What “excommmunication” means to the minds, hearts and daily living of Catholics has come front and center once again because of official statements ironically not about excommunicating someone but about lifting the excommunication. The subject in question was Bishop Richard Williamson who had been excommunicated in 1988 because he had accepted ordination from a Bishop who had no standing with Rome to perform such an act. In January, 2009 Pope Benedict XVI determined, in an apparent effort to heal a schism with the Church’s most conservative members, to reach out and lift the excommunication with Williamson. Even though it was the surrounding issue of Williamson’s open denial of the Holocaust that stirred the greatest interest, the thorny issue of excommunication also commanded the spotlight and left many both inside and outside of the Catholic community wondering what this tool of excommunication is really all about.
Naturally the safest source for a valid explanation of the Catholic practice of excommunication lies within the pages of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Prepared under the auspices of Rome and published in 1992, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was prepared not as a home tutorial for children, like the Baltimore Catechism many grew up with. Instead the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church is meant for scholars, teachers, catechists and adults in the faith to use as an authoriatative source of information regarding all aspects of the Catholic faith.
The key explanatory section in the Catechism is Part 2, Section 2, Chap. 2, Article 4. There the church leadership has made it clear the excommunication is no minor wrist slapping event. For catholics excommunications means the loss of much that is vital in their spiritual life. Those who are excommunicated find that this means that they are kept from “the reception of the sacraments ” . For non Catholics the full severity of this act may not be clearly seen. In the Catholic faith the celebration of Mass is the faith’s central act of worship. During the mass, bread and wine are consecrated and become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Believers then come forward and receive the body and blood of Christ in what is known as Holy Eucharist or Communion.
For the excommunicant, who have been denied the sacraments, the worship form of a lifetime is no longer available to them. While this is the sacrament that is most frequently received it is only one of seven sacraments and all are denied to the excommunicant. In this way excommunicants find that they are not welcomed to receive the sacrament of marriage in the Catholic Church either. Excommunication simply put means that former Catholic Christians, have by there acts cut themselves off from the celebrating community of faith which may have been quite central to their spiritual existence.
Why would the Church act in such a way to former members of the Catholic faith community? Excommunication is not handed out lightly. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says flatly “Certain particularly grave sins incur excommunication” . The act of abortion is commonly seen as falling into the category of a “particularly grave sin” but so are other actions that defy the authority of the pope or other church bodies. The Catechism also recognizes the effect of excommunication on former members of the faith by noting that excommunication is “the most severe ecclesiastical penalty”.
What can the goal of the church be in excommunicating a person? Certainly the whole point of Catholicism is to add souls to the Body of Christ not subtract them one at a time through excommunication. The real goal of excommunication is not so much punative, though the loss of the sacraments is deeply felt by excommunicants, as it is meant to be an aid towards rehabilitation. Set apart from the sacramental community it is hoped that the transgressor, whatever his or her transgression, will eventually repent of his or her failings and take the steps that may lead back to the Church.
One of the facts about excommunication that many Catholics may not grasp is that it is not necessarily an irreversible action as the recent case of Bishop Williamson has made clear. When proper repentance has been shown, excommunication and its punishment can be lifted just as quickly as it is imposed. When the excommunicant makes clear his or her intent to alter the offensive behavior the Pope or one who has jurisdiction can proceed to offer a form of absolution through which the excommunicant is received back into the faith community..
What excommunication means to Catholics is that belonging to their faith community requires certain behaviors and negates other behaviors. Those whose offenses are grave enough can find themsleves placed outside of the community and its sacramental practices. Excommunicated Catholics should recognize that they have the power to return to their Church if they repent of their actions.