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Replies to Ron Modras’ six questions on excommunication

July 15, 2010

No single individual, indeed, no medium-sized office of people, would suffice to provide adequate replies to the mostly-junk theology routinely put out by the National Catholic Reporter. But rather than curse the darkness, I light here a candle against a single paragraph of Ronald Modras, “Does excommunication do any good?”, NCRep on-line 12 July 2010.

Modras asks: “If a girl becomes the victim of a date rape and takes the morning-after pill, is she excommunicated? And if so, why is she excommunicated and not the rapist? Or is she excommunicated? Is Zapp now excommunicated for leaving the church as an institution but not as a community of faith? Does opting out of paying his church taxes endanger his immortal soul? Was McBride excommunicated, if she made her difficult gut-wrenching decision with prayer and a good conscience?”

I will reply to each of Modras’ questions below, but first, I must remind readers that “excommunication” is a penalty, while “latae sententiae” is a procedure. As soon as one says, then, “excommunication latae sententiae” one is mixing penal issues with procedural ones, and sorting out the consequent substantive and adjectival legal questions is no easy matter. I have long held that “automatic sanctions” inevitably confuse discussions of ecclesiastical discipline and, for this and other reasons, I hold that canonical penalties should no longer be incurred latae sententiae. But that is not my decision to make.

Below, I will answer the harder question posed (wittingly or otherwise) by Modras, that is, not whether such-and-such action results in automatic excommunication (against which consequence more defenses could be raised), but instead, whether such action could result in ferendae sententiae (formal) excommunication.

1. If a girl becomes the victim of a date rape and takes the morning-after pill, is she excommunicated?

No, but not because very early abortion is not the taking of a human life and therefore an excommunicable offense (because it certainly is), but because of insurmountable forensic doubts about whether an abortion took place on these facts and, even if one did, whether it was the result of the woman’s actions. (As it happens, I am addressing this topic as part of a formal advisory opinion to be submitted for peer-review later this year. Watch for it down the road.)

2. And if so, why is she excommunicated and not the rapist?

Rapists are not excommunicated for the same reason that arsonists, embezzlers, rioters, bank robbers, drunk drivers, counterfeiters, polluters, traitors—the list could go on—are not excommunicated: because states adequately punish these crimes. In contrast, abortion has always been difficult for civil authorities to detect and prosecute, and today, most modern nations have simply abandoned preborn babies to abortionists’ fury. The Church steps in to defend as best she can those most vulnerable to being killed.

3. Or is she excommunicated?

How many times does Modras get to restate the same rhetorical question?

4. Is Zapp now excommunicated for leaving the church as an institution but not as a community of faith?

I have not followed the Hartmut Zapp case closely and I know little of the German civil law involved here, but I can say that anyone attempting to drive a wedge between the concept of the Church as an “institution” and the Church as a “community of believers” does so with ecclesiological peril. History is rife with examples of schismatics who left the corrupt and flawed “visible Church” for the pure and pristine “invisible Body of Christ”. It’s still a schismatic action making one liable to ecclesiastical sanction.

5. Does opting out of paying his church taxes endanger his immortal soul?

I thought we were talking about the ecclesiastical punishment known as excommunication, not the eschatological consequences of what might be unrepented mortal sin. Oh well, since Modras brought it up, any action, if undertaken with evil motives, can be rendered evil. What Zapp’s intentions were here, I have no idea. But, again since Modras brought it up, I must caution that even a seemingly small act undertaken for, say, one’s financial or social benefit (e.g., tossing just a little incense on the idol’s fire) could amount to an objectively grave sin against the faith.

6. Was McBride excommunicated, if she made her difficult gut-wrenching decision with prayer and a good conscience?

“Prayer and good conscience”—assuming such factors can even be weighed in law—do not excuse intrinsically evil acts such as deliberate abortion. This is rudimentary moral theology, and it is certainly good law. I am sure Modras would shudder at real examples of heinous acts performed “in good conscience”. We need not belabor the point.

In conclusion, Modras asks whether excommunication does any good. It’s a fair question, though hardly one original with him. The Church has asked herself that question since the Lord walked among us (Matthew 18), and she will continue to ask it until He comes again. She is certainly open to advice on the matter. But those offering her advice should first demonstrate an adequate understanding of the issues, no?

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