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John W. OMalleySeptember 27, 2004
(CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Denying communion to some politicians because of their voting records or policy decisions, as has been done recently by a few American bishops, has caught the attention of the nation. Withholding Communion is not the same thing as excommunication in the strict sense. Church practice has allowed even an ordinary parish pastor to deny Communion to “notorious public sinners.” The classic example of such a sinner is a madam who runs a bordello in a small town, where her profession is known to everybody. Whether or not the political figures being denied Communion today fit into this category I leave to others to judge. The bishops’ actions do raise the question, however, of how the church has traditionally dealt with political figures who in one way or another have run afoul of the church, or at least of churchmen.

The best known instances of formal action against such figures are excommunications, of which church history provides some spectacular examples. At least up until the 19th and most especially the 20th century, the culprits have been monarchs or their officials—not, as is the case today, elected officeholders. But despite that major discrepancy between past and present, it might be instructive to review some major excommunications. They can help us frame our situation today. They may perhaps also serve as cautionary tales.

A Rare Punishment

Despite the excommunications that grab our attention in history books, we need to realize that, given the potential for conflict in how the church and the state relate to each other, political excommunications have been relatively rare. The first clear instance that I know of did not occur until the latter part of the 11th century: the excommunication (and deposition) of Emperor Henry IV by Pope Gregory VII. The reasons for the relative rarity of this form of punishment are many. The self-interest of both parties is certainly one of them. The punishment disrupts the smooth functioning of society, which is obviously a desideratum for both church and state. It also often puts the faithful in quandaries that the church has wanted to avoid whenever possible. Until recent centuries, moreover, high churchmen and magnates were drawn for the most part from the same social class and had the same or a similar education in the “classics,” especially of Latin literature, where moderation, forbearance and the settling of disputes through negotiation were consistently held up as ideals. Most important, excommunication was the ultimate sanction, to be used only in the most extreme cases.

The best known instances from the patristic era of episcopal confrontation with a political figure involved St. Ambrose, archbishop of Milan, and Emperor Theodosius I, known as the Great. We sometimes read that Ambrose excommunicated Theodosius, but that is not precisely the case, at least not as we understand excommunication today. In 388 the Christians at Callinicum on the Euphrates sacked and burned the Jewish synagogue there. They did this with the encouragement of their bishop. Theodosius ordered the bishop to restore the synagogue at his own expense. Ambrose vehemently opposed this order on the grounds that in rebuilding the synagogue, Christians would be committing an act of apostasy. When Theodosius appeared for Mass in the cathedral in Milan, Ambrose denounced him publicly and refused to continue celebrating the Eucharist until the emperor on the spot retracted the order. Theodosius acquiesced.

When two years later a rioting mob in Thessalonika murdered a high-ranking general, the emperor in rage gave orders that citizens of the town up to a fixed number were to be killed. A great many people, perhaps as many as seven thousand, were slaughtered in a blood orgy that lasted for three hours. Almost immediately Theodosius seems to have regretted what he did. In any case, for this serious crime Ambrose wrote a strong letter to the emperor and later claimed that the emperor had done public penance for the atrocity he committed. Different versions of the story began to circulate about precisely what happened in this affair, but that much is certain.

The stories about Ambrose’s confrontations with Theodosius later gave ample warrant to bishops and popes who decided drastic action against rulers was needed. Gregory VII explicitly adduced that “excommunication” as a precedent for his real excommunication of Emperor Henry IV in 1076 and for his second excommunication of him in 1081. Henry, it has to be said, was not a nice man. He defied Gregory’s insistence that bishops be canonically elected, not appointed by Henry, and he flaunted his actions in ways Gregory could hardly ignore. Such elections were the primary plank in the so-called Gregorian Reform that Gregory was spearheading. It was a plank that no ruler in the Middle Ages, surely not the headstrong Henry, was prepared to accept without considerable qualification.

Gregory had to defend his actions because his critics, including some of the bishops who supported his program, protested that Gregory’s actions were a novelty in ecclesiastical procedures. In any case, those actions led to a bloody civil war in Germany and, once Henry triumphed there, to his descending upon Italy with his troops and laying siege to Rome. This resulted in one of the worst sacks in the history of the city and drove Gregory into exile, where he died shortly thereafter. The successors of both Gregory and Henry later worked out a compromise, which in different ways more or less prevailed in Catholic Christendom into the 19th and even 20th centuries. In essence the compromise gave both church and state a voice in the selection of prelates, but with now the church, now the state having the equivalent of a veto over the other’s choice.

