40 Myths About the Catholic Church–Excommunication

Note: This series of posts was intended to coincide with Lent. 40 days = 40 myths. Clearly, I didn’t do as well as I might have. Lent is over and I’ve only posted 27 myths. I’m left with two choices; continue the series into the Easter Season or go back and re-title all 27 posts “27 Myths About the Catholic Church”. I hope my loyal readers will recognize my failure to complete my Lenten penance. Feel free to use me as a bad example and to learn from it. Sometimes we set our goals too high and sometimes we just come up short.

Moving on, why does the Church excommunicate people?

To answer this question, first we have to understand exactly what excommunication is, and what it isn’t.  The word itself has two roots:  ex which means out of and communion which means being part of a community.  The excommunicated person is no longer part of the believing community.  The penalty of excommunication does not mean that the person is no longer a Christian.  Christianity is imparted by baptism and that can never be taken away.

The biggest mistake that most people make about this subject is that somehow the Church uses excommunication as a punishment.  With a few exceptions the Church doesn’t excommunicate anyone.  A person separates him or herself from the Church by his or her own actions.  There are countless Catholics who have excommunicated themselves who are never called out by a bishop or pope.  With over a billion Catholics in the world, it’s not surprising that some folks can fall away from the Church and stay under the radar.

If someone decides that they aren’t bound by the teachings of the Church, they have separated themselves from the community.  A good example would be Catholic politicians who support abortion.  Deep down they know that what they’re doing is wrong.  We don’t need a bishop to declare that they’re excommunicated though it would be nice if that happened once in a while.

The Church refers to excommunication as a “medicinal penalty”.  The idea isn’t for the person to be run out of the Church.  The purpose is to show them the error of their ways in hopes that they will repent and come back into full communion.  When a bishop  declares someone excommunicated, he is merely informing the rest of us that the person has fallen away.  The excommunicated person is excluded from all of the sacraments except reconciliation.

One example is a parish here in Saint Louis that refused to follow the Archbishop’s instructions.  The pastor and  the lay members of the parish board were clearly in schism with the Church.  Our Archbishop declared that these people had automatically excommunicated themselves.  The priest was also laicized.  Two of the board members have since reconciled with the Church, which is the preferred result.  The pastor, other board members, and the members of the parish have not reconciled and they and the parish are no longer considered Catholics in good standing.

In the history of the Church, formal excommunication has been pretty rare.

Surprisingly there’s a very good, simple of excommunication at the “For Dummies” website.  They list the following automatic causes:

  • Procuring of abortion
  • Apostasy: The total rejection of the Christian faith.
  • Heresy: The obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth, which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith.
  • Schism: The rejection of the authority and jurisdiction of the pope as head of the Church.
  • Desecration of sacred species (Holy Communion)
  • Physical attack on the pope
  • Sacramental absolution of an accomplice in sin against the Sixth and Ninth Commandments
  • Unauthorized episcopal (bishopconsecration
  • Direct violation of confessional seal by confessor

Excommunication can be reversed in most cases simply by receiving the sacrament of reconciliation.  In my research for this post I found a surprisingly large number of web sites with advice on how to get excommunicated.  Apparently it’s a popular form of recreation for former Catholics who have decided to become atheists.  You would think that if you don’t believe in the Church, you wouldn’t be too concerned about this, but I guess some people are so mad at the Church that they want to be taken off the mailing list.

There are a number of good references on this subject including the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the Code of Canon Law.




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