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Uta Ranke-Heinemann’s alleged excommunication

January 23, 2008

Uta Ranke-Heinemann, the German theologian who in 1985 became the first woman to receive, and in 1987 the first to forfeit, a major chair in Catholic theology, is in the news again, this time using Cdl. Lehmann’s announcement that he will step down as chairman of the German episcopal conference as the occasion to remind folks that she was a classmate of famous figures like Lehmann and Ratzinger. There’s nothing new in her remarks; they are assessed elsewhere.

But I paused over Ranke-Heinemann’s claim (at times, it sounds more like a boast) to have been excommunicated. I wonder, when exactly was that?

Granted that some of Ranke-Heinemann’s views seem heretical per 1983 CIC 750-751, making her susceptible to automatic censure under 1983 CIC 1364, I find no record (cf. Acta Apostolicae Sedis, La Documentation Catholique, Canon Law Digest, etc.) that the Church’s gravest penalty was formally declared or imposed against Ranke-Heinemann during her academic troubles. Given that the effects of automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication are lighter than are those for formal (ferendae sententiae) excommunication (1983 CIC 1331.2), one should not assume that Ranke-Heinemann labors under the latter when it’s not even clear that she incurred the former.

Maybe Ranke-Heinemann should have been formally excommunicated (excommunication is, after all, a medicinal penalty per 1983 CIC 1312); and it’s possible, but not very likely, that her bishop did so in an act to which the world was not privy. But, anyone who sees Ranke-Heinemann’s loss of a theology chair as tantamount to an excommunication needs correction in that regard. Excommunication is a far more serious penalty.

But all of this underscores, I think, a deeper point still.

There are several legal and pastoral anomalies associated with “automatic” penalties in the Church, and prominent among them is that the operation of automatic sanctions in the Church inevitably focuses attention on the intricacies of canon law, instead of on the fundamental Christian values that canon law is meant to serve. That is rarely helpful. Formal penal procedures (preferably judicial, but even administrative, per 1983 CIC 1342) not only serve justice better in the Church, they give the appearance of serving justice better than do automatic sanctions. And that’s an important good.

Happily, the modern trend (modern, though it started with Bl. Pius IX’s ap. con. Apostolicae Sedis moderationi in 1869) against automatic canonical sanctions is gaining ground (see 1983 CIC 1314, and note that Eastern Catholic canon law has dropped automatic sanctions entirely per CCEO 1402). I suggest that we see in Ranke-Heinemann’s touting of an excommunication that she might not have even incurred one more reason why formal penal processes, with published results, should be standard practice throughout the Church.

Read more about these issues: Edward Peters, EXCOMMUNICATION AND THE CATHOLIC CHURCH: STRAIGHT ANSWERS TO TOUGH QUESTIONS, Foreword by Bp. Thomas Paprocki (Ascension Press, 2006), ISBN: 1932645454.

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