The reluctance of bishops in the twenty-first century to excommunicate is understandable even if it may not ultimately be healthy. Our culture is extremely uncomfortable with the concept of authority. This is actually a serious problem in egalitarian societies, which have generally lost the understanding of authority as something conferred by God. It is a paradox of modern bureaucratic states, for example, that we follow more directives, rules and procedures than ever before based on our conception of “The State”, but we have lost all sense of authority as residing in particular persons.
Obviously this was not as much of a problem in societies accustomed to authoritative differences based on birth and class, which for centuries nearly everyone took for granted. While it is typically difficult to explain the sources of authority when the possession of authority is taken for granted, nonetheless it is easier to accept the apparent reality that some people can be invested with authority which others do not have. Unfortunately, in deliberately egalitarian societies, the very concept of personal authority is typically dismissed as mere “powering”. We tend to regard our public officials, for example, not as bearers of any personal authority but as representatives of State power. We scarcely know how to think of natural or spiritual authority in any real and effective way at all.
This, then, is the backdrop against which the question of excommunication is evaluated today, for we live in a culture in which it is universally assumed that no person is intrinsically superior to any other person, and therefore it is difficult to conceive of authority as anything more than “convenient power”. Thus we tend to accept authority, in a positive sense, wherever it is convenient to our purposes; and we tend to obey authority, in a far less positive sense, wherever it is another name for the coercive power to enforce its decrees. But in modern Western culture, we do not really take the existence of authority seriously in any metaphysical sense; indeed, we tend to recognize less and less even the natural authority of parents over their children.
We understand power far better than authority; therefore we look instinctively to politics and the State, and only rarely consider the real sources of authority at all. But surely the ultimate source of authority can only be God Himself, and so we would expect the Church to have some very definite ideas about the exercise of authority. In all honesty, though, such ideas do not play well to Catholics drawn from theoretically egalitarian societies which, owing largely to tremendous religious confusion, have actually banished the notion of Divine authority. We consider it to be too insubstantial and too controversial for the daily work of human management.
It is a sad society, however, which relies on political governance, as expressed through the constant multiplication of state-enforced rules, to effect the broad array of beneficent results which can really be produced only by the common interior commitments of the governed, including their interior recognition of legitimate authority.
A vacuum of authority
Now Churchmen are generally in one of two camps. As children of their times, they may have serious reservations about the scope of any legitimate authority, especially legitimate spiritual authority that lacks any material coercive power, and so they tend to go with the general flow of society as a whole, thereby almost always avoiding the need to exercise any sort of authority themselves. Alternatively, they may genuinely believe in the real spiritual authority of the Church while understanding that it is not at all widely recognized and so its exercise is not likely to effect a change of heart in those Catholics who are not already deeply committed to Catholic teaching, and who therefore have little need of discipline. Moreover, recognizing that any public act of excommunication will fail to decrease the social standing of the person excommunicated, and may actually increase it in many quarters, even those Churchmen who believe in their spiritual authority to excommunicate may simply regard excommunication as overwhelmingly inopportune.
It is not surprising then that excommunication is far more often in our time effected latae sententiae (that is, automatically on commission of the evil in question) than through any public declaration (ferendae sententiae). The result is that not only might the members of the Church as a whole not know that a particular person has been excommunicated, but even the persons in question may not know it. This may be appropriate enough in cases of faults committed secretly, such as a Catholic woman’s abortion. But it it is obviously inadequate for a Catholic’s public defiance of Catholic teaching or the authority of the Church.
This, at last, brings me to the main point I wish to make. Public excommunication has three purposes: First, it places the excommunicated beyond the reach of the Church’s sacramental grace until the excommunication is lifted; second, it puts the one excommunicated on notice of this reality, in the hope of bringing that person to his or her spiritual senses through repentance; and, third, it puts the Catholic faithful on notice that the behavior which incurred the excommunication is regarded as so serious by the Church as to admit no possibility of participation in the life of Christ until repentance permits the lifting of the ban.
Now it is immediately obvious that nominal Catholics who are, in effect, slaves of the dominant secular culture will not as a general rule care two hoots for the first and second purpose, and it is also obvious that those with similar values (i.e., the dominant culture) will regard the act of excommunication as either absurd or evil or, perhaps above all, just plain “uppity” on the part of the Church, lowering the Church still further in the eyes of those who already regard her as of little or no merit. On the other side, however, there remains the possibility that the one excommunicated might be brought to his spiritual senses by being thus forced to consider that he might not, after all, lie beyond the reach of God; just as there also remains the possibility that some who hear about this excommunication might find in its very counter-cultural courage a reason to reflect anew on what makes such a bizarre institution tick.
