This past June Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, head of the Pontifical
Council for the Family, announced that “all women, doctors and researchers who
eliminate embryos (catholic.org)” through embryonic stem cell research,
which results in the death of the human embryo, are automatically
excommunicated. Such research practices are tantamount to performing abortions,
which also incurs automatic excommunication.
Many people, no doubt, see excommunication only as an extreme reaction
towards someone who doesn’t agree with the Catholic Church. It is actually much
more than that.
Since the beginning of the Church, there have been circumstances that
necessitated a baptized person being ejected from the community. St. Paul used
his authority with the Corinthian church to demand that a man be exiled from the
congregation until he repented of his incestuous activity, which was seriously
disturbing the church. When the man finally did repent, St. Paul encouraged the
Corinthians to once again accept him as a brother.
This has always been the purpose of excommunication: “to seriously
motivate the offender to repent (wikipedia.org).”
The term for this exclusion from the community in the early church was
anathema. Originally, the word in Hebrew meant a person or thing
dedicated to God and unable to be redeemed. This took on the connotation of
being dedicated to destruction, since the item was usually a sacrifice or
something placed under a ban. The word is frequently translated as
accursed, as something doomed to destruction was considered to be.
The Latin words for excommunication are excommunio and
excommunicatio, which literally mean, out of communion or
exclusion from communion. According to newadvent.org, such
censure meant “the guilty Christian [was denied] all participation in the common
blessings of ecclesiastical society.” He could no longer enjoy the spiritual and
material benefits of belonging to the community of believers. Although he was
still a Christian—because his baptism was irrevocable—he could no longer
participate in the liturgy, receive the sacraments, or even associate with other
believers. (The ban on association has since been lifted.) If he died while
under censure, he could not receive Christian burial or be assured of heaven.
Also he could not benefit from the official prayers of the Church, indulgences,
In the case of a cleric, he lost his office (jurisdiction), his material
support from the Church, his participation in tribunals (except as a witness for
another party) and his privilege of administering the sacraments. The only
exception concerning administration of the sacraments was if one of the faithful
were in danger of death.
Perhaps worse, but not as appreciated, were the loss of the spiritual
benefits of unity with the Church. “In the first centuries excommunication is
not regarded as a simple external measure; it reaches the soul and the
conscience. It is not merely the severing of the outward bond which holds the
individual to his place in the Church; it severs also the internal bond, and the
sentence pronounced on earth is ratified in heaven.” The truth of this is so
essential to understand that at least two popes condemned propositions that
claimed excommunication was only external. “Undoubtedly the Church cannot (nor
does it wish to) oppose any obstacle to the internal relations of the soul with
God; she even implores God to give the grace of repentance to the
excommunicated. The rites of the Church, nevertheless, are always the
providential and regular channel through which Divine grace is conveyed to
Christians; exclusion from such rites, especially from the sacraments, entails
therefore regularly the privation of this grace, to whose sources the
excommunicated person has no longer access.”
In being cut off from Christ’s fold, the person is without spiritual
nourishment. Without grace, an individual is prey to the evil one and more
easily snared due to spiritual malnutrition. This is a dire situation for a
Harm to the Laity
The second reason excommunication exists is to protect the Faithful.
The example and/or teaching of those guilty of serious sin hurt the Church. “The
right to excommunicate is an immediate and necessary consequence of the fact
that the Church is a society. Every society has the right to exclude and deprive
of their rights and social advantages its unworthy or grievously culpable
members, either temporarily or permanently. This right is necessary to every
society in order that it may be well administered and survive. The fundamental
proof, therefore, of the Church's right to excommunicate is based on her status
as a spiritual society, whose members, governed by legitimate authority, seek
one and the same end through suitable means. Members who, by their obstinate
disobedience, reject the means of attaining this common end deserve to be
removed from such a society. This rational argument is confirmed by texts of the
New Testament, the example of the Apostles, and the practice of the Church from
the first ages down to the present.”
Separating those who teach and practice heresy against the Catholic faith is
a matter of being good shepherds who keep the wolves from attacking and
destroying the sheep. The purpose of the Church is to maintain and impart the
truths that Jesus gave His apostles so that souls may be saved and gain heaven.
Purity of doctrine is essential to that mission.
There are not many things nowadays for which people are excommunicated.
Although it was the standard action taken in the early church for laypeople
guilty of grave infractions of church teaching, clerics were deposed of their
office and reduced in status to laity. “By the sixth century, one who sinned
seriously was permanently alienated from the Eucharist and general church life
unless he or she did extended public penance and was sacramentally reconciled
(Ekstrom, Reynolds R., The New Concise Catholic Dictionary,
1982).”As the practice of public penance waned and ecclesiastical
disciplinary methods changed, bishops grew more abusive in wielding
excommunications. “From the ninth century on, excommunication became gradually
an ever more powerful means of spiritual government, a sort of coercive measure
ensuring the exact accomplishment of the laws of the Church and the precepts of
her prelates. Excommunication was either threatened or inflicted in order to
secure the observance of fasts and feasts, the payment of tithes, the obedience
of inferiors, the denunciation of the guilty, also to compel the faithful to
make known to ecclesiastical authority matrimonial impediments and other
information.” Due to the numerous cases of excommunication, the practice was
reduced to contempt.
In an effort to subdue the abuse and stop the scandal it was causing among
the lay people, the Council of Trent recommended “to all bishops and prelates
more moderation in the use of censures,” exhorting them to only use it in
serious instances and after much diligent reflection.
With such strong encouragement to refrain from employing excommunication for
reasons of coercion, the practice became increasingly rare.
Offenses against the Faith
The instances resulting in automatic excommunication (“incurred as soon as
the offence is committed and by reason of the offence itself”) are as
- Desecration of the Eucharist,
- Physical force against the Pope,
- Attempted sacramental absolution of a partner in
- Ordination of a bishop without a Papal mandate (e.g.
all bishops in the government-run Chinese Patriotic Church),
- Violation of the sacramental seal of confession by a
priest or bishop,
- For non-electors present in the conclave, revelation
of the details of the conclave,
- Simoniacal provision of the Papal office, and
- Procurement of a completed abortion [and now,
participating in embryonic stem cell research].
Observance of automatic excommunications are incumbent upon those committing
the offence, unless and until the offender is submitted for trial and declared
excommunicated by an appropriate authority.
A lesser punishment for infractions of less serious matters is
interdiction. In the new Code of Canon Law, it is a penalty applied to
individuals that prohibits them from “taking part in services or receiving
sacraments or sacramentals (Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Dictionary, Fr.
Peter Stravinskas, ed., 1993). For example, a person who lies under oath to
a church official would be subject to interdict.
Hope for the Repentant
As stated earlier, it is the hope and prayer of the Church that those who
bring excommunication or interdiction upon themselves would repent. Infractors
are warned and, if need be, given a specified period of time in which to be
reconciled with the Church. If they refuse, the Church declares them
excommunicated. The only prayers to be said for them are ones beseeching their
return to the Catholic faith. It is sincerely hoped that being severed from the
Body of Christ will result in contrition and repentance and finally restoration
as loyal members of Christ’s Church.
After signs of true repentance, absolution can be received, depending on the
offense, from the Pope or his representative, or, a bishop or his
As Jesus prayed, so His Church continues to pray:
“That they may all be one
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from