Excommunication: A Restorative Measure

June 15, 2012

Why excommunicate people? Is this not a strange holdover from the medieval Church?

With these two questions begins  a recent article in the National Catholic Register by Fr. Brian Mullady, OP, a Dominican priest of the Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus and an expert in moral theology.  In his article, Fr. Mullady reminds us of the medicinal aspect of excommunication.  The beginning of this article is below.  Continue reading the article on the National Catholic Register website.

Excommunication as a Restorative Measure

by Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

St. Ambrose excommunicates the Emperor Theodosius
Why excommunicate people? Is this not a strange holdover from the medieval Church? Excommunication is a punitive device on the part of the Church and is more than merely denying holy Communion. It also publicly rebukes and shames the person. The cause for excommunication is explicitly “obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin” (Canon 915). However, a case could certainly be made that the punishment of excommunication could also be attached to “rebuke a person from whose behavior there arises scandal or serious disturbance of order in a manner accommodated to the special conditions of the person and the deed” (Canon 1339, Paragraph 2). The Church takes this extreme measure only after all other efforts to correct a person have failed. It should not be treated lightly. Some have viewed it as a way to bring errant Catholics (including Catholic politicians) into line. Though its intent is always to restore the offenders to truth and communion, its extreme nature often makes it unlikely that such a thing may occur. Failing reconciliation, excommunication can serve as a clear statement to the faithful of the serious nature of our moral doctrine. There have been a number of difficulties that have arisen in the Church in the United States recently that have prompted both bishops and laity to investigate the possibility of the use of excommunication to seek to restore Church discipline. These have ranged from in-house Church matters like rebellion of parishioners against pastors to revisiting what possible reaction the Church can employ towards politicians who publicly and without compunction dissent from Church teaching on matters like same-sex “marriage” or abortion. The history of excommunication leads to mixed results. In the early Church, St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, used the threat of excommunication against Emperor Theodosius I for his massacre of 7,000 people in Thessalonica. He told the emperor to imitate David in his repentance and readmitted him to Communion after several months of penance. In the Middle Ages, Pope Gregory VII excommunicated Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV over many disputed issues, not least of which was Henry’s attempt to depose Gregory from the papacy. In his excommunication, Gregory also absolved Henry’s subjects from obedience. Henry’s excommunication produced a deep effect on both Germany and Italy. In response, Henry was forced to come to Canossa and wait in the snow for three days; he did penance and was ultimately absolved from the excommunication. In medieval Europe, where almost everyone was Catholic, the emperor needed the Church, and so excommunication was effective. Continue reading this article at the National Catholic Register website.    

More News & Events