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James T. KeaneJuly 08, 2024
Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S., listens to remarks at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual fall meeting in Baltimore, Nov. 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Excommunication is one of those words that you don’t hear very often outside of religious circles—and when you do, it’s rarely a happy moment for anyone. In religious terms, it sounds like someone got canceled—but for eternity. However, it is also a term and a practice whose usage is often misunderstood, at least in the Catholic Church.

Last Friday’s announcement from the Vatican that Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò had incurred a latae sententiae excommunication after he was “found guilty of the reserved delict of schism” raised questions that sent many reporters (and more than a few Catholics) looking for some clarity: What exactly is excommunication? How and when does the church use it? And how often is it used?

‘Latae sententiae’ excommunication

“Latae sententiae” is Latin for “the sentence having already been passed,” meaning the action taken by the one excommunicated does not require a competent authority (a bishop or the pope) to hand down the excommunication. By the church’s reckoning, the excommunication took place automatically when the action was committed. This was the conclusion of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in the case of Archbishop Viganò—that it was merely confirming the reality that Archbishop Viganò had excommunicated himself by his actions. But how?

The church lays out in its Code of Canon Law which offenses incur a latae sententiae excommunication. Probably the most common instance for a lay person occurs when a Catholic procures an abortion or helps someone else procure one, which the church teaches results in automatic excommunication even if the act is not public. Other actions that result in latae sententiae excommunication include desecration of the Eucharist, apostasy (the public renunciation of one’s membership in the church by a person already baptized), heresy (the obstinate denial of a defined church teaching), schism (Archbishop Viganò’s crime) or physically attacking the pope.

In the case of priests and bishops, there are further actions that can incur latae sententiae excommunication: the unauthorized consecration of a bishop (as was the case with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of the Society of St. Pius X), violation of the confessional seal (telling anyone under any circumstances the details of a confession, even in court) and absolution of an accomplice in sin. This last example entails any situation where a priest absolves a penitent of a crime in which the priest himself was complicit; the example of a priest absolving his own sexual victims or partners is most often at issue here, though any sins in which the priest was complicit are technically applicable.

The case of Archbishop Viganò was somewhat cut-and-dried in comparison to other cases of excommunication in recent decades. The one-time papal nuncio to the United States has waged a six-year public relations campaign against Pope Francis, demanding the pope resign and declaring the pontiff a heretic. In recent years, he has also released increasingly erratic statements, including a claim that a global conspiracy headed by the United Nations, NATO and the International Monetary Fund sought to introduce a world government.

He also stated that “with this ‘Bergoglian church,’ no Catholic worthy of the name can be in communion.” That last bit wouldn’t have helped his defense—a moot point in any case, as Archbishop Viganò refused to participate in the trial and rejected the Vatican’s authority to judge him.

Before Archbishop Viganò’s case, perhaps the most famous latae sententiae excommunication in recent years was that of the disgraced former Jesuit, the Rev. Marko Rupnik. According to a document released by the Jesuit curia in Rome in December 2022, Father Rupnik’s excommunication was confirmed in May 2020. He was readmitted to communion with the church within the same month after he had repented of his crime—absolving a penitent in the confessional of a sexual sin in which the priest himself was complicit. That excommunication is part of a larger scandal in which Father Rupnik was accused of the sexual abuse of numerous women religious in his native Slovenia over the years. He was dismissed from the Jesuits in June 2023 and remains under Vatican investigation.

Because one of Father Rupnik’s crimes—having sexual relations, abusive or not, with someone and then absolving that person in confession—is considered among the most serious violations of ministry and church law a priest can commit, the consequence was an automatic latae sententiae excommunication.

‘Ferendae sententiae’ excommunication

Beyond latae sententiae excommunication, church authorities also have recourse to ferendae sententiae excommunication. Roughly translated, “ferendae sententiae” means “sentence to be passed,” and it refers to cases in which a person is not automatically excommunicated by their actions but can be excommunicated by a decree of the bishop if repeated warnings and censures have not brought the person to repentance or if a canonical trial calls for it. A ferendae sententiae excommunication, requiring such a decree, is necessarily far more public than a latae sententiae excommunication and tends to come into play very rarely in the life of the church.

In almost all cases where the term “excommunication” is used in common parlance—whether in reference to Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Hans Küng, Charles Coughlin or Frank Pavone (or William F. Buckley, who once claimed the Jesuits at America had tried to get him excommunicated)—what actually occurred (a public notification, a censure, a laicization, a suspension of ministry, an order to refrain from public life, absolutely nothing, etc.) was nothing close to an excommunication.

For almost every violation of its morals or doctrine, the church has a response different from excommunication. Think of it this way: A ferendae sententiae excommunication, in which a bishop declares a person excommunicated until such time as he or she repents, is usually the church’s option of last resort.

What’s it all about?

What does either form of excommunication mean? First and foremost, excommunication means a person cannot receive the sacraments. Further, he or she is banned from any ministerial participation in sacramental worship, such as being a eucharistic minister or lector, and banned from exercising any official church office or function. (According to Canon 1335, the prohibition against receiving the sacraments can be suspended if a person is in danger of death.)

Other practical factors (like the right to a burial in a Catholic cemetery) can also come into play, but by far the most serious consequence in the church’s eyes is the removal of access to the sacraments—and therefore the withholding of significant means of access to divine grace.

Despite the public perception, the church has also been loath historically to excommunicate politicians or secular rulers—a reticence that extends to the present day. “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 historian John W. O’Malley, S.J., wrote in America in 2004.

In the United States, perhaps the two most famous examples of ferendae sententiae excommunication are those of the Rev. Leonard Feeney, a former Jesuit priest who was excommunicated in 1953 for denying church teaching on salvation, and a 1962 case where Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans excommunicated three lay Catholics who vehemently and obstinately opposed his efforts to desegregate the archdiocese’s Catholic schools.

What’s the point?

What does the Catholic Church aim to gain when it excommunicates someone? In the case of a ferendae sententiae excommunication, there is a sense in which the Catholic Church is responding to a public rejection of its teachings—and teaching authority—by asserting the hierarchy’s role in promulgating, interpreting and enforcing church doctrine and discipline.

But the intended goal behind excommunication—of the latae sententiae or ferendae sententiae sort—is usually not simply punishment or censure, particularly on the level of the individual. While it might not always seem like it, the Catholic Church teaches that excommunication is intended to draw a person back into the church—through repenting of the act one committed so as to return to the reception of the sacraments. In this sense, excommunication has a medicinal function in that it is intended to make the sinner whole.

This notion has scriptural roots in the letters of St. Paul, who writes in 1 Cor 5:5 that sometimes it is necessary to remove a sinner from the community (in that case, a man committing incest) so that he might be encouraged to repent: “[H]and this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”

Exclusion from the community for the person’s own sake also dovetails with the church’s sacramental theology: If we are not to receive the Eucharist while in a state of grave sin, and if “the Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion with the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1395), then restricting someone from receiving the Eucharist also keeps him or her from committing sacrilege and thus sinning further. St. Paul again, this time in 1 Cor 11:27: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”

In other words: Yes, the church reserves the authority to say “get out” and has its reasons. But the point—at least in theory—is to say “come back.”

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