What is a Censure in the Church?

Open dialogue is healthy — even in the world of Twitter

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921), “The Interdict”
Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921), “The Interdict” (photo: Public Domain)

On Feb. 17, a tweet by an obscure figure named Tony Annett – who has 650 followers and a penchant for tweeting out in favor of Pope Francis – called for EWTN to be censured by placing the organization under interdict until it fired Raymond Arroyo. In the tweet Annett wrote: “Make no mistake, these attacks on @antoniospadaro and @CardinalBCupich represent “total war” on the papacy of Pope Francis. Time to interdict @EWTN until they get rid of @RaymondArroyo.” This was in response to a tweet from Register Vatican correspondent Edward Pentin promoting Raymond Arroyo’s discussion on his show The World Over about a recent speech given by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor of the prominent Jesuit journal La Civilità Cattolica, at Georgetown University.

Under normal circumstances, such a tweet would go unnoticed in the Twitterverse, but it was retweeted by Fr. Spadaro, with the predictable controversy and acrimony that are now so commonplace in social media.  

In no way has Raymond Arroyo or EWTN been censured by the Vatican, but the occasion of the tweet and retweet was also an opportunity to explore what exactly the Church understands about censures and other kinds of penalties.

According to the New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (in the commentary for “Censures”), censures are “medicinal penalties depriving obstinate offenders of access to various ecclesiastical goods, such as the sacraments or church offices, until they are restored to full ecclesial communion…Unlike expiatory penalties, censures focus more sharply on the offender’s reform and reintegration within the community.”

Typically, censures include excommunication, interdict and suspension (the latter is reserved to clerics). As this is probably all rather abstruse to the average layperson, the Register spoke with Msgr. William King, a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg and an adjunct professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America. He holds a doctorate in Canon Law from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

His comments have been edited for length and clarity.


What is a censure in the Church? How is it different from interdiction or excommunication?

In common usage, the word “censure” conveys an official reprimand or strong statement of disapproval. However, the word has a more precise meaning in canon law.  A censure is one of two categories of penalties within the Church, as provided in canon 1312. A censure is also called a “medicinal penalty,” since its aim is to bring about healing in the Church community or within an offender….a censure is meant as a remedy or medicine: to motivate an offender to rethink a position or action and repent.

Because a censure is intended to bring about a change in behavior, it is to be remitted as soon as the offender repents of the offense and makes at least a serious promise to amend for damages or scandal (see canon 1347, §2). For the same reason, a censure may not be imposed without prior warning by competent ecclesiastical authority and the opportunity to repent.

There are three types of censures or medicinal penalties: excommunication, interdict, and suspension. Suspension affects only clerics. Excommunication and interdict can apply to any member of the Christian faithful.

In sum, a censure is meant not to punish as much as to bring about a change in behavior, and so a censure — as any punishment within the Christian community — is not an action taken lightly or quickly.  It is a last resort.

The canons first urge “fraternal correction, rebuke, and other ways of pastoral care” (canon 1341) before a penalty is considered.  When these means fail, then a penalty may be considered, but in fact, no penalty may be imposed without due process. A very few penalties arise directly from the act (such a successful direct abortion) but even those penalties cannot be officially declared or imposed by ecclesiastical authority without due process.  For those very few egregious offenses, the threat of a penalty is intended to deter the action, or in other words to serve as preventative medicine.

Due process can be accomplished either through a judicial process in an ecclesiastical Tribunal, or an administrative process.  Either type of process includes the right of self-defense.


Can an apostolate or a media apostolate be censured? Who would impose it?

Penalties in the Church are levied against physical persons, not institutions.  If the actions of an apostolate or ministry is denounced for an offense within the Church, it is not the institution but the human persons who made the decision, knowingly provided the material resources, directed the offensive behavior, or who actually performed the offending act, who would be subject to investigation.  The corporate body would not be accused per se, only the human beings who committed the suspected offense.

Recall that for a censure, prior warning and obstinate action against that warning are both required for a penalty to be declared or imposed.


What would be possible reasons for a censure to be imposed? What does it mean to “incite violence against the pope?”

The Code of Canon Law mentions several offenses which might call for a penalty, whether a censure or other penalty.  As an example, canon 1372 calls for a censure for a person who takes recourse against an act of the Roman Pontiff to an ecumenical council or to the college of bishops, and canon 1373 permits a harsher penalty (interdict) for one who publicly stirs up hostilities or contempt against the Apostolic See or a diocesan bishop, or who incites disobedience, over an act of ecclesiastical power.


Aren’t their other ways to resolve such a situation?

Application or declaration of a penalty in the Church is always a last resort.  This is especially true for a censure, which is intended to bring about a change of heart and a change in behavior.  The Church urges every effort to repair scandal, restore justice, and reform an offender before resorting to a penalty.

Short of launching a process to consider a penalty, the proper ecclesiastical authority can issue an official admonishment or rebuke, and even attach a penance to such an action. A document known as a penal precept may also be issued, exhorting a person to avoid an action and warning that a specific penalty may be applicable if that action is undertaken.


#  #  #  #  #  #  #  #  #

Finally, the whole notion of imposing censures on those in the Church with whom we disagree or have a contrary opinion – or who we think have hurt our feelings or bruised our egos – seems also fully discordant with the very words of Pope Francis. In a 2015 interview with the Argentinian newspaper La Nacion, the Holy Father observed, “I think it´s a good sign when things are discussed openly and not secretly if people don´t agree. It´s good to discuss things openly, it´s healthy.”

It is healthy, even in the world of Twitter.