Why excommunicate people? Is this not a strange holdover from the medieval Church? Excommunication is a punitive device on the part of the Church and is more than merely denying holy Communion. It also publicly rebukes and shames the person.
The cause for excommunication is explicitly “obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin” (Canon 915). However, a case could certainly be made that the punishment of excommunication could also be attached to “rebuke a person from whose behavior there arises scandal or serious disturbance of order in a manner accommodated to the special conditions of the person and the deed” (Canon 1339, Paragraph 2).
The Church takes this extreme measure only after all other efforts to correct a person have failed. It should not be treated lightly. Some have viewed it as a way to bring errant Catholics (including Catholic politicians) into line. Though its intent is always to restore the offenders to truth and communion, its extreme nature often makes it unlikely that such a thing may occur. Failing reconciliation, excommunication can serve as a clear statement to the faithful of the serious nature of our moral doctrine.
There have been a number of difficulties that have arisen in the Church in the United States recently that have prompted both bishops and laity to investigate the possibility of the use of excommunication to seek to restore Church discipline. These have ranged from in-house Church matters like rebellion of parishioners against pastors to revisiting what possible reaction the Church can employ towards politicians who publicly and without compunction dissent from Church teaching on matters like same-sex “marriage” or abortion.
The history of excommunication leads to mixed results. In the early Church, St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, used the threat of excommunication against Emperor Theodosius I for his massacre of 7,000 people in Thessalonica. He told the emperor to imitate David in his repentance and readmitted him to Communion after several months of penance.
In the Middle Ages, Pope Gregory VII excommunicated Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV over many disputed issues, not least of which was Henry’s attempt to depose Gregory from the papacy. In his excommunication, Gregory also absolved Henry’s subjects from obedience. Henry’s excommunication produced a deep effect on both Germany and Italy.
In response, Henry was forced to come to Canossa and wait in the snow for three days; he did penance and was ultimately absolved from the excommunication. In medieval Europe, where almost everyone was Catholic, the emperor needed the Church, and so excommunication was effective.
A contemporary example of a positive result of excommunication occurred in 2010, when Mercy Sister Margaret McBride incurred automatic excommunication for her role in an abortion that was performed at a Catholic hospital in Phoenix. As of September 2011, a statement from the Sisters of Mercy reported that Sister Margaret has “met the requirements for reinstatement with the Church and she is no longer excommunicated.”
On the other hand, the excommunication of Martin Luther, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I had little effect personally or on their followers. The use of this as a weapon created sympathy for the offender and often led to a more solid backing of dissent. The Renaissance was a very different time in the life of the Church, and people did not take excommunication as seriously. Like every punishment, if used too much, too often or for reasons which are trivial or self-serving, as was certainly the case for many of the excommunications imposed by the Church in her history, people simply ignore it.
Today, many politicians could well look on excommunication as an asset to re-election, especially if the press looked upon such an “attack” as un-American. Also, a patchwork of action by a few bishops across the country would have little effect. The hierarchy would have to address errant politicians in a coordinated effort and be prepared to ultimately invoke more serious sanctions, with full realization that the Church could be perceived as un-American.
Obviously then, excommunication must be used with great prudence. The purpose of all punishment is the amendment of the offender and the consolation and peace of the faithful. Public dissent from Church teaching and scandalous libel of the clergy can lead to conditions in which the faithful may perceive a given doctrinal aberration to be true or experience great distress. The maxim of the law is: Silence gives consent. If a group of the faithful is causing scandal by supporting teachings or laws contrary to the natural law or by seriously disturbing the peace of the parish or the diocese, it could appear that the Church agrees with their position. Of course, one should attempt many actions to bring about reconciliation short of excommunication. Pastors are not tyrants, but shepherds, and all reasonable attempts must be made to enlist parishioners as partners.
As an example of action short of excommunication, in a very prudent and thoughtful letter to parishioners who were inciting others to hatred of the clergy and their bishop, while not directly mentioning the sanction of excommunication, Bishop Robert Morlino of the Diocese of Madison, Wis., appended texts from Church documents that suggest the possibility of ecclesiastical censure. One such: “Canon 1373: A person who publicly incites among subjects animosities or hatred against the Apostolic See or an ordinary because of some act of power or ecclesiastical ministry or provokes subjects to disobey them is to be punished by an interdict or other just penalties.” Though the Church is respectful of disagreement, there are times when disagreement becomes calumny or can lead to the impression of moral relativism, a situation that the peace and public order of the Church cannot tolerate.
It is true that there are many Catholics in the United States who dissent from Church teaching on a number of matters, especially moral ones. For dissenters deeply involved in the public forum, failure on the part of Church authorities to provide some needed corrective is tantamount to carte blanche to the faithful to believe whatever they want. The impression is given that the truths of our religion are a smorgasbord from which one can pick and choose.
To be sure, if excommunication were used there would be many who would ignore it. On the other hand, to remain silent would suggest that even Church authorities do not take their own teaching seriously. Those who obstinately support causes like same-sex “marriage,” birth control and abortion should be ecclesiastically censured. This would include Catholic college professors who advocate such causes. Otherwise the Church runs the risk of being neither hot nor cold, but seeming to adapt doctrine to political or social expediency.
Though it is true that the Church does not have a political mission, prudence is not the same as avoiding trouble. In fact, where defense of truth is concerned, it is just the opposite. The Church does have the obligation to form the public conscience on correct teaching in both doctrine and morals for the sake of clarity and to avoid scandal, but a coordinated effort by the hierarchy would be essential.
Dominican Father Brian Mullady has a doctorate in sacred theology. He is a mission preacher and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.