Excommunication (Catholic Church)

In the canon law of the Catholic Church, excommunication (Lat. ex, out of, and communio or communicatio, communion, meaning exclusion from the communion), the principal and severest censure, is a medicinal, spiritual penalty that deprives the guilty Christian of all participation in the common blessings of ecclesiastical society. Being a penalty, it presupposes guilt; and being the most serious penalty that the Catholic Church can inflict, it naturally supposes a very grave offense.[1]

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Excommunication is a rarely applied censure and thus a "medicinal penalty" intended to invite the person to change behaviour or attitude, repent, and return to full communion.[2] It is not an "expiatory penalty" designed to make satisfaction for the wrong done, much less a "vindictive penalty" designed solely to punish. Excommunication, which is the gravest penalty of all, is always medicinal,[3] and is "not at all vindictive".[4]

Its object and its effect are loss of communion, i.e. of the spiritual benefits shared by all the members of Christian society; hence, it can affect only those who by baptism have been admitted to that society. There can and do exist other penal measures which entail the loss of certain fixed rights; among them are other censures, e.g. suspension for clerics, and interdict. Excommunication, however, is distinguished from these penalties in that it is the privation of all rights resulting from the social status of the Christian as such. Excommunicated persons do not cease to be Christians, since their baptism can never be effaced; they can, however, be considered as an exile from Christian society and as non-existent, for a time at least, in the sight of ecclesiastical authority. But such exile can have an end as soon as the offender has given suitable satisfaction. Meanwhile, their status before the church is that of a stranger. They may not receive any of the sacraments. Moreover, if a cleric, he is forbidden to administer a sacred rite or to exercise an act of spiritual authority.[5]

The Church excommunicates as a last resort and at least nowadays, very rarely. Excommunications are lifted when the excommunicated person repents, or at least gives some sign of repenting.

General concepts

"The Church has the innate and proper right to coerce offending members of the Christian faithful with penal sanctions."[6]

The Catholic Church cannot, nor does it wish to, oppose any obstacle to the internal relations of the soul with God; it even implores God to give the grace of repentance to the excommunicated. The rites of the church, nevertheless, are the providential and regular channel through which divine grace is conveyed to Christians; exclusion from such rites, especially from the sacraments, entails the privation of this grace, to whose sources the excommunicated person no longer has access.[5]

In the papal bull "Exsurge Domine" (May 16, 1520), Pope Leo X condemned Luther's twenty-third proposition according to which "excommunications are merely external punishments, nor do they deprive a man of the common spiritual prayers of the Church". Pope Pius VI in "Auctorem Fidei" (August 28, 1794) condemned the notion which maintained that the effect of excommunication is only exterior because of its own nature it excludes only from exterior communion with the Church, as if, said the pope, excommunication were not a spiritual penalty binding in heaven and affecting souls.[5]


While excommunication ranks first among ecclesiastical censures, it existed long before any such classification arose. The penalty is biblical, and both St Paul and St John make reference to the practice of cutting people off from the community, in order to hasten their repentance. From the earliest days of the Christian society it was the chief (if not the only) ecclesiastical penalty for laymen; for guilty clerics the first punishment was deposition from their office, i.e. reduction to the ranks of the laity. In first Christian centuries excommunication was not regarded as a simple external measure; it touched the soul and the conscience. It was not merely the severing of the outward bond which holds individual to their place in the Church; it severed also the internal bond, and the sentence pronounced on earth was understood to be ratified in heaven.[5]

During the Middle Ages, excommunication was analogous to the secular Imperial ban or "outlawry" under Common Law. The individual was separated to some degree from the communion of the faithful.[7] Formal acts of public excommunication were sometimes accompanied by a ceremony wherein a bell was tolled (as for the dead), the Book of the Gospels was closed, and a candle snuffed out — hence the idiom "to condemn with bell, book, and candle."

In some cases, excommunication would be announced with a ceremony involving a bell, book, and candle.
The Excommunication of Robert the Pious (1875) by Jean-Paul Laurens. Note the extinguished candle and candlestick holder. Robert was able to get his excommunication reversed following the election of the next pope.

