Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Loving to Discipline: The Case for Excommunication

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 06, 2013

It seems to me that it is time to reconsider—again—whether bishops ought to excommunicate Catholics who lead the way in promoting or implementing policies which are clearly contrary to the moral law. Just now Andrew Cuomo would make an excellent case study. Should he be the poster boy for all those who secretly want to get themselves kicked out of the Church? At least we may take him as a type.

Cuomo is a radical and outspoken advocate for both gay marriage and abortion. He campaigned for Governor of New York on a platform which included support for gay marriage, he spearheaded an intense lobbying campaign in favor of a bill to recognize it, and he signed the bill into law. He has also now introduced a bill which expands access to abortion, and undermines current legal restrictions on the practice in New York State. In other words, there is no question of Cuomo merely tolerating these things in a culture which is seriously ill; he is constantly pushing the envelope.

Now it is true that there is not much left of Cuomo’s claim to be a Catholic. He divorced his wife, Kerry Kennedy, in 2005. According to Wikipedia, as of 2011 he was living with his girlfriend. That alone is supposed to stop you from receiving communion, though Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany is unwilling to make a point of this, citing the need to keep what is private private. Unfortunately, it is public scandal and not private sin which lies behind the Church’s canonical obligation to refuse communion to figures who, by their public reception of that sacrament, bring the Church’s seriousness about the Faith into disrepute.

But I do not insist upon Cuomo; he just happens to be in the news again today. There are plenty of other negative poster boys and poster girls, if the Church would only put them on a poster. Indeed, wayward theologians are an even better target, except that in today’s world prominent public figures have far greater teaching value. Indeed, the excommunication of a political figure will immediately bring out of the woodwork certain theologians, priests, religious, and lay leaders eager to perform for the media their well-rehearsed denunciations of such an egregious abuse of ecclesiastical discipline. Call it a strategic initiative to flush out the snakes.

In any case, the key question is this: Why do I think excommunication in extreme public cases should be the disciplinary measure of choice for bishops?

The Privatization of Religion

Paradoxically, my first argument is based squarely on a repudiation of this notion that spiritual matters must be dealt with privately. This is simply another case of the cultural privatization of religion in the modern world, by which even many Catholic bishops have become convinced that religion is essentially a private and personal affair which ought not to be intruded into public life in any way, let alone in policy decisions. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Catholicism is inescapably a public thing. The Catholic Church has real authority to protect and interpret the moral law, and Christ Himself has an absolute claim on all of man’s allegiances, both public and private. It is true that there are many policy disputes which the Church hierarchy ought not to adjudicate. Most policy questions are matters of prudence; good people can disagree over the best specific ways to secure the common good; and it is the province of the laity to work these things out in the light of Christ. But any policy which includes an objectively immoral provision is in fact an objectively immoral policy, something that the Church can judge, and which Catholics are obliged to oppose. An objectively immoral provision is one which seeks to extend or protect in law an objectively immoral practice.

Abortion and gay marriage are two such practices, and all policies which protect or extend them are gravely immoral. The Church has a public authority to declare their immorality and to teach, rule and sanctify accordingly. The fact that these measures are being implemented in the political arena, ordinarily the province of the State, is nothing to the purpose. For it is the Church, in her competence to adjudicate the moral law, which alone determines the proper ends and means for which and by which the State may rule. In fact, the State has no such public competence in the matter of morality. The State does not have the least authority to define right and wrong. With respect to morality, the State has only the authority to prohibit what is otherwise known as evil and enjoin what is otherwise known as good.

For these reasons, the Church strengthens a false understanding of her authority whenever she proposes moral doctrines without a willingness to make and enforce public determinations of their violation in specific instances. Catholicism is very much a public thing. It demands public judgments and public enforcements—not indeed political enforcements, but spiritual ones—and especially concerning the rights and privileges of membership in the Church of Christ. Failure to do this fosters a further secularization of the concept of religion generally, and of the Church particularly.

The Law of Charity—and the Law of Justice

Even if the Church did not have a genuine public authority all her own, anyone who has ever managed groups of people has learned that human groups deteriorate rapidly if there are no consequences for bad behavior. Suppose you are a member of a club, and the club takes no steps to eliminate the influence or even the membership of people who seek to undermine the purposes of the club. After a relatively short time, you throw up your hands in disgust and go elsewhere. Or suppose you are in a particular class at school and you really want to learn, but there are one or more disruptive persons in the class who consistently destroy the educational atmosphere. This goes on for an extended period of time without correction. You quickly become dispirited; your own performance suffers; you wonder: What is the point of persevering?