Whether there was earlier precedent for what Gregory did, his actions provided clear precedent for subsequent popes. Both Gregory IX and Innocent IV excommunicated Emperor Frederick II. They laid numerous charges against the emperor, many of which were justified, but they especially feared his military and political might in central Italy, where he encroached on the territory of the Papal States. Frederick, perhaps the most formidable enemy the medieval popes ever faced, holds the dubious distinction of being the subject of a long decree of an ecumenical council, Lyons I (1245). The decree lays out his crimes in great detail. Frederick conveniently died shortly afterward, before he could do even more harm.

Boniface VIII’s conflict with King Philip IV of France in the late 14th century is as well known to medievalists as earlier popes’ conflicts with Henry and with Frederick. Boniface was impetuous and imperious, Philip calculating and devious. The conflict began with Boniface’s objection to the secular power’s imposing taxes on the clergy in violation of canon law, but it soon devolved into a test of wills, especially after the king ordered the arrest of a French bishop on charges of blasphemy, heresy and treason. In the face of Boniface’s vehement objections to the king’s violation of canon law and his manipulation of the French episcopacy, Philip rightly began to suspect the pope was preparing to excommunicate him. He retaliated by calling for the deposition of the pope, accusing him of atheism, sodomy, demon-worship and, among still other things, of declaring he would “rather be a dog or an ass than a Frenchman.” Meanwhile two high-placed henchmen of the king broke into the papal palace at Anagni south of Rome and threatened the pope with physical harm. By a stroke of luck, they could not carry out their plan, but the pope, old and infirm, died shortly afterwards, surely in part because of the shock. The two royal ministers who attacked the pope were almost immediately excommunicated, but the king never was.

The affair thus ended badly for Boniface—indeed for the church. Confusion and dissension ensued in the papal curia and during the next two conclaves. This situation prepared the way for the 70-year residence of the popes in Avignon, the papal enclave in southern France. For as long as Philip lived he continued to demand that Boniface be posthumously put on trial for heresy and other crimes. Despite the king’s insistence, the trial never took place. The Avignon residency set the stage, nonetheless, for the Great Western Schism later in the 14th century, when two, then three men claimed to be the legitimate pope.

Henry and Elizabeth

The excommunications of King Henry VIII of England by Pope Clement VII in 1533 and of Queen Elizabeth I by Pius V in 1570 are perhaps the best known cases. The pope had for several years threatened Henry with excommunication if he did not take back his first wife, Catherine, but by the time of the actual pronouncement against the king there were, of course, other reasons for the action. The excommunication of Elizabeth and the explicit releasing of her subjects from their oath of loyalty to their sovereign was largely motivated by the hope that this action would lead to the deposition of the queen. It had, of course, just the opposite effect. It created an upsurge of support for Elizabeth against the interference of a foreign power and made the situation of Catholics in England almost impossible, as they had to choose between their country and their religion.

A somewhat similar dilemma faced Italians in the 19th century, when efforts to unify the country led to the seizure of the Papal States, beginning in 1860, and of Rome itself in 1870. Pope Pius IX and his advisers were not only adamantly opposed to these measures but also believed, quite correctly, that some leaders of the movement, especially Camillo Cavour, had further plans for lessening the role of the church in Italian life. In 1855, for instance, Cavour, as prime minister of the Kingdom of Sardinia (House of Savoy) under King Victor Emmanuel II, promoted a bill to suppress all religious orders except those dedicated to preaching, teaching or nursing. Pius IX denounced the bill, as was to be expected, and let it be known that there could be no compromise with such enemies of religion. Five years later, in March 1860, when under the aegis of the House of Savoy the seizure of the Papal States had begun, Pius excommunicated “all usurpers of the Papal States, all those who carry out their orders, all those who advise them or support them.” This huge net caught a lot of fish but, except for the king himself, none more important or prominent than Cavour.