Those under excommunication were to be shunned. Pope Gregory VII was the first to mitigate the proscription against communicating with an excommunicated person. At a council in Rome in 1079, he made exceptions for members of the immediate family, servants, and occasions of necessity or utility.[8] Medieval canonists listed the prohibited civil relations: (a) conversations, exchange of letters; (b) prayer in common with the excommunicated; (c) marks of honor and respect; (d) business and social relations; and (e) meals with the excommunicated. But at the same time they specified exceptions that rendered these relations licit: (a) both the spiritual and the temporal benefit of the excommunicated and of the faithful; (b) conjugal law; (c) the submission owed by children, servants, vassals, and subordinates in general; (d) ignorance of excommunication or of the prohibition of a particular kind of intercourse; (e) finally, any kind of necessity, as human law, as not binding to this degree. In 1418 Pope Martin V drew a distinction between excommunicated persons tolerati and those vitandi. The former were "tolerated", while the latter were to be shunned.[5]

In the mid-12th century, Pope Eugene III held a synod in order to deal with the large number of heretical groups. Mass excommunication was used as a convenient tool to squelch heretics who belonged to groups which professed beliefs radically different than those taught by the Catholic Church.[9]

William the Conqueror separated ecclesiastical cases from the Hundred courts, but allowed the bishops to seek assistance from the secular authorities. Excommunications were intended to be remedial and compel the offender to return to the fold. The practice in Normandy provided that if an obdurate excommunicate remained so for a year and a day, his goods were subject to confiscation at the duke's pleasure. Later, bishops were authorized to submit a writ to have the individual imprisoned. On the other hand, the bishops held temporalities which the king could seize if the bishop refused to absolve an imprisoned excommunicate. The authority of a bishop to excommunicate someone was restricted to those persons who resided in his See. This often gave rise to jurisdictional disputes on the part of abbeys which claimed to be exempt.[7][10]

In 1215, the Fourth Council of the Lateran decreed that excommunication may be imposed only after warning in the presence of suitable witnesses and for manifest and reasonable cause; and that they are to be neither imposed nor lifted for payment.[11] In practice, excommunications with subsequent writs appear to have been used to enforce clerical discipline and functioned something like a citation for "contempt of court". By the fourteenth century, bishops were resorting to excommunication against those who defaulted in making payment of the clerical subsidy demanded by the king for his wars against France.[7]

Tridentine excommunications

From the middle of the fifteenth century dueling over questions of honor increased so greatly, that in 1551 the Council of Trent was obliged to enact the severest penalties against it. The malice of the duel lies in the fact that it makes right depend upon the fate of arms. Dueling was forbidden; and the prohibition extended to not only the principals, but their seconds, physicians expressly brought to attend upon the scene, and all spectators not accidentally present. The excommunication was incurred, not only when the parties actually fought, but as soon as they proposed or accepted a challenge. According to the council those who took part in a duel were ipso facto excommunicated, and if they were killed in the duel they were to be deprived of Christian burial. These ecclesiastical penalties were at a later date repeatedly renewed and even in parts made more severe. Benedict XIV decreed that duelists should be denied burial by the Church even if they did not die on the dueling ground and had received absolution before death. It pronounced the severest ecclesiastical penalties against those princes who should permit dueling between Christians in their territories.[12]

Political aspects

When King John of England refused to accept Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, he seized the lands of the archbishopric and other papal possessions. Pope Innocent III first sent a commission to negotiate with the king, and when that failed, place the kingdom under interdict. This prohibited the clergy from conducting religious services, with the exception of baptisms for the young, and last rites for the dying. King John responded by taking more church lands and their revenues. Innocent threatened the king with excommunication and in 1209 proceeded to excommunicate the King.[13] Papal legate Pandulf Verraccio served John with notice of his excommunication in the summer of 1211. The excommunication absolved the King's subjects from their oaths of allegiance, gave the Barons reason to revolt if they should so choose, and allowed the King of France a pretext to invade England to remove John from power. John was undismayed, but by November 1211, he became concerned about a possible French invasion. By May 1213, the king was ready to concede. The legate then worked to avert the threatened French invasion.


Not all excommunications were necessarily valid due to some intrinsic or essential defect, e.g. when the person inflicting it has no jurisdiction, when the motive of the excommunication is manifestly incorrect and inconsistent, or when the excommunication is essentially defective in form.

The extension of the use of excommunication led to abuses. The penalty is designed to bring the sinner back to repentance. However, it could be abused, used as a political tool and even employed for the purposes of revenge – abuses of Canon Law. In 1304, John Dalderby, Bishop of Lincoln, excommunicated all those persons of Newport Pagnell who knew the whereabouts of Sir Gerald Salvayn's wayward falcon and failed to return it.[14] The infliction of so grave a penalty for offenses of a less grievous kind and most frequently impossible to verify before the public ecclesiastical authority, begot eventually a contempt for excommunication.

