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Using Ecclesiastical Penalties to Shape Both Souls and Culture

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 24, 2012

The recent declaration by the Archbishop of Shkodrë-Pult that Catholics who participate in traditional Albanian revenge killings will be excommunicated calls to mind many other efforts by the Church over the centuries to use spiritual sanctions to purify human culture. Such disciplines as excommunication and interdiction have been combined with teaching and preaching to pressure those who claim to be Catholic to place the moral teachings of the Church above mere cultural traditions.

Our Lord was talking about this same tendency to subordinate the Faith to human culture when He accused the Pharisees of using their own traditions to circumvent God’s will:

And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.” [See the entire passage, Mk 7:6-13.]

An interdict prohibits the person or persons to whom it is applied from participating in much of the sacramental life of the Church, particularly holy communion, typically with the exceptions of baptism, confession and last rites. An excommunication actually expels someone from the body of the Church altogether. Both have occasionally been used, for example, in the effort to deter American Catholics from racist behavior with respect to worship and education, as when Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans put a chapel under interdict because white parishioners refused to admit a black priest in 1955. Thus Mass could not be celebrated there by anybody until an important lesson had been learned.

Sometimes whole regions have been affected, as when Pope Innocent III placed England under an interdict between 1208 and 1213 because King John refused to accept Innocent’s appointee to the See of Canterbury, instead attempting to bully the English clergy into accepting his own candidate. The goal, obviously, was to bring both spiritual and popular pressure to bear on the King, such that the freedom of the Church to form people in the Faith would be honored by the government. Interestingly, the medieval Church in Europe also used special daily observances over a period of centuries to gradually reduce the violence endemic to feudal culture, proclaiming certain days to be free of fighting in honor of Christ, under what came to be called the Truce of God. Canonical penalties were used to shape these new habits.

Excommunication has been used more frequently than interdict, resulting in the expulsion of public sinners from the Church in the hope of bringing about their conversion. Excommunication quite literally cuts the sinner off from the body of Christ. Thus St. Paul pronounced the excommunication of an egregious sinner in Corinth when the community failed to exert itself to correct the evil:

It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father's wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (1 Cor 5:1-5)

Canon Law provides for automatic interdict and excommunication under certain circumstances, which calls attention to the primarily spiritual purpose of these canonical penalties. But when the penalties are applied publicly, they can have a powerful teaching effect, putting all Catholics on notice that they have a serious responsibility not only to avoid certain sins but to work against those sins socially. In this way, canonical penalties can be not only spiritually but culturally purifying. They force people to stop equivocating and to make a direct choice for or against the Church, which represents Christ.

Obviously the Church forms the personal virtues of her members most frequently through preaching, teaching and the administration of the sacraments, by which her members grow in the graces necessary to resist temptations of every kind. Similarly, through her cycles of feasts and fasts, the Church strives to inculcate in her children important habits of resisting evil and celebrating good, so that our Catholicism might seep steadily into our very bones. But sometimes stiff canonical penalties are necessary, first in order to bring a sinner to his senses, and second to form the larger culture in which sinners and saints alike participate.

Thus the Albanian bishops are attempting to use direct ecclesiastical discipline to wake up those who claim the name of Catholic while still permitting themselves to be caught up in the practice of gjakmarrja, which is the of killing those who have killed one’s own family members or stained the family’s honor in some way (divorce is an example). This is a Hatfield and McCoy (or Capulet and Montague) problem rooted in the larger Albanian culture.

In the same way, it has been frequently discussed in the United States whether pro-abortion politicians should be excommunicated as a spiritual wake-up call to themselves and to the many Catholics who have slipped and slithered into political acceptance of grave immorality. On rare occasions, some politicians have been refused communion (which might be called a partial form of interdiction); in Corpus Christi, Texas, Bishop René Gracida placed an unnamed politician under formal interdict late in the last century, and he died in this unfortunate state. Excommunication has been frequently advocated by pro-life Catholics, but I am not aware of its use yet on this issue, though members of the dissident “Catholic” Call to Action group in Lincoln, Nebraska were excommunicated in the mid-1990s by Archbishop Fabian Bruskewitz—a decision that was upheld in Rome.

For these remedies to achieve their primary purpose, which is always the correction of the sinners to whom the penalties are applied, those affected must still have sufficient faith to recognize through the punishment the grave danger into which their ill-considered attitudes and actions have led them. In order to achieve their secondary purpose, which is to purify and strengthen the Catholic culture in which grave offenses have been tolerated, it goes without saying that there must be enough semi-healthy Catholics to internalize the larger lesson and make a real effort to reduce or eliminate the community’s tolerance of—or in many cases even approval for—the evils in question.

There is no guarantee, of course, that ecclesiastical penalties will be prudently applied. They are disciplinary measures, not definitions of faith or morals. But when they are prudently applied, such penalties can definitely help to reform Catholics and shape the culture of which they are a part. Clearly success also depends on a certain critical Catholic mass, both in the individual soul and in the putative Catholic community of reference. If that critical mass does not exist, then preaching, teaching and heroic witness—including martyrdom—will have to come first. Spiritual penalties, to be salutary, need something with which to work.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: mdepietro - Sep. 26, 2012 3:38 PM ET USA

    We will not know if such penalties would work until they are tried. What is clear is that up until now the United States Bishops have as a body sent mixed messages about the moral seriousness of political support for abortion on demand. Witness the funeral of Ted Kennedy and ardent abortion supporter who was basically canonized at his mass. The hour is late, It is time to start treating abortion like the "unspeakable crime" Vatican II claims it is.

  • Posted by: unum - Sep. 26, 2012 8:37 AM ET USA

    aclune9083, The fact that the Church has not acted to discipline "pro-abort politicians" may be a factor. How can you expect Catholics to take the teaching of the Church seriously when our bishops allow "Catholic" politicians to give scandal without taking action. The conventional wisdom is that the bishops are giving "wink-wink, nod-nod" approval to these politicians, and the approval of these progressive bishops constitutes approval of the Church.

  • Posted by: aclune9083 - Sep. 25, 2012 4:59 PM ET USA

    Sadly, the fear of canonical penalty seems to have no effect on the millions of Catholics who "follow their consciences" in regards to the moral teachings of the Church, whether it is supporting pro-abort politicians or practicing artificial birth control. To some extent, this is the legacy of VII. It will not be corrected, however, until bishops and priests take a stand and impose the requisite discipline. If they fail to do so, the flock will not follow and many souls will go to hell.

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