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Speaking clearly about dangerously imperfect communion with the Church

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 18, 2014

Two recent stories involving membership in the Church have been at once consoling and troubling. Their titles appear in the following links:

In the first story, Archbishop Cordileone responded to critics by discussing the problem of “harsh and hateful rhetoric” in the battle over same-sex marriage. There is nothing wrong with the point he made. But perhaps humility prevented him from going after a bigger target. For Cordileone’s chief critic is Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic politician on the national stage who is fond of making moral pronouncements. And it just so happens that Archbishop Cordileone has direct spiritual authority over Pelosi. He is also the head of the US Bishops’ Committee on Marriage.

Now, in the Catholic Church, it is bishops (and not politicians) who have the authority to expound the truths of faith and morals as revealed by God through both supernatural and natural means. In other words, it is bishops (and not politicians) who teach the proper understanding of Divine Revelation and the Natural Law. Politicians, for their part, are to be guided by these truths.

Nancy Pelosi has attempted to reverse the roles. She argues that Archbishop Cordileone ought to adjust his praxis to her doctrine. The resulting conceptual disorder is grotesque, and in adopting this posture, Nancy Pelosi has, at the very least, impaired her communion with the Catholic Church.

In the second story, Bishop John Doerfler of Marquette has rightly barred from Church ministry a parishioner who entered into a same-sex commitment ceremony. Bobby Glenn Brown can no longer serve at Mass as either a lector or a cantor. Bishop Doerfler has also kindly pointed out that “the inability to serve in a ministry does not disqualify a person from being a member of the Church.” Yet by aping marriage in a same-sex commitment, Brown has presumably at least impaired his communion with the Catholic Church.

Membership in the Church

Bishop Doerfler is right in saying that “everyone is invited to follow Jesus Christ and is invited to be a part of the Catholic Church”. He is also right in noting that exclusion from ministry is not the same thing as disqualification from membership. But surely some reasons for exclusion from ministry do in fact disqualify from membership. I would argue that there are three. A refusal to be baptized is obviously one. Deliberate rebellion against the Church’s constitutional structure and authority is a second. And a formal repudiation of the Church’s teachings on faith or morals is a third.

When we formally refuse to accept the Church’s proper constitutive authority to teach, rule and sanctify—her doctrinal inerrancy, her spiritual jurisdiction, and her sacramental power—these rejections separate us from the body of the Church. Such a formal repudiation dissolves our juridical membership in the Church. We are no longer Catholics (and, as our formal repudiation makes clear, we no longer wish to be).

But not all breaches arise from such a formal process of rejection. In many cases, people will try to have their cake and eat it too. They will claim to love their Faith while denying the truth of some of the Church’s teachings, or while abusing the sacraments in some way, or by refusing the spiritual authority of their bishops or of the Pope. These things may be done individually or as part of a movement or group. The confusion arises from the coupling of a Catholic claim with an ongoing, consistent repudiation of the Church’s Divine authority.

Such incongruities may not separate us from the Church entirely as does a formal repudiation, but at the very least they indicate that the affected person’s communion with the Church is seriously impaired—seriously enough to be termed “incomplete”. As a case in point, note that this was the judgment expressed by Pope Benedict XVI when he lifted the excommunications of the bishops of the Society of St. Pius X. He explained that he hoped his action would be “followed by the solicitous fulfillment of full communion of the Church with the Society of St. Pius X, thereby witnessing to authentic fidelity and a true recognition of the magisterium and the authority of the Pope, with the proof of visible unity” [emphasis added].

Thus Benedict regarded the SSPX’s communion with the Church to be impaired or incomplete whether the bishops were excommunicated or not. But it is not just organizations which can partially or completely break their communion with the Church. Individual Catholics can do exactly the same thing. By a formal repudiation of something essential to the Church’s constitution, communion is wholly severed; membership is lost. Even without a formal repudiation, in any sort of persistent rejection of essential ecclesial authority—despite rhetoric or even imperfect desires to the contrary—communion is at least impaired. It is fractured if not decisively broken; at best, it is rendered incomplete.

At the same time we must recognize that ordinary sin only weakens our bonds of unity in the Church, without severing any of them. By ordinary sin, I mean the common struggles of those who recognize the Church’s teachings as right and good while still finding it difficult to live according to those teachings.