Excessive number of excommunications

In the course of time the number of canonical excommunications was excessively multiplied, which made it difficult to know whether many among them were always in force. The number of excommunications latae sententiae enumerated by the moralists and canonists had increased to almost 200. In the preamble of the Constitution "Apostolicae Sedis", Pius IX stated that during the course of centuries, the number of censures latae sententiae had increased inordinately, that some of them were no longer expedient, that many were doubtful, that they occasioned frequent difficulties of conscience, and finally, that a reform was necessary. Apostolicae Sedis moderationi was a papal bull issued by Pope Pius IX on 12 October 1869, which revised the list of censures that in canon law were imposed automatically (latae sententiae) on offenders. It reduced their number and clarified those preserved. With the publication of Apostolicae Sedis the previous distinction in the Latin Church between major and minor excommunications ceased.

In recent times the number of excommunications in force has been greatly diminished, and a new method of absolving from them has been inaugurated. Thus, without change of nature, excommunication has become an exceptional penalty, reserved for very grievous offenses detrimental to Christian society.[5]

Genuine excommunication must not be confused with a refusal of ecclesiastical communion which was rather a refusal of episcopal communion. It was the refusal by a bishop to communicate in sacris with another bishop and his church, in consideration of an act deemed reprehensible and worthy of chastisement. It was undoubtedly the measure to which St. Martin of Tours had recourse when he refused to communicate with the Spanish bishops who caused Emperor Maximinus to condemn to death the heretic Priscillian with some of his adherents.[5]

Excommunicable offenses

In the Latin Church, Canon Law describes two forms of excommunication. The first is sententiae ferendae. This is where the person excommunicated is subject to a canonical process or trial, and if found guilty of misdemeanours meriting excommunication is duly sentenced. Once the sentence is published, that person is barred from active participation as a member of the Catholic Church. But this is a rare event.

The more common excommunication is that termed latae sententiae, or what sometimes called often "automatic excommunication", where someone, in committing a certain act, incurs the penalty without any canonical process having to take place.[15] If the law or precept expressly establishes it, however, a penalty is latae sententiae, so that it is incurred ipso facto when the delict is committed.(Ca. 1314)In the Eastern Catholic Churches, excommunications are governed by the Oriental canon law and is imposed only by decree, never incurred automatically by latae sententiae excommunication.

Sententiae ferendae

A person may be ferendae sententiae (i.e., upon judicial review) excommunicated if he

  1. tries to celebrate the Mass without being a priest (incurs, for Latin Catholics, also a latae sententiae interdict for laymen and suspension for clerics, can. 1378 § 2 no. 1 CIC, can. 1443 CCEO),
  2. hears a Confession or tries to absolve without being able to absolve (for Latin Catholics; this does not, of course, include hindrances on the penitent's side for the mere hearing of the Confessions, and hidden hindrances on the penitent's side for absolutions; can. 1378 § 2 no. 1; incurs also a latae sententiae interdict for laymen and suspension for clerics)
  3. breaks the Seal of the Confessional indirectly (?) or as someone not the Confessor, e. g. an interpreter or one who overheard something that was said (for Latin Catholics, can. 1388 § 2 CIC),
  4. who breaks a penal law allowing excommunication that was enacted on local level, which the local authority, however, may only do with great caution and for grave offences (for Latin Catholics, can. 1318 CIC).
  5. omits stubbornly, as an Eastern Catholic priest, the commemoration of the hierarch in the Divine Liturgy and Divine Praises (not mandatorily, can. 1438 CCEO)
  6. commits physical violence against a patriarch or a metropolitan, as an Eastern Catholic (can. 1445 § 1 CCEO),
  7. incites sedition against any hierarch, especially a patriarch or the Pope, as an Eastern Catholic (can. 1447 § 1, not mandatorily),
  8. commits murder, as an Eastern Catholic (can. 1450 § 1 CCEO),
  9. kidnaps, wounds seriously, mutilates or tortures (physically or mentally) a person, as an Eastern Catholic (can. 1451 CCEO, not mandatorily),
  10. falsely accuses someone of a [canonical] offense, as an Eastern Catholic (can. 1454 CCEO, not mandatorily),
  11. tries to use the influence of secular authority to gain admission to Holy Orders or any function in the Church, as an Eastern Catholic (can. 1460, not mandatorily),
  12. administers or receives a Sacrament, excluding Holy Orders, or any function in the Church through simony, as an Eastern Catholic (can. 1461f. CCEO, not mandatorily).

