Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Nature of Excommunication

Given the discussion about the excommunication of the mother and doctor involved in the abortion of the nine-year-old Brazillian girl, I thought I'd offer some information about excommunication in the Catholic Church.

Excommunication is widely misunderstood. Canon Lawyer Edward Peters addresses some of the misperceptions: And the most common misperceptions?

Peters: I'd say there are two, maybe three.

First, there is the idea that excommunication kicks one out of the Church. That is not right. There are ways to cancel one's Church membership, but excommunication isn't one of them. The analogy I use to explain it is that of a felon serving a long prison term; he's in prison, but he remains a citizen bound by the laws of his country. If he, say, owns property upon which he incurs taxes while in prison, he still owns the property and is still liable for the tax from prison; if he commits a crime in prison, he can be prosecuted for it, and so on. A felon loses certain important rights, obviously, like freedom of movement and the right to vote, but he is still a citizen. Similarly, an excommunicated person is still a member of the Church, but he or she has lost certain key rights attached to Church membership and is cut off from many of the activities and benefits of the Church.

The second misconception is that people who die excommunicated go to hell. Maybe they do, and maybe they don't, but we don't know with certainty either way. In any case, the Church does not claim to exercise jurisdiction over the dead, and one's final fate is determined by God based on the life one leads. Of course, appearing before God for judgment in the state of excommunication from His Church on earth is not a good thing.

The third misconception is sort of complicated. Still want it? I am going to post this interview on, and as you know, our readers are among the brightest people on earth. So...

Peters: Okay, let's go. Basically, the third misconception is this: many people think that, because a given Catholic committed an action for which automatic excommunication is the penalty (for example, heresy, schism, abortion), the penalty was actually incurred in that case. That's not necessarily true, but the reasons behind my claim require us getting into Canons 18, 1323, and 1324, among others, canons that contain a startling list of factors that mitigate or even remove liability for canonical crimes. Now taken individually, these exceptions to penal liability make sense, but when read as a whole, as we have to do, they make it much more difficult to determine whether an automatic excommunication was actually incurred in a specific case.