With respect to fractured or imperfect or impaired communion, this fracturing may be recognized as a complete break by excommunication. When that happens, the situation is clarified and all doubt is removed. Canon Law describes a number of situations which produce automatic excommunication, such as participation in an abortion or the attempt to confer or receive episcopal ordination without the authority of the Pope. In other cases, excommunication can be imposed and announced publicly. Either way, the one excommunicated is severed from the Church, both externally and interiorly. What is bound on earth is bound in heaven.

Excommunication is relatively rare today, most probably because the social order in most places is in no condition to back it up. In other words, those who are excommunicated are seldom treated differently so that they might be brought through obvious natural disadvantages to a deeper spiritual awareness of their loss. Social support of excommunication can stimulate at least an imperfect desire to repair the breach, but it is largely lacking today.

Moreover, since the modern world typically does not recognize the authority of the Church, and in fact disparages true authority generally, excommunication will almost always draw bad publicity, and may even serve to make heroes of those who fall under the ban. They may, in fact, see themselves as martyrs to obscurantism.

Nonetheless, excommunication has at least three advantages. First, it clarifies the relationship of the one excommunicated to the Church. Second, for a sincere Catholic who has simply gone astray, it can serve as a serious and salutary spiritual jolt. Third, it both reassures and educates the Catholic faithful, demonstrating that our internalization of true principles of faith and morals matters deeply to the Church, to God and to our eternal salvation. In other words, excommunication is a kind of proof that it actually means something to be a Catholic.

Completing Our Two News Stories

While hardly alone, Nancy Pelosi is arguably the most outspoken politician in America who claims the name “Catholic” while persistently rejecting central moral teachings of the Church. She frequently operates in direct defiance of the expressed moral positions of both the US bishops and her own bishop. She has been honored by Planned Parenthood for her support of abortion, and has stated that her Catholic faith compels her to support gay marriage.

Pelosi has also participated in what we might call the Obama charade of honoring dissident Catholics under his Administration, often by appointing them to favored posts, and thereby clearly attempting to further divide the Church and weaken Catholic opposition. Thus it was no surprise, after Pope Francis blessed a rosary and gave it to President Obama during a recent meeting, that Obama in turn bestowed the venerable object on Nancy Pelosi.

It would seem past time for Archbishop Cordileone to either excommunicate Pelosi, who is a major source of public scandal for the Church, or at least explain in no uncertain terms that Pelosi’s persistent public rejection and political opposition to Catholic moral principles has fractured her communion with the Church. The truth is that Nancy Pelosi is not in full communion, if the word communion has any meaning at all—and by pretending that she is, she does enormous spiritual harm to herself and others.

In the same way, although Bobby Brown is not a prominent politician, he was disqualified from ministry for persistent and public resistance to the clear moral teachings of the Catholic Church. It is not as if Brown cannot serve in this or that capacity simply because he is too young, or too old, or currently married, or even of the wrong gender. No, he cannot be admitted to any ministry within the Church because of his clear defiance of the Church’s moral authority.

Even if excommunication is judged unwarranted or inopportune, Bishop Doerfler should make the point that Brown has at least fractured his communion with the Church, rendering it incomplete and imperfect. Why imply the opposite? Why make it appear to be a kind of spiritually insignificant professional distinction? In fact, Brown has placed both his soul and his membership in the Church in jeopardy. This is serious business. To restore full communion, he must repent his rejection of the authority which the Church possesses by virtue of her Divine constitution.

In both cases, communion with the Church is impaired to a sufficient degree that Canon Law actually requires Pelosi and Brown to be denied communion—a disciplinary responsibility honored most often in the breach today. Denial of Communion provides an excellent way to clarify a Catholic’s impaired status, and to warn them of all the attendant dangers. But my argument in this essay is a more general one. There is, I believe, a useful distinction between full communion and incomplete communion (and of course, full separation). Bishops need to address the problem of impaired communion, for it is spiritually devastating when wilfully maintained. Even if they do not wish to excommunicate, bishops must not pretend to any defiant member of the Church that there is nothing seriously wrong.

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: - Jun. 19, 2014 7:57 PM ET USA

    Jg, u ask a good question. The answer is obvious. The reason our bishops are not exercising their authority over 'catholic' politicians and bureaucrats who deny Catholic teachings is because the bishops are in political communion with those offending politicians and bureaucrats. It really is as simple as that.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jun. 19, 2014 7:18 AM ET USA

    We Catholics in the pews observing this serious and wide ranging disobedience and open denial of essential Church teachings are left wondering: "What exactly would it take to finally make a bishop exercise his duty if not his authority?"