Sunday, September 4, 2011

What is excommunication?

"If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that 'every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again, (amen,) I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." –Matthew 18:15-20, This Sunday’s Gospel Reading

I had a friend in college who confided in me that he had a problem with the idea of “excommunication.” In high school, when many people are questioning the faith of their birth, he came across some literature about excommunication. He had a hard time reconciling that concept with a loving God. He also couldn’t understand how a group of people could banish someone and essentially send them to Hell. Over time, he came to an understanding that excommunication is not an act of the Church, but an act of the individual being excommunicated. He realized that excommunication isn’t really in conflict with a loving God, after all.

What is excommunication?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “excommunication” as: “A formal ecclesiastical censure that deprives a person of the right to belong to a church.” This definition, like any definition, is quite simplistic. It kind of makes it sound as if the big, bad ecclesiastical body is callously picking on the poor, innocent ex-church member. This is far from the truth.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines “excommunication” as: 

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 offense. Excommunication excludes the offender from taking part in the Eucharist or other sacraments and from the exercise of any ecclesiastical office, ministry, or function.

As indicated in the CCC definition, there are two types of excommunication. One, ferendae sententiae, occurs after a trial. It is a matter of public record. The other, latae sententiae, does not require a trial. It occurs automatically when a person commits a particular offense. In a sense, people who are excommunicated latae sententiae excommunicate themselves. 

In some cases, excommunicatable offenses can sometimes be excused:

1)      Lack of full use of reason. Children and people who are mentally handicapped cannot excommunicate themselves.
2)      Lack of liberty resulting from grave fear. You cannot be held accountable for something you were forced to do.
3)      Ignorance. You cannot be held accountable if you could not have known that what you were doing was wrong.  
What is an excommunicatable offense?

-          heresy
-          apostasy (total rejection of Christianity)
-          schism (rejection of the Pope)
-          desecration of the Blessed Sacrament
-          physical attack on the Pope
-          procuring an abortion
-          fake celebration of the Mass or other sacrament by someone other than a priest.
-          Unauthorized episcopal consecration (making someone a bishop without authorization from Rome)

Priests are also not immune to excommunication. Some specifically priestly offenses include:
-          Breaking the seal of confession
-          Giving someone absolution for murder, lying, or sexual immorality when the priest themselves were involved in the murder, lie or sexual immorality. 

Who can excommunicate?

In most cases, the excommunicated person essentially excommunicates themselves. By committing an offense like those listed above, they are automatically excommunicated. If a trial is involved, it is the Pope that excommunicates.

Who can lift an excommunication?

Generally speaking, a priest in the Sacrament of Confession can lift excommunications. Sometimes, some further action must take place for it to be completely lifted. In rare cases (particularly ferendae sententiae excommunication), only a bishop or a priest who is specifically assigned by the bishop can lift the excommunication. In all cases, a priest can lift an excommunication when the person seeking reconciliation is in grave danger of death.  

Okay, why is excommunication not so bad?

First of all, excommunication is not usually a punishment forced upon someone. The person usually brings it upon themselves. Excommunication works kind of like hell. No one is forced to be excommunicated or to go to hell, people choose to do so. God gave us free will and he respects that free will so much that he allows people to choose to disobey and reject Him.

Second, excommunication is never irreversible. An excommunicated person can always come back and we will welcome them with open arms. Most of the time, all it takes is a simple, sincere confession. Excommunication is not an act of rejection or punishment, it is an act of love. There is hope that the person will see the error in their ways and come back. It's tough love, the harshest penalty that the Mother Church can use on her children in hope that they will change their ways. 

To learn more:

The hard facts from Catholic Answers

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