Latae sententiae

The 1983 Code of Canon Law attaches the penalty of (automatic excommunication) to the following actions:

  1. Apostates, heretics, and schismatics (can. 1364)
  2. Desecration of the Eucharist (can. 1367)
  3. A person who physically attacks the pope (can. 1370)
  4. A priest who in confession absolves a partner with whom they have violated the sixth commandment (can. 977, can. 1378)
  5. A bishop who consecrates another bishop without papal mandate (can. 1382) An example of this would be the case of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who was excommunicated in 1988. The excommunication was lifted in 2009 in anticipation of a reconciliation (which did not occur).[15]
  6. A priest who violates the seal of the confessional (can. 1388)
  7. A person who procures an abortion (can. 1398)
  8. Accomplices who were needed to commit an action that has an automatic excommunication penalty (can. 1329)

Generally speaking, automatic excommunications are not known to the public. Unless the individual committed the action in a public manner that would cause the local ordinary to issue a statement about the automatic excommunication, the burden is on the offender to confess the sin and seek the removal of the penalty.

Those who can excommunicate

Excommunication is either a jure (by law) or ab homine (by judicial act of man, i.e. by a judge). The first is provided by the law itself, which declares that whosoever shall have been guilty of a definite crime will incur the penalty of excommunication. The second is inflicted by an ecclesiastical prelate, either when he issues a serious order under pain of excommunication or imposes this penalty by judicial sentence and after a trial.[5]

Excommunication is an act of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, the rules of which it follows. Hence the general principle: whoever has proper jurisdiction can excommunicate, but only his own subjects. Therefore, whether excommunications be a jure (by the law) or ab homine (under form of sentence or precept), they may come from the pope, from the bishop for his diocese; and from regular prelates for religious orders. But a parish priest cannot inflict this penalty. The subjects of these various authorities are those who come under their jurisdiction chiefly on account of domicile or quasi-domicile in their territory; then by reason of the offense committed while on such territory; and finally by reason of personal right, as in the case of regulars. As to excommunications ab homine, absolution from them is reserved by law to the ordinary who has imposed them.[5]

Those who can be excommunicated

Historically, no one can be subject to ecclesiastical censure unless they be baptized, delinquent, and contumacious. Baptism confers initial jurisdiction, delinquency refers to having committed a wrong, and contumacious indicates the person's willfull persistence in such conduct.[8] Since excommunication is the forfeiture of the spiritual privileges of ecclesiastical society, all those, but those only, can be excommunicated who, by any right whatsoever, belong to this society. Consequently, excommunication can be inflicted only on baptized and living Catholics. It does not pertain to pagans, Muslims, Jews, and other non-Catholics.[5]

No one is automatically excommunicated for any offense if, without any fault of his own, he was unaware that he was violating a law (CIC 1323:2) or that a penalty was attached to the law (CIC 1324:1:9). The same applies if one was a minor, had the imperfect use of reason, was forced through grave or relatively grave fear, was forced through serious inconvenience, or in certain other circumstances (CIC 1324).[15]

Absolution from excommunication

Apart from the rare cases in which excommunication is imposed for a fixed period and then ceases of itself, it is always removed by absolution. It is to be noted at once that, though the same word is used to designate the sacramental sentence by which sins are remitted and that by which excommunication is removed, there is a vast difference between the two acts. The absolution which revokes excommunication is purely jurisdictional and has nothing sacramental about it. It reinstates the repentant sinner in the Church; restores the rights of which he had been deprived, beginning with participation in the sacraments; and for this very reason, it should precede sacramental absolution, which it thenceforth renders possible and efficacious. After absolution from excommunication has been given, the judge sends the person absolved to a confessor, that his sin may be remitted; when absolution from censure is given in the confessional, it should always precede sacramental absolution, conformably to the instruction in the Ritual and the very tenor of the formula for sacramental absolution.[5]

It may be noted at once that the principal effect. of absolution from excommunication may be acquired without the excommunicated person's being wholly reinstated in his former position. Thus, an ecclesiastic might not necessarily recover the benefice which he had lost; indeed he might be admitted to lay communion only. Ecclesiastical authority has the right to posit certain conditions for the return of the culprit, and every absolution from excommunication calls for the fulfillment of certain conditions which vary in severity, according to the case.[5]

The formula of absolution from excommunication is not strictly determined, and, since it is an act of jurisdiction, it suffices if the formula employed express clearly the effect which it is desired to attain.[5]

Those who can absolve from excommunication

The answer is given in the customary rules of jurisdiction. The right to absolve belongs to him who can excommunicate and who has imposed the law, moreover to any person delegated by him to this effect, since this power, being jurisdictional, can be delegated. First, we must distinguish between excommunication ab homine, which is judicial, and excommunication a jure, i.e. latae sententiae. For the former, absolution is given by the judge who inflicted the penalty (or by his successor), in other words by the pope, or the bishop (ordinary), also by the superior of said judge when acting as judge of appeal.

