To excommunicate or not to excommunicate

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 17, 2009

In the Sound Off! comments following my In Depth Analysis, The Bishops at the Cliff: Tobin’s Challenge, most readers express admiration for Bishop Tobin and relief that he is acting with courage to make the demands of the Catholic Faith clear. Two comments, however, express a different point of view.

Thus michaelrafferty5029 writes:

Excommunication is a gun loaded with blanks. Shoot me if you will but I won't die. I won't even bleed. Excommunication will not stop me from going to Mass and it won't stop me from receiving Communion. I guess that I won't be scheduled to serve as a lector anymore but I'm quite sure that my financial contributions will still be accepted. Patrick Kennedy has always seemed to be one of the lesser lights in the family constellation. Bishop Tobin will brighten, not dim, his standing.

And John J Plick writes: “Still a very dilute lemonade compared to the likes of a Francis or a Dominic. We should not be focusing on American politics but rather on the true reformation of our own Church. The rest will follow....”

Both comments, in the right context, raise significant questions, but both miss entirely the main point of ecclesiastical discipline in general, and excommunication in particular.

The first comment suggests that excommunication will not work because it is not likely to effect any sort of visible separation from the larger Catholic community. This is, of course, a potential problem with excommunication in a community of weak faith, in which the consequences of excommunication may be neither enforced by pastors nor expressed in the attitudes of parishioners. My own personal guess is that there would be significant visible repercussions in a well-run diocese, but this is to debate only one purpose of excommunication, namely the goal of fostering a change of heart through manifest socio-ecclesiastical pressure. Even if the Catholic community were to lionize the one who is excommunicated (which, on the whole, I think doubtful, though some both inside and outside the Church would certainly try to do so), this would not exhaust the meaning and significance of excommunication.

There are two other purposes, both of which are more important, for indeed the Church does not really want social pressure to be the primary motivation for anyone's religion. The first is the goal of bringing the one excommunicated to confront his spiritual situation directly with whatever degree of Catholic Faith he possesses, and to decide whether he wants to risk being cut off from the Body of Christ, for “He who hears you, hears me” (Lk 10:16) and “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven” (Mt 18:18) and "Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Cor 11:27). In addition, there is the second goal of strengthening the Church herself by making clear to her members what Christ finds acceptable and what He does not. Church ministers have been guilty of fostering a great deal of confusion about the seriousness of Catholic teaching over the past fifty years. The elimination of such confusion is salutary not only for the individual soul but for the Church as a whole.

Which brings me to the comment that we should not focus on American politics but on “true reformation of our own Church”: Plainly the use of ecclesiastical discipline as a means of combating grave and public violations of the Church’s moral teaching by Catholics is not primarily a political matter but rather a critical means of  focusing “on the true reformation of our own Church”. In fact, it is difficult to see how Church reform and renewal can proceed without the coupling of clear teaching with serious discipline. When, through a failure of necessary discipline, public opposition to the Church’s teachings is permitted to bear the name “Catholic”, the Church’s teaching ceases to be clear.

Such is the case not only whenever a Catholic priest, deacon, sister or theologian teaches contrary to the Magisterium but also whenever a public figure, who claims or even trades on the Catholic name, advocates policies contrary to what the Faith demands. Discipline is necessary, in both cases, for the sure good of the Church and the potential good of the sinner. Without discipline we can never expect to build again the sort of Catholic community in which a politician will know before he begins that he cannot, under the Catholic name, even so much as think of promoting legislation that is intrinsically immoral. In a healthy Catholic community, such an idea would be dead on arrival. It would never be put to the test. Proper discipline, therefore, is an essential step toward a healthier Church, a stronger and more unified body, more effective in her mission of truth and grace, by which she frees, transforms, and saves.

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: elts1956 - Jan. 09, 2010 6:04 AM ET USA

    Ok, I agree, the recalcitrant Bishops, Archbiships, Priests etc. should be grabbed by the front of their collars and given a shake. But, if they in their arrogance ignore the punishment and continue to give folks watered down teachings of the Church, what then? Can a Bishop/Archbishop be demoted to lesser status?

  • Posted by: - Jan. 08, 2010 8:21 PM ET USA

    Does one become "un-excomunitcated" if one changes his/her mind and publically says so. If they repent, go to confession, make amends. They can't take back their vote, but they can vote appropriately in the future.

  • Posted by: ltluca7192 - Dec. 11, 2009 3:19 PM ET USA

    When a church member makes a statement like that, he/she by all means does not know his catholic faith. Does he/she think that the church is run on what each parishioner thinks or what Jesus thinks. Jesus is the head of the Church and if you think that He doesn't condemn abortion, I don't know what church you're going to. When He wrote in the sand about the sinner and her sin, he wrote all about all the other sinners also, but He always said 'go and sin no more.', not to go on sinning forever.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 18, 2009 5:02 PM ET USA

    Good question from jtuturic3013. I have seen extended (and unjustified) arguments that those who favor or politically support abortion are excommunicated latae sententiae, but it's not true. What Canon 1398 says is: "A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication." Promoting freedom of abortion in law is not the same as procuring a specific abortion. (And, of course, latae sententiae excommunication does nothing for discipline.)

  • Posted by: samuel.doucette1787 - Nov. 18, 2009 2:09 PM ET USA

    Discipline is tied intimately with the idea of spiritual fatherhood. Just as we earthly fathers have to discipline our wayward children from time to time to reinforce what we want to teach them, so do our spiritual fathers. If excommunication is the best way to discipline, then our spiritual fathers should use it.

  • Posted by: jtuturic3013 - Nov. 18, 2009 10:46 AM ET USA

    Question from the curious. Isn't Patrick Kennedy and any other politition who materially participates in the enabling of abortion by their voting record and vocal support automatically excommunicated anyway? I thought it was Canon Law that this was the case. Perhaps I missed an earlier article on this, but if what I understand about the law is true, then Patrick Kennedy is already excommunicated, it just hasn't been formally announced yet.

  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Nov. 17, 2009 8:50 PM ET USA

    It all goes back to the bishop. If someone is excommunicated, the bishop simply tells Father the person may not receive the sacraments. The person may come to church but Father and extraordinary ministers may not give him communion. If he or she comes forward anyway, the priest or minister should take a step backward and wait for the next person to come forward. If the priest or ministers choose not to obey the bishop, the bishop simply says, "Adios, Father."

  • Posted by: JARay - Nov. 17, 2009 7:54 PM ET USA

    I agree wholeheartedly with the need for discipline. Here, in Western Australia, the Sisters of Mercy invited a former Premier to give a particular address to their group. She is a noted abortion advocate and failed Catholic. Public (Catholic) outrage at this invitation caused the invitation to be reversed.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 17, 2009 3:35 PM ET USA

    Spot on! The lack of discipline that we've had in the Church in recent decades has no warrant in Scripture, tradition, or reason.