Excommunication is the most severe penalty the Catholic Church can impose upon its members, but it is sometimes necessary as a matter of simple justice.
Writing in the National Catholic Register, Father Brian Mullady makes the point well. Acknowledging that many regard excommunication as a “strange holdover from the medieval Church,” he explains why it remains as valid as ever, and can actually serve as an act of mercy: “Its intent is always to restore the offenders to truth and communion.” Dr. Edward Peters, canon lawyer and author of Excommunication and the Catholic Church, concurs, while correcting common misunderstandings people have about the measure. For example, many believe excommunication expels a Catholic from the Church and condemns that person to hell—it does neither (only God can determine a person’s ultimate fate)—but it does deprive Catholics of certain rights, and urgently calls them to reform their lives.
Of course, excommunication can be misused, and has been. Joan of Arc was famously excommunicated in the fifteenth century for political reasons, but the Church later repudiated that condemnation, and declared her a saint. More recently, Mary MacKillop (1842-1909), an extraordinary Australian nun who dedicated her life to the poor, was excommunicated by her bishop (for alleged insubordination), but was soon reinstated, and completely exonerated. In 2010, Pope Benedict canonized her.
Precisely because the penalty of excommunication is so weighty, it needs to be applied with great prudence and care—“only after all other efforts to correct a person have failed,” as Father Mullady writes–and even then, its results can be unpredictable.
Surveying the history of excommunication, one finds both successes and failures. In the early Church, St. Ambrose used the threat of excommunication to successfully compel Emperor Theodosius I to repent for his crimes against the people of Thessalonica. Similarly, in the eleventh century, Pope Gregory VII excommunicated King Henry IV for his anti-papal activities, eventually leading to the King’s famous act of penance and reception of absolution at Canossa. In more recent times, Popes and bishops have publicly excommunicated (or confirmed the automatic excommunication of) modernist theologians, those who engage in schismatic acts, racial segregationists, and Catholics involved with abortions. Some of these Catholics eventually reconciled with the Church, thankfully, proving the value of excommunication.
“On the other hand,” writes Father Mullady, “the excommunication of Martin Luther, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I had little effect personally or on their followers. The use of this as a weapon created sympathy for the offender and often led to a more solid backing of dissent.” Similar risks remain today.
Still, because certain prominent and influential Catholics continue to “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin” (Canon 915), many Catholics believe the penalty should be invoked more frequently. They have a case. Even if excommunication does not lead to the immediate reform of the individual involved, it can serve as a teaching moment for others. As Father Mullady notes: “Excommunication can serve as a clear statement to the faithful of the serious nature of our moral doctrine . . . For dissenters deeply involved in the public forum, failure on the part of Church authorities to provide some needed corrective is tantamount to carte blanche to the faithful to believe whatever they want. The impression is given that the truths of our religion are a smorgasbord from which one can pick and chose.”
Catholic prelates also have an obligation to do what is right for their own spiritual welfare. Just as the Lord appointed Ezekiel a “watchman for the House of Israel,” and held him accountable, so too are bishops guardians of the faithful, and accountable to God. St. Ambrose put it this way: “When a priest does not talk to a sinner, then the sinner will die in his sin, and the priest will be guilty because he failed to correct him.”
Catholic prelates who have the courage to protect the faith should be prepared for the consequences, however. Strong disciplinary measures are often met with equally fierce resistance. After the aforementioned Pope Gregory VII thought he had reconciled King Henry IV, Henry soon went back to his old ways, and incurred a second excommunication. The king then sent his armies into Rome, forcing the pontiff to flee. Gregory VII, widely regarded as among the best popes ever, was later declared a saint. He died in Salerno, with the memorable words: “I have loved justice, and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile.”