As to excommunication latae sententiae, the power to absolve is either ordinary or delegated. Ordinary power is determined by the law itself, which indicates to what authority the censure is reserved in each case. Delegated power is of two kinds: that granted in permanency and set down in the law and that granted or communicated by personal act, e.g. by authority (faculties) of the Roman Penitentiaria, by episcopal delegation for special cases, or bestowed upon certain priests.[5]

Unless the canon reserves removal of the penalty to the Holy See, the local ordinary can remit the excommunication, or he can delegate that authority to the priests of his diocese (which most bishops do in the case of abortion).[16]

Reserved and non-reserved

Excommunication is either reserved or non-reserved regarding the absolution from censure. Any confessor can absolve from non-reserved excommunications; but those that are reserved can only be remitted, except through indult or delegation, by those to whom the law reserves the absolution. There is a distinction between excommunications reserved to the pope and those reserved to bishops or ordinaries. It is a principle repeatedly set forth in canon law that at the point of death all reservations cease and all necessary jurisdiction is supplied by the Church. If an excommunicated Catholic is in danger of death, any confessor is authorized to remit any and all penalties.[17]

Absolution from censure reserved to the Apostolic See

  1. "A person who throws away the consecrated species or takes or retains them for a sacrilegious purpose incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See."(Ca. 1367)
  2. "A person who uses physical force against the Roman Pontiff incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See."(Ca. 1370)
  3. "A priest who acts against the prescript of Can. 977 incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.(Ca. 1378) Canon 977 states that the absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue is invalid except in danger of death; i.e., if a priest commits a sexual sin with someone, he cannot then absolve that person of the sin.
  4. "A bishop who consecrates some one a bishop without a pontifical mandate and the person who receives the consecration from him incur a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See."(Ca. 1382)
  5. "A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See."(Ca. 1388)[16]

During the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis gave to special qualified and experienced priests, called "Missionaries of Mercy", the faculty to forgive even special-case sins normally reserved to the Holy See's Apostolic Penitentiary.[18] Originally, their mandate was to expire at the close of the Holy Year, but the Pope has extended it, permitting them to continue hearing confessions freely in every diocese throughout the world and lifting censures that normally require the permission of the pope.[19]

Excommunications pronounced or renewed since the constitution Apostolicae Sedis

These are four in number, the first two being specially reserved to the pope, the third to the ordinary; the fourth is non-reserved.[5]

  1. The Constitution "Romanus Pontifex" (August 28, 1873), besides other penalties, declares specially reserved excommunication: first, against the dignitaries and canons of cathedral churches (or those having the administration of vacant cathedrals) who would dare to concede and transfer the administration of their church with the title of vicar to the person elected by the chapter, or named or presented to said church by lay power; second, against those so elected or presented; and third, against all who aid, advise, or countenance the aforesaid offenders.[5]
  2. Excommunication specially reserved against the members of the "Catholic Italian Society for the restoration of the rights of the Christian and especially of the Roman people", and against its promoters, supporters, and adherents (S. Peniten., August 4, 1876; Acta S. Sed., IX, 352). Amongst other rights this society proposed to restore popular participation in the election of the sovereign pontiff.[5]
  3. Excommunication reserved to the ordinary against laymen (for ecclesiastics the penalty is suspension) who traffic in Mass-stipends and trade them with priests for books and other merchandise (S. Cong. of the Council, decree "Vigilanti studio", May 25, 1893).[5]
  4. Excommunication, non-reserved, against missionaries, both regulars and seculars, of the East Indies (Farther Orient) or the West Indies (America) who devote themselves to commerce or who participate in it, and their immediate superiors, provincial or general, who fail to punish the culprits, at least by removal, and even after a single offense. This excommunication comes down from the Constitutions of Urban VIII, "Ex delicto" (February 22, 1633), and Clement IX, "Sollicitudo" (July 17, 1669), but was suppressed by reason of non-mention in the Constitution "Apostolicae Sedis"; it was reestablished, however, at the request of the S. Cong. of the Inquisition, December 4, 1872. This excommunication is non-reserved, but the culprit cannot be absolved prior to making restitution, unless he be at the point of death.[5]

Latin Church

In Latin Catholic canon law, excommunication is a rarely applied[15] censure and thus a "medicinal penalty" intended to invite the person to change behaviour or attitude, repent, and return to full communion.[20] It is not an "expiatory penalty" designed to make satisfaction for the wrong done, much less a "vindictive penalty" designed solely to punish: "excommunication, which is the gravest penalty of all and the most frequent, is always medicinal",[21] and is "not at all vindictive".[22]

Excommunication in the Latin Church is governed by the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC). The 1983 Code specifies various sins which carry the penalty of automatic excommunication: apostasy, heresy, schism (CIC 1364:1), violating the sacred species (CIC 1367), physically attacking the pope (CIC 1370:1), sacramentally absolving an accomplice in a sexual sin (CIC 1378:1), consecrating a bishop without authorization (CIC 1382), directly violating the seal of confession (1388:1), and someone who actually procures an abortion.[15]

