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Catholicism: Excommunication and Other Penalties

Being excommunicated from the Catholic Church is widely misunderstood: It doesn't mean that you're banned from church and stripped of your Catholicism. Rather, excommunication is a strong, remedial penalty meted out with the hope that it'll wake you up and move you to true repentance — and back into full communion with the faithful. In short, it's reversible.

Excommunication is the most severe form of ecclesiastical penalty and is used only as an absolute last resort. Excommunicants remain Catholic because of baptism and still obligated to attend Mass, but they are deprived of all sacraments (except for the Sacrament of Penance). For example, you can go to Mass but not receive the Holy Eucharist. The excommunicated are forbidden from employment or holding any position of authority in a diocese or parish. They are also deprived of a Catholic burial.

What are grounds for excommunication?

Basically, the grounds for excommunication is this: You have committed a grave offense that caused you to be spiritually separated from the Church and the community of the faithful. You have left the Church on your own accord by committing the offense. (But remember, excommunication offers a way to go back!)

The following offenses warrant excommunication as a result of a judgment from a church authority:

  • Pretended celebration of the Holy Eucharist (Mass) or conferral of sacramental absolution by one not a priest

  • Violation of confessional seal by interpreter and others

Some excommunications, however, are automatic (effective at the moment the act is committed) and without the intervention of the Church. Catholics are automatically excommunicated for committing these offenses:

  • Procuring of abortion

  • Apostasy: The total rejection of the Christian faith.

  • Heresy: The obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth, which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith.

  • Schism: The rejection of the authority and jurisdiction of the pope as head of the Church.

  • Desecration of sacred species (Holy Communion)

  • Physical attack on the pope

  • Sacramental absolution of an accomplice in sin against the Sixth and Ninth Commandments

  • Unauthorized episcopal (bishop) consecration

  • Direct violation of confessional seal by confessor

Who can remove the excommunication?

The local bishop has the authority to remove most excommunications, but many bishops delegate this power to all their parish priests when it involves a penitent confessing the mortal sin of abortion. This way, the person going to confession can simultaneously have the sin absolved and the excommunication lifted. This is to make it easier for people to go to confession and reconcile themselves with God and the Church, especially after a very emotional, personal, and serious matter, such as abortion.

Some excommunications, however, are so serious that only the pope or his delegate can remove the penalty. For example, if someone desecrates (shows irreverence to) the Holy Eucharist, only the pope can remove that excommunication. Likewise, if a priest attempts to absolve someone guilty of breaking the Sixth or Ninth Commandment with whom he himself participated in that sexual sin, his excommunication is automatic and reserved to Rome. So, too, a bishop who ordains a priest to the order of bishop without prior orders from the pope is automatically excommunicated, and only the pope can remove that excommunication, which applies equally to the ordaining bishop and the bishop being ordained.

Other types of penalties

In addition to excommunication, the Code of Canon Law has other types of penalties:

  • Suspension: The Church forbids a suspended cleric (priest, deacon, or bishop) to exercise his ordained ministry and to wear clerical garb. However, suspension doesn’t deprive the cleric of receiving the sacraments.

  • Interdict: This is a temporary penalty that can be applied to one or more persons — or even a whole town or area. Under this punishment, the persons named can’t receive the sacraments, but they aren’t excommunicated, so they still can receive income from a diocese or parish, hold office, and so on. It is lifted when the person repents and seeks reconciliation.

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