have to be fulfilled before excommunication can be imposed: the person in question must have full power of reason; they must have ‘full moral liberty’, which means that they did not act out of fear or under coercion; and they must be fully aware that they have performed a transgression, as well as the consequences.

8. In April 2010, Pope Benedict XVI announced “with great sadness of heart, yet with full conviction,” that “any and all priests within the global Catholic community found guilty of the sin of sexual immorality with any child, past, present, or future, within or without the boundaries of their current or past parish, shall be brought to justice within the Catholic church for formal excommunication.”

9. One of the largest and most publicized excommunications in recent times was in 1996, when Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska imposed it on the members of 12 groups whose agenda was liberal reform within the Church. Lincoln is described as the USA’s most conservative diocese; it is the only one in the US that does not allow girls to act as altar servers.

10. The concept of excommunication exists, in some form or other, in virtually all faiths, but Islam is a notable exception. The nearest approximation is takfir, a declaration that an individual or group are non-believers. But this does not prevent them from taking part in any Islamic rite or ritual.

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