Excommunication can be either latae sententiae (automatic, incurred at the moment of committing the offense for which canon law imposes that penalty) or ferendae sententiae (incurred only when imposed by a legitimate superior or declared as the sentence of an ecclesiastical court).[23]

A priest who grants absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.[24]

According to Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki, "excommunication does not expel the person from the Catholic Church, but simply forbids the excommunicated person from engaging in certain activities..."[25] These activities are listed in Canon 1331 §1, and prohibit the individual from any ministerial participation in celebrating the sacrifice of the Eucharist or any other ceremonies of worship; celebrating or receiving the sacraments; or exercising any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, or functions.[26][27] If the excommunication is, in the formal legal sense, publicly known - that is, in case of both a "declared" latae sententia excommunication (judged upon by the responsible Church court) and in any ferendae sententia excommunication (always imposed by the Church court), any acts of ecclesiastical governance by the excommunicated person are not only illicit but also invalid,[28] e.g., a thus excommunicated bishop cannot validly invest a priest as pastor of a vacant parish. However, as the sacramental character itself is unaffected by the excommunication, this does not apply to acts of sanctification, even if regularly connected with an act of governance such as ordination: an ordination by an excommunicated bishop would be valid but illicit.

Under current Catholic canon law, excommunicates remain bound by ecclesiastical obligations such as attending Mass, even though they are barred from receiving the Eucharist and from taking an active part in the liturgy (reading, bringing the offerings, etc.). "Excommunicates lose rights, such as the right to the sacraments, but they are still bound to the obligations of the law; their rights are restored when they are reconciled through the remission of the penalty."[29] They are urged to retain a relationship with the Church, as the goal is to encourage them to repent and return to active participation in its life.

These are the only effects for those who have incurred a latae sententiae excommunication. For instance, a priest may not refuse Communion publicly to those who are under an automatic excommunication, as long as it has not been officially declared to have been incurred by them, even if the priest knows that they have incurred it.[30] On the other hand, if the priest knows that excommunication has been imposed on someone or that an automatic excommunication has been declared (and is no longer merely an undeclared automatic excommunication), he is forbidden to administer Holy Communion to that person.[31] (see canon 915).

In the Catholic Church, excommunication is normally resolved by a declaration of repentance, profession of the Creed (if the offense involved heresy) and an Act of Faith, or renewal of obedience (if that was a relevant part of the offending act, i.e., an act of schism) by the excommunicated person and the lifting of the censure (absolution) by a priest or bishop empowered to do this. "The absolution can be in the internal (private) forum only, or also in the external (public) forum, depending on whether scandal would be given if a person were privately absolved and yet publicly considered unrepentant."[32] Since excommunication excludes from reception of the sacraments, absolution from excommunication is required before absolution can be given from the sin that led to the censure. In many cases, the whole process takes place on a single occasion in the privacy of the confessional. For some more serious wrongdoings, absolution from excommunication is reserved to a bishop, another ordinary, or even the Pope. These can delegate a priest to act on their behalf.

Effects of excommunication

An excommunicated person is still a member of the Catholic Church but is forbidden to engage in certain activities enumerated in Canon 1331 §1. These precluded activities include: any ministerial participation in celebrating the sacrifice of the Eucharist or any other ceremonies of worship whatsoever; the celebration and reception of the sacraments; and the exercise of any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, or functions. The individual furthermore, cannot validly acquire a dignity, office, or other function in the Church; may not appropriate the benefits of a dignity, office, any function, or pension, which the offender has in the Church; and is forbidden to benefit from privileges previously granted.[33]

Under current Catholic canon law, excommunicates remain bound by ecclesiastical obligations such as attending Mass, even though they are barred from receiving the Eucharist and from taking an active part in the liturgy (reading, bringing the offerings, etc.). "Excommunicates lose rights, such as the right to the sacraments, but they are still bound to the obligations of the law; their rights are restored when they are reconciled through the remission of the penalty."[29] They are urged to retain a relationship with the Church, as the goal is to encourage them to repent and return to active participation in its life.

Criticism of excommunication

Criticism for co-mingling secular and civil penalties

In his 1537 Smalcald Articles, Martin Luther wrote:[39]

The greater excommunication,[lower-alpha 1] as the Pope calls it, we regard only as a civil penalty, and it does not concern us ministers of the Church. But the lesser, that is, the true Christian excommunication, consists in this, that manifest and obstinate sinners are not admitted to the Sacrament and other communion of the Church until they amend their lives and avoid sin. And ministers ought not to mingle secular punishments with this ecclesiastical punishment, or excommunication.

