Excommunication (Catholic Church)

For the canonical penalty of excommunication as regulated by the Code of Canon Law of 1917 and the present Code, see excommunication#Catholic Church. This article reflects the state of before 1917.[contradictory]

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In the canon law of the Catholic Church, excommunication (Lat. ex, out of, and communio or communicatio, communion, meaning exclusion from the communion), the principal and severest censure, is a medicinal, spiritual penalty that deprives the guilty Christian of all participation in the common blessings of ecclesiastical society. Being a penalty, it presupposes guilt; and being the most serious penalty that the Catholic Church can inflict, it naturally supposes a very grave offense.

Excommunication is a rarely applied censure and thus a "medicinal penalty" intended to invite the person to change behaviour or attitude, repent, and return to full communion.[1] It is not an "expiatory penalty" designed to make satisfaction for the wrong done, much less a "vindictive penalty" designed solely to punish. Excommunication, which is the gravest penalty of all, is always medicinal,[2] and is "not at all vindictive".[3]

Its object and its effect are loss of communion, i.e. of the spiritual benefits shared by all the members of Christian society; hence, it can affect only those who by baptism have been admitted to that society. There can and do exist other penal measures which entail the loss of certain fixed rights; among them are other censures, e.g. suspension for clerics, and interdict. Excommunication, however, is distinguished from these penalties in that it is the privation of all rights resulting from the social status of the Christian as such. Excommunicated persons do not cease to be Christians, since their baptism can never be effaced; they can, however, be considered as an exile from Christian society and as non-existent, for a time at least, in the sight of ecclesiastical authority. But such exile can have an end as soon as the offender has given suitable satisfaction. Meanwhile, their status before the church is that of a stranger. They may not receive any of the sacraments. Moreover, if a cleric, he is forbidden to administer a sacred rite or to exercise an act of spiritual authority.[4]

The Church excommunicates as a last resort and at least nowadays, very rarely. Excommunications are lifted when the excommunicated person repents, or at least gives some sign of repenting.

General concepts

"The Church has the innate and proper right to coerce offending members of the Christian faithful with penal sanctions."[5]

The Catholic Church cannot, nor does it wish to, oppose any obstacle to the internal relations of the soul with God; it even implores God to give the grace of repentance to the excommunicated. The rites of the church, nevertheless, are the providential and regular channel through which divine grace is conveyed to Christians; exclusion from such rites, especially from the sacraments, entails the privation of this grace, to whose sources the excommunicated person no longer has access.[4]

In the papal bull "Exsurge Domine" (May 16, 1520), Pope Leo X condemned Luther's twenty-third proposition according to which "excommunications are merely external punishments, nor do they deprive a man of the common spiritual prayers of the Church". Pope Pius VI in "Auctorem Fidei" (August 28, 1794) condemned the notion which maintained that the effect of excommunication is only exterior because of its own nature it excludes only from exterior communion with the Church, as if, said the pope, excommunication were not a spiritual penalty binding in heaven and affecting souls.[4]

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