The responsibility to counter or eliminate subversive influences in groups (I use the word “subversive” advisedly) increases geometrically in proportion to the necessity of the group and the spiritual goods at stake. If we are talking about serious disruption to the faith, morals and spiritual commitment of other members of the one true Church, the responsibility is very great indeed.

We would typically say that the Law of Charity demands that those in charge of the group must protect the well-being of other members of the group, which first and foremost includes restraining or excluding those members who are disruptive of the group’s common good. But really, as is obvious by this reference to the common good, such a response is actually demanded by justice. Bishops who refuse to discipline, including excommunication as needed, fail not only at the level of charity but at the more basic level of justice itself. This is not merely a failure to supply something optional or extra; it is a failure to supply a due good. It is a serious sin of omission.

Loss of Substantial Membership in the Church

One interesting development in ecclesiology since the mid-19th century is the growing articulation of the distinction between what we might call formal and substantial membership in the Church. For example, this distinction is the key to understanding the Church’s teaching that “outside the Church there is no salvation”, a statement which does not refer to what we call juridical or formal membership. In reality, as St. Paul taught, anyone who is joined to Christ by whatever means is joined substantially to the Church in a manner sufficient for salvation. Christ and the Church are one.

This raises the question of whether one can substantially separate oneself from the Church. It seems that one can, and this may be one reason for excommunication latae sententiae (by a sentence already passed) in Canon Law. Traditionally, theologians have regarded such things as formal schism and heresy (formal, that is, deliberately chosen) as ways in which Catholics can separate themselves from the Church, ceasing to be “members” in any and all senses.

But it is at minimum confusing if such substantial breaches of ecclesiality are not recognized formally when possible, that is, if those who are guilty of such breaches are still received as if nothing has happened. Whatever might be the case of a formal decree of excommunication in serious cases that do not in and of themselves rupture one’s membership in the Church, it is difficult to see why a bishop would hesitate to juridically recognize such a rupture if and when it unmistakably occurs. And it is equally difficult to see why a sustained, conscious effort to implement and/or protect intrinsic evils in the legal and political order—in clear defiance of widely-known Church teaching—should not constitute such a breach.

While in this world, the Church does not enjoy a clear and obvious relationship between formal and substantial membership. If she did, the distinction would be unnecessary. There are innumerable cases in which evidence is insufficient for human judgment, and sheer numbers render ecclesiastical judgment of every person impossible. But in widely-known cases where sufficient evidence exists, surely the formal should be brought into line with the substantial. If only to ensure the effectiveness of her own mission, the Church should seek as little as possible to uphold the formal membership of those who have rather clearly and deliberately severed their substantial membership.

Strong Medicine: God’s Charity and His Justice are the Same

Owing to the unity and unchangeability of God, we may return to the concepts of charity and justice by observing that God’s justice and His charity are simply different views of the same thing. Happily, it so happens that ecclesiastical discipline is a fairly clear demonstration of this principle. Punishment is the best possible demonstration of the need for repentance and reconciliation. If clear teaching does not work, if prayer does not work, then punishment may well be the only way to “get through”. Just as this is often the case with children, so it is typical with older unreflective souls.

Excommunication is a clear and obvious penalty, the ultimate penalty imposed by the spiritual authority of the Church. It could, of course, be unjust, but in any case anyone who is not wholly given over to contempt for the Church’s authority must inescapably wonder if there is any reason why such an imposition could actually be just in his own case. Anyone who cares deeply about unity with Christ and the Church must be in theory grateful for such an intervention should he go astray—offering as it does a clear chance to correct grave error and sin before death intervenes to make repentance impossible.

Indeed, here justice and charity are one. I can only pray that some bishop would be kind enough to formalize my excommunication, were I to go so far astray, rather than to allow me to continue in a state of confusion, perhaps slightly concerned by the Church’s teaching, but persuaded through the irenic embrace of ecclesiastical authority that all is really well, and very well.