Luther was critical because he thought the existing practice commingled secular and ecclesiastical punishments. To Luther, civil penalties were outside the domain of the church and were instead the responsibility of civil authorities. The practice of issuing out interdicts against entire locations was abolished in the 1983 Code of Canon Law due to "concern that penalties not be imposed indiscriminately on the guilty and innocent alike."[40] However, personal interdicts may still be given out, even in matters of money and politics, such as with St. Stanislaus Kostka Church (St. Louis, Missouri) in 2005. Non-spiritual expiatory penalties may be applied in some other cases, especially for clergy. These have been criticized for being overly punitive and inadequately pastoral.[41] For example, a member of the clergy might be ordered to live in a particular monastery for a period of time, or even the rest of his life, a punishment comparable to house arrest.[42] Access to electronic devices may also be restricted for persons sentenced to a life of prayer and penance.[43]

Criticism for automatic excommunications

In canon law for Eastern Catholic Churches, there are no automatic excommunications, but there are still automatic excommunications for the Latin Church (sometimes termed Roman Catholics). Automatic, or latae sententiae excommunications have been criticized for lacking due process and conflating judicial and spiritual processes.[lower-alpha 2] They have also been blamed for disturbing the consciences of Catholics (see scrupulosity) who wonder whether if they might somehow be excommunicated and not know it.

In the case of canon 915, the automatic nature of the excommunication enables church authorities to avoid conflict that could increase clarity[44] and release tension should offenders be confronted for their sins. Clerical inaction against pro-choice politicians has been a source of controversy,[45] as some think canon law mandates the excommunication of Catholic politicians who support abortion. For clarification, in Catholicism excommunication does not make a person non-Catholic, such as with some other denominations or religions. Only apostasy would make a baptized Catholic a non-Catholic.[46]

In his 2016 Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis criticized the practice of suspending communion to some people who have incurred automatic excommunication due to divorce and remarriage.

Reforms in 1983

One reform in the 1983 code was that non-Catholic Christians are not assumed to be culpable for not being Roman Catholic, and are not discussed or treated as excommunicated Catholics guilty of heresy or schism.[47] Another reform in 1983 was a list of extenuating circumstances in Canon 1324 which could prevent excommunication or lessen other punishments.

Other criticisms of excommunication and other penalties

Historically, the excommunication of actors by the Catholic Church was a subject of criticism, as was the excessive number of excommunications and the posthumous excommunication exacted by the Cadaver Synod.

The sadistic attitude that delights in the damnation of others was satirized by 19th century poet Robert Browning in his Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister.[48]

Eastern Catholic Churches

In the Eastern Catholic Churches, excommunications is imposed only by decree, never incurred automatically by latae sententiae excommunication. In the Oriental canon law of the Eastern Catholic Churches, a distinction is made between minor and major excommunication.

Those on whom minor excommunication has been imposed are excluded from receiving the Eucharist and can also be excluded from participating in the Divine Liturgy. They can even be excluded from entering a church when divine worship is being celebrated there. The decree of excommunication must indicate the precise effect of the excommunication and, if required, its duration.[49]

Those under major excommunication are in addition forbidden to receive not only the Eucharist but also the other sacraments, to administer sacraments or sacramentals, to exercise any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, or functions whatsoever, and any such exercise by them is null and void. They are to be removed from participation in the Divine Liturgy and any public celebrations of divine worship. They are forbidden to make use of any privileges granted to them and cannot be given any dignity, office, ministry, or function in the Church, they cannot receive any pension or emoluments associated with these dignities etc., and they are deprived of the right to vote or to be elected.[50]

Minor excommunication is roughly equivalent to the interdict in Western law.

See also


  1. That is, official de-recognition of one's status as a Christian, as opposed to the lesser excommunication, which was suspension from the sacraments.
  2. This is somewhat mitigated by Canon 1357, although it only grants a one month grace period


