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Excommunicated Catholics are still Catholic

November 20, 2018

An essay published some five years ago purporting “to clear up confusion about excommunication” recently popped up again and sowed anew confusion on several aspects of excommunication. I don’t recall responding to the original publication but I will briefly respond now.

Preliminarily, there are, of course, several good points made in the essay, such as noting that excommunication is rarely imposed these days and that the sanction is primarily aimed at the reform of the offender. But at least two hot-button issues related to excommunication were wrongly presented in the essay and warrant correction.

The first is the mistaken idea that, upon excommunication, a “person is no longer a member of the Catholic Church.” Actually an excommunicated Catholic is still a Catholic in rather the same way that a convicted felon is still a citizen. An excommunicated Catholic is simply (sadly, but simply) a Catholic who is excommunicated.

Canon 205 recognizes as Catholic any baptized person who is joined with the Church “in its visible structure by the bonds of profession of faith, of the sacraments, and of ecclesiastical governance.” Now a priest who, say, violates the seal of confession (an excommunicable offense under 1983 CIC 1388) might well believe everything Catholics believe, share in the seven sacraments to the extent allowed by canon law (and, mind, all Catholics are restricted from certain sacraments under certain conditions), and acknowledge the governance of the Church in the very act of accepting the excommunication and in working diligently to have it lifted—as happens from time to time. Such a priest, regretting his act and distressed by his excommunication, does not need to make a ‘profession of faith’ (as if he were coming into full communion from some other religious body) but rather admits his specific fault and seeks the lifting of the Church sanction.

If the foregoing does not suffice to show that excommunicated Catholics are still Catholics (albeit excommunicated ones), consider: excommunicated Catholics are still bound to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation (1983 CIC 1247), something non-Catholics are not required to do; excommunicated Catholics are still bound to observe the Church’s laws on marriage (1983 CIC 1059) something non-Catholics are not required to do; and excommunicated Catholics are still bound to contribute to the material needs of the Church (1983 CIC 222, 1262), something non-Catholics are not required to do. I could list another score of canons that excommunicated Catholics are bound to observe in ways that non-Catholics are not so bound, again, in rather the same way that felons are still bound by the laws of the state while in prison (e.g., prisoners are still subject to income taxes and might have to file tax returns from behind bars). All of these serve to demonstrate that excommunicated Catholics are still Catholic.

In short, while there are some ways for a Catholic to cease juridically being a Catholic (e.g., “defection” from the Church, a topic too far afield from ours), excommunication is not such a way. Excommunicated Catholics are still Catholic. Bad Catholics, sure; but Catholics.

Second is the mistaken idea that “legislators who promote abortion and make it possible … surely must incur the penalty” of excommunication. No, they don’t, but I have made this point in so many venues that I see little use in making it again. Those interested in seeing why those reprehensible Catholics who vote to legalize abortion are, for all that, not excommunicated for abortion, or for anything else, (as if, you know, merely dodging excommunication for one’s evil deeds suffices to show the goodness of such deeds) can look here or more generally here for more information. 

There are still other problems in the recirculated essay—such as its uncritical reference to the lifting of Lefebvrite excommunications and to the subsequently regretted lifting of Williamson’s sanction, both matters I consider to have been canonically botched, as discussed here: Edward Peters, “Benedict XVI’s remission of the Lefebvrite excommunications: an analysis and alternative explanation”, Studia Canonica 45 (2011) 165-189; reprinted in Canon Law Society of Great Britain & Ireland Newsletter 172 (Dec 2012) 1, 8-29—but let the above two examples suffice to show that, in dealing with matters of canon law, especially penal canon law, and most especially with matters of excommunication, readers should beware.

Ceterum, poenae latae sententiae delendae sunt.

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