|Pope Gregory IX excommunicates Henry IV|
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
7 September 2014
If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.
There can be no doubt that the power and practice of excommunication is well established both in Sacred Scripture and in the Apostolic Tradition. Not only in ancient times under the prior dispensation, but even in the New Testament, we read of men suffering the penalty of excommunication. To reject the notion of excommunication is to reject the revelation given in Scripture and Tradition, and therefore it would be a rejection of the faith itself.
And so we ask, Should the Church ever excommunicate anyone? Furthermore, considering the effects of excommunication, we ask, Can the Pope exclude someone from heaven?
The meaning of excommunication
The process of excommunication is governed by the law of the Church, and of this we will not treat. However, it will be to our great benefit to consider the theological principles which guide and inform Church law – principles which are rooted in Scripture and also follow from well reasoned argument.
First, What is excommunication? The Catholic Encyclopedia gives a concise definition: “Excommunication, 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.”
The Catechism mirrors this definition when stating that excommunication is “the most sever ecclesiastical penalty, which impedes the reception of the sacraments and the exercise of certain ecclesiastical acts.” (CCC 1463)
From this, a few points must be stressed:
1. Excommunication is a penalty, which presupposes some guilt on the part of the one excommunicated.
2. Its purpose is medicinal, intending to bring spiritual health to the guilty party. It is not a vindictive act, nor merely an act to restore an objective justice (as some penalties are), but is issued specifically for the benefit of the one excommunicated.
3. It is an ecclesiastical penalty which is imposed upon a guilty Christian. This means that only the baptized may be excommunicated. Those who are not Christian and who have not been baptized do not belong to the society which is the Church, and therefore cannot be deprived of the rights of the citizens of this society as they do not have those rights in the first place.
4. Finally, its effects regard communion with the Church Militant – through the common prayer, the sacraments, etc. This communion is broken, as a penal act.
Who excommunicates whom?
It is sometimes said, when a person is excommunicated (especially in the case of those acts which incur a latae sententiae, or “automatic”, excommunication), that “he did it to himself.” The point here, being that the break in communion is the result of his sin and not really to be blamed on the Church. This is not quite accurate.
When a person commits a mortal sin, including one which incurs the penalty of excommunication, he loses the state of grace. Of this loss of grace we may rightly state, “He did it to himself.” Further, the fact that he is no longer in the state of grace impedes him from the worthy reception of Holy Communion (as well as matrimony, holy order, confirmation). This also, “He did to himself.”
Yet, in the case of a mortal sin which is punished by excommunication (even the latae sententiae excommunication), that excommunication is not caused by the guilty Christian. No, the loss of grace is the result of the sin and is truly caused by the sinner, but the excommunication is a further penalty imposed by the Church upon the soul of that man. It is the Pope (or, it could be the bishop) who “does it to that man.” The prelates of the Church have this power, given by Christ.
Excommunication, we recall, is not the removal of grace – for no Pope has the power to deprive a man of grace – but it is rather the removal of certain causes of grace, namely the common prayer and the sacraments. This the Pope (or bishop) can do and indeed does in the case of excommunication.
When inflicting the punishment of excommunication upon the guilty Christian, the Church cuts the man off from her society, from her common life, from her sacraments. The man does not do this to himself, but really and truly the Church (i.e. the Pope or bishop) strikes the man with this penalty.
Should the Church excommunicate anyone? When and why?
In imitation of God himself, the Church not only can but should exercise the power of excommunication in certain cases. Our Savior himself demands this in today’s Novus Ordo Gospel – let him be to thee as the heathen and publican (Matthew 18:17). To treat a Christian as a heathen is nothing other than to treat him as not belonging to the Church, which is precisely what the penalty of excommunication entails.
Consider the words of the Angelic Thomas (ST Suppl., q.21, a.2):
“The judgment of the Church should be conformed to the judgment of God. Now God punishes the sinner in many ways, in order to draw him to good, either by chastising him with stripes, or by leaving him to himself so that being deprived of those helps whereby he was kept out of evil, he may acknowledge his weakness, and humbly return to God Whom he had abandoned in his pride.
“In both these respects the Church by passing sentence of excommunication imitates the judgment of God. For by severing a man from the communion of the faithful that he may blush with shame, she imitates the judgment whereby God chastises man with stripes; and by depriving him of prayers and other spiritual things, she imitates the judgment of God in leaving man to himself, in order that by humility he may learn to know himself and return to God.”
Clearly, as this is the most severe of all ecclesiastical punishments (indeed, the most severe earthly punishment imaginable), it ought to be reserved for only the most heinous of crimes. Further, it must not be hastily imposed upon anyone, since it is better first to employ lesser penalties and then only progressively make use of those most severe punishments – obviously, some crimes are so wicked as to deserve immediately the greatest of all penalties.
Can the Pope exclude someone from heaven?
The Catholic Encyclopedia specifies that excommunication must not be thought to be merely external. Indeed, it is condemned by Leo X (in Exsurge Domine, 16 May 1520) to claim that “excommunications are merely eternal punishments, nor do they deprive a man of the common spiritual prayers of the Church.” Furthermore, Pius VI condemned (in Auctorem Fidei, 28 August 1794) the following proposition, “‘the effect of excommunication is merely exterior, because by its nature it merely excludes form exterior communion with the Church’; as if excommunication were not a spiritual punishment, binding in heaven, obligating souls.”
Hence, we know that excommunication is truly spiritual and effects the interior of the man excommunicated. Further, it does indeed bind in heaven, even as our Lord stated, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven. (Matthew 18:18)
Thus, when a man is excommunicated, he is truly deprived of all the spiritual benefits given one belonging to the Catholic Church. He not only losses the external gifts of common prayer and the sacraments, but also the interior grace sent from heaven through the Church upon the world. He does not benefit even in a spiritual way from the offering of the Sacred Mass, nor does he gain any grace through the common prayers of the Church’s Liturgy. In this sense, we must affirm that excommunication truly does bind in heaven, since God does not send grace upon the excommunicated through the Church (though it is possible that grace may be sent in some other unknown and mysterious manner).
Furthermore, excommunication may even be said to bind after death – as the law of the Church may further exclude the deceased excommunicated from receiving a funeral Mass as well as from burial in sacred ground.
However, it is quite clear that excommunication cannot and never could exclude a man from heaven. The very nature of the penalty makes this to be impossible – and the Church has never claimed to have this power.
Earlier, we stated that excommunication is a medicinal penalty, which aims at the conversion of the guilty Christian. Clearly, sending a man to hell is in no way medicinal, since hell is eternal. Furthermore, it is an ecclesiastical penalty which separates a man from the Church militant – it is ordered entirely to this life, it does not separate a man from the Church triumphant.
There is only One that can destroy both soul and body in hell, namely God himself (Matthew 10:28). Him only must we fear. Only God will judge the soul, and only God will inflict the absolute punishment of damnation.
We do affirm that excommunication can have some effect upon whether a man is saved, but only indirectly. Certainly, it is a great benefit to belong to the Church, and the excommunicated lose this benefit. The Church’s prayers “bring an increase of grace to those who have it, or merit grace for those who have it not; they also prove a safeguard of virtue.” (ST Suppl., q.21, a.2, ad 3) Thus, to loss these benefits would necessarily make it more difficult to be saved.
However, while the Pope (and even a bishop) has the right and even the duty at times to excommunicate a guilty Christian from communion with the Church on earth, none but God alone may deny a man eternal life.