But above all, public excommunication sends an indispensable message to those who are in some measure faithful to their Catholic baptismal promises. It is time for Churchmen to recognize that organizations without internal discipline soon lose their members. The very fact that her disciplinary measures are primarily spiritual indicates that the Church is not (or ought not to be) interested in mere outward conformity. Though even that is better than no conformity at all, what the Church wants is members who believe in her salvific mission, trust that the contemporary Church is serious enough about that mission to be worthy of reverence as both Mother and Teacher, and that the Church herself actually believes there are consequences to being excluded from her communion.
Within the past hundred years, the Church in the United States has publicly excommunicated those among her members in the American South who refused to minister to Blacks. This sent a message that any racial bar to the Church’s ministry is gravely sinful and will not be tolerated among Catholic clergy or people. The choice was to get with the Catholic program, or get out. The same should be true now for the most serious public breaches of Catholic trust: Catholic educators who teach fashionable moral errors, Catholic politicians who advocate laws which violate God’s law, lay persons who openly parade their defiance of Catholic teaching, and Catholic clergy who abuse those in their spiritual care (should they remain morally obstinate after removal from ministry). There are, of course, pitfalls to every policy, and each excommunication must be determined on its own merits.
In a thought experiment, let us imagine this conversation in about fifteen years:
“Whatever happened to Fr. X at the local Catholic university?”
“Oh, he was excommunicated in 2027 and never repudiated his errors. The university president wanted to keep him on, but the bishop told him to choose between that and any and all ecclesiastical good will.”
“You know, the Church today seems actually to believe what she teaches. Back in the early twenties, you could believe and say pretty much whatever you wanted, and the Church was full of people who didn’t take Catholic teaching seriously at all.”
“Yes, the numbers of Catholics on the rolls has shrunk a bit, but the percentage of those who receive more than one sacrament is much higher.”
“And lately the percentage of people who remain active after Confirmation has grown tremendously. The percentage who marry in the Church is up as well, and efforts at outreach are much more noticeable.”
“There are more laws against public Catholic witness, though.”
“Yes, that’s unpleasant. But at least it’s a sincere recognition!”
“How about the decline in negative recognition in the Church herself?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that we can now bear public witness to Christ without Church leaders explaining away our efforts or calling us names.”
For the good of all involved
This fictional discussion indicates, though perhaps only imperfectly, why excommunication is important even if it is not likely to be approved by the world at large or even responded to by the one excommunicated. The very act of excommunication indicates a fundamental seriousness about the Faith, a seriousness that can only be communicated through exclusion. Catholics do not take Catholic education seriously if teachers who contradict the Church are not removed, whether in Catholic universities or in CCD. They do not take Catholic preaching seriously if those who do not uphold the truths of the Faith, particularly the hard truths, are not removed from ministry. They do not take Catholic identity seriously if Catholics are not disciplined by the Church when they publicly advance moral agendas, including in the political order, which are contrary to Divine Revelation and the natural law.
Groucho Marx once famously quipped: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” While the Church is a club for sinners, serious Catholics (that is, those who are serious about the problem of sin) will not long remain a part of any club that allows them to prescribe the content of Divine Revelation, that is, of faith and morals, for themselves. Canonical discipline, including public excommunication, is a sign that the Church holds infallible truths which transcend the ability of her members to determine and prescribe. It is a “club” for people who know not only that they have sinned but that their minds and hearts, without the Church’s help, are clouded and weakened by sin.
Ecclesiastical discipline, up to and including excommunication, is an indication of moral seriousness to all the Church’s members. Even when there is only scant hope for excommunication to prompt conversion in the one excommunicated, this step is essential to the health of the remaining members of the Church—just as the removing of cancerous tissue is to the health of the human body. A Church that will never excommunicate anyone by name—and most especially if it is a Catholic whose sins are both well-known and fashionable—is a Church which lacks seriousness in protecting the Body of Christ from infection. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Cor 5:6)
If the Catholic Church today wishes to recover a lost reputation for actually believing what she claims to teach, she has no choice but to begin again publicly to apply the penalty of excommunication. Obviously, the normal process of fraternal correction should be followed (as described in Mt 18:15-18), but if the serious fault and its attendant scandal does not go uncorrected, excommunication is the only remaining logical step. Even if the presumption is that the one to be excommunicated will ignore the ban, or that he or she will use the media to reap earthly benefits from it, or that the Church