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  2. "Code of Canon Law, canon 1312". Vatican.va. Archived from the original on 2012-05-25. Retrieved 2012-04-03.
  3. Karl Rahner (editor), Encyclopedia of Theology (A&C Black 1975 ISBN 978-0-86012006-3), p. 413
  4. Peters, Edward. Excommunication and the Catholic Church (Ascension Press 2014)
  5.  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: A. BOUDINHON (1913). "Excommunication" . In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton. Canonists usually treat of excommunication in their commentaries on the Corpus Juris Canonici, at the title De sententia excommunicationis (lib. V, tit. xxxix). Moralists deal with it apropos of the treatise on censures (De Censuris). One of the best works is that of D'ANNIBALE Summula Theologiæ moralis (5th ed., Rome, 1908). For details consult the numerous commentaries on the Constitution Apostolicæ Sedis. Special works by ancient writers: AVILA, De censuris (Lyons, 1608); SUAREZ, De censuris (Coimbra, 1603). ALTIERI, De censuris ecclesiasticis (Rome, 1618). — Cf. KOBER, Der Kirchenbann (Tübingen, 1857): IDEM in Kirchenlex., s.v. Bann; HOLLWECK, Die kirchlichen Strafgesetze (Mainz, 1899); HILARIUS A SEXTEN, De censuris (Mainz, 1898); MÜNCHEN, Das kanonische Gerichtsverfahren und Strafrecht (Cologne, 1874); TAUNTON, The Law of the Church (London, 1906), s.v. Excommunication; SMITH, Elements of Ecclesiastical Law (New York, 1884); SANTI-LEITNER, Pr lect. Jur. Canonici (New York, 1905), V, 210-15; LEGA, De Judiciis Eccl. (Rome, 1900).
  6. Canon 1311, Code of Canon Law, Libreria Editrice Vaticana
  7. Logan, F. Donald. Excommunication and the Secular Arm in Medieval England: A Study in Legal Procedure from the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Century, PIMS, 1968, ISBN 9780888440150
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  9. Fried, Joannes. Thee Middle Ages. p. 257. Harvard University Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-674-05562-9
  10. Fried, Joannes. Thee Middle Ages. p. 256-7. Harvard University Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-674-05562-9
  11. "Lateran IV", Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University
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  13. Turner, Ralph V., King John: England's Evil King? Stroud, UK: History Press. 2009, ISBN 978-0-7524-4850-3
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  17. Guilbeau, OP, Aquinas. "Excommunication: What is it and does the Church still do it?", Aleteia, March 20, 2018
  18. Pope Francis. Misericordiae Vultus, §18, April 11, 2015, Libreria Editrice Vaticana
  19. Harris, Elise. "Remember the missionaries of mercy? Here's what they've been up to.", Catholic News Agency, April 6, 2018
  20. "Code of Canon Law, canon 1312". Vatican.va. Archived from the original on 25 May 2012. Retrieved 2012-04-03.
  21. Karl Rahner (editor), Encyclopedia of Theology (A&C Black 1975 ISBN 978-0-86012006-3), p. 413
  22. Peters, Edward. Excommunication and the Catholic Church (Ascension Press 2014)
  23. "Code of Canon Law, canon 1314". Vatican.va. Retrieved 2012-04-03.
  24. Canon 1378 §1 Archived March 27, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  25. Peters, 2014, (Foreword)
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  27. "Catechism of the Catholic Church". usccb.org.
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  32. "John Hardon, ''Modern Catholic Dictionary'' "Absolution from censure"". Catholicreference.net. Archived from the original on 23 March 2012. Retrieved 2012-04-03.
  33. Can. 1331 §1 and §2, Code of Canon Law, Title IV Archived March 29, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  34. Oberman, Heiko Augustinus (1 January 1994). "The Impact of the Reformation: Essays". Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing via Google Books.
  35. Luther's Last Battles: Politics And Polemics 1531-46 By Mark U. Edwards, Jr. Fortress Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0-8006-3735-4
  36. In Latin, the title reads "Hic oscula pedibus papae figuntur"
  37. "Nicht Bapst: nicht schreck uns mit deim ban, Und sey nicht so zorniger man. Wir thun sonst ein gegen wehre, Und zeigen dirs Bel vedere"
  38. Mark U. Edwards, Jr., Luther's Last Battles: Politics And Polemics 1531-46 (2004), p. 199
  39. The Smalcald Articles Part III, Article IX. Of Excommunication
  40. New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law By John P. Beal.
  41. New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law by John P. Beal, p. 1553
  42. Crime and punishment in the catholic church: An overview of possibilities and problems, USCCB Canon Law Seminar, 2010
  43. What does it actually mean for a priest to be ‘laicized’? (Catholic News Agency)
  44. Canon Law: A Comparative Study with Anglo-American Legal Theory by John J. Coughlin, p. 156
  45. Bishops Wring Their Hands at the Whirlwind of Hell by Monica Migliorino Miller, January 29, 2019, Crisis Magazine
  46. Humanities › Religion & Spirituality Excommunication in the Catholic Church
  47. The Revised Code of Canon Law: Some Theological Issues in Theological Studies 47, 4, Dec 01, 1986, Thomas J. Green, p. 644
  48. Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister, full text on Google Books
  49. Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 1431 Archived August 29, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  50. Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 1434 Archived August 29, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
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