A year later Cavour took suddenly ill, and it soon became clear he was dying. He called to his bedside his old Franciscan friend, Giacomo da Poirino, who administered to him the last rites but did not extract from him a formal retraction. The friar was called to Rome to answer for his actions, where he had two stormy audiences with the pope. As part of the aftermath he was forbidden henceforth to hear confessions and was removed as pastor of his church in Turin. When in 1870 Rome fell and was declared the capitol of Italy, Pius retreated to become the self-styled “prisoner of the Vatican.”

Victor Emmanuel II, a devout believer, was of course also caught in the excommunication. In the hope of working out a reconciliation between the state and the church, he secretly carried on a correspondence with Pius IX. Despite the relationship he thus developed with the pope, his efforts to heal the breach came to nothing. In 1878, however, when the king was dying in Rome at the Quirinal Palace, which just a decade earlier had been the summer residence of the popes, Pius IX released him from all canonical penalties, permitted him to receive the sacraments and even sent him his blessing.

The papal stance against the new Kingdom of Italy and those who supported it was bitterly hostile, culminating with the non expedit that absolutely forbade Catholics to vote or to hold office. The decree handed the political order of the nation over to “the enemy.” Many Catholics simply ignored the decree by casting ballots, and with each election that number increased until the decree was rescinded in the early 20th century. The matter was not fully settled, of course, until 1929 when Pope Pius XI negotiated with Benito Mussolini for the creation of the sovereign state of Vatican City.

In the United States the best known excommunication of a political figure was the action taken on April l6, 1962 by the archbishop of New Orleans, Joseph F. Rummel, against three Catholics who opposed the archbishop’s plan to desegregate the Catholic schools in the archdiocese. The three included Leander Perez, the political boss of both Plaquemine and St. Bernard parishes (counties). In 1953, a year before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation was unconstitutional, Archbishop Rummel issued a pastoral letter that declared “the unacceptability of racial discrimination” in the churches of the archdiocese. The letter set off a decade of turmoil as prominent Catholic politicians began an organized fight against Rummel’s policy. In 1956 Rummel issued another letter to prepare for the eventual desegregation of Catholic schools, which caused even further turmoil, and finally, in March 1962, he announced that at the opening of the new term all Catholic schools would accept all qualified students.

During these years opposition to Rummel had grown ever stronger among Catholic segregationists. Perez, whose reputation for shady deals was almost as strong as his political clout in the two parishes, was among the most notorious. He helped write hundreds of Louisiana’s segregation laws and denounced racial mixing as a Communist plot. After Rummel’s announcement about the schools, Perez called for the withholding of financial support from the church. Rummel sent letters to the most vocal of the segregationists warning them, as canon law required, that they would be excommunicated if they persisted. Most of those who received the warning ceased their activities, but Perez and the two others did not. With that the archbishop excommunicated them and went ahead with his plan. Perez, undaunted, continued to agitate against desegregation and in 1968 was George Wallace’s campaign manager in Louisiana. Shortly before his death on March 19, 1969, he was reconciled to the church and received a Catholic burial.

Unintended Consequences

As we look back on these cases, what are we to think about them? I am sure different people will draw different conclusions. I would make just three observations. First, I would again underscore the relative rarity of these public condemnations and humiliations of political figures. The reasons for this reticence are many, as I have tried to suggest, but surely cutting persons off from access to the sacraments would seem to be a measure to use only in extreme cases when all else has failed and the good to be gained from it seems commensurable. I also would underscore that, with some exceptions, the actions of the excommunicated in the cases cited were direct, programmatic and often deliberately provocative. In that regard, it would be possible to assemble a long list of rulers and politicians who, despite defiant actions, were never excommunicated, because it was deemed this would do more harm than good. The list might begin with King Philip IV of France, but would certainly include Francis I of France, who did everything in his power to derail the Council of Trent. Finally, what strikes me forcefully about most of these excommunications is how spectacularly they fulfill the well-known law of unintended consequences.

Almost every action we take in our lives sets that law into motion, of course; and the more dramatic the action we take, the more dramatic we can expect the unintended consequences to be, for better or for worse. Whatever else is to be said about formal excommunications of public figures or even of publicized refusals of Communion to them, they are dramatic actions that can be expected to have serious and long-range repercussions beyond what the authors of those actions intend.

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