Any good parent applies discipline primarily because of its medicinal benefit. Bishops are bound by their office to do the same. I have already said that the failure to discipline is a failure of justice. Let us further reflect that a failure of justice is a failure of love.


It would seem, then, that the only significant argument against excommunication is that the lack of Catholic cohesiveness in the modern world makes its effects doubtful. It will be met with scorn by the secular media, and the one excommunicated may have no firm community of believers to make him more sensible of the disadvantages of his position. All of this is true, and bishops are not alone in regretting the lack of a strong and vibrant Catholic community which more perfectly reflects the essence of what it means to be the Church.

The paradox, of course, is that neither will it be possible to rebuild a strong sense of Catholic community without discipline. A community that cannot sustain legitimate discipline is decidedly unhealthy; it may not be a community in the full sense of the term at all. In the beginning, Catholic politicians who do not at all think with the Church, who derive their values more or less exclusively from the larger secular culture in which they seek their power and influence—such politicians may thumb their noses at their bishops, as they have been doing all along to the Church anyway, and drift contentedly into a formally non-Catholic identity.

But the most important thing is that it will not be a new identity. It will simply be a clarified identity. And for every ten who do not care in the least, there may be a small number who repent and return, if not immediately, at least before their deaths. Meanwhile, the lukewarm will have a wake-up call; and the faithful will be encouraged. Bishops should yearn for this possibility. They should highly value the means at their disposal to offer it. They may not love to discipline, but they absolutely must discipline to love.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wojo425627 - Jun. 10, 2013 8:51 PM ET USA

    Over at his blog, Edward Peters doesn't believe excommunication is warranted for Cuomo. Although he says it is a perfected situation for enforcing non presentation for communion. Peters notes though that Cuomo seems to be voluntarily refraining from communion. I'm just noting this.

  • Posted by: ramonantonio3455448 - Jun. 08, 2013 10:48 PM ET USA

    There were times when the frame of mind of those times were those of the Catholic Church. under those circumstances, discipline was taken for granted and by the sheer size and centrality of the Church discipline was administered. Those times are past and that's a fact. The Church can't claim to apply discipline using a mindframe that is for all accounts, unreal. The Catholic believer is not the previous one but another new kind of Catholic. Permanence in and of the Church must be redefined.

  • Posted by: nix898049 - Jun. 08, 2013 10:07 AM ET USA

    It appeared that Senator Edward Kennedy was given the grace of a happy death with a confessor at his side when he passed. Still it may be unwise for any other prominent dissenters to assume they will be similarly blessed. I pray their hardened hearts will be changed.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jun. 08, 2013 9:46 AM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, you grossly understate the issue. This is not some mild miscalculation, this is a wholesale abandonment of common sense. Pope Benedict's Papal Mass in Washington DC was a splendid but grotesque example. It would only be logical to expect publicaly lapsed Catholics of significant political stature to breech the event. If so, why weren't contingency plans made to demonstrate publicaly that they (the politicians) were out of communion with the Church? It was a scandal in itself.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Jun. 08, 2013 12:15 AM ET USA

    As the bishops look the other way when Catholic politicians champion these egregious views,the message given is that maybe abortion,etc...are not such serious sins. Certainly,not important enough to excommunicate a public figure and risk unfavorable public opinion.

  • Posted by: pja - Jun. 07, 2013 5:37 PM ET USA

    Anyone else notice that per Andrew Cuomo's wikipedia entry he graduated from St. Gerard's School - the patron saint of unborn children. How ironic.

  • Posted by: fwhermann3492 - Jun. 07, 2013 2:45 PM ET USA

    Amen. Jesus and Paul both prescribed excommunication for brethren who live obstinately in sin (Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:5). I am at a loss for why the church doesn't impose this penalty much more often. The apostles and the early fathers obviously had no problem with it.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jun. 07, 2013 12:49 PM ET USA

    Why do bishops and archbishops seem so reluctant to bruise the feelings of Catholic politicians who are so grossly inflated in their self-image that they have no clue what situation their souls are in. A little less affability with the big guns, please Most Reverend Sirs.

  • Posted by: Defender - Jun. 06, 2013 5:59 PM ET USA

    Very nicely said. Benedict XVI said, “The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning." I think most people, by the bishops' inaction towards the pseudo-Catholic politicians, are more than ready for the bishops to act and would be happy to defend them if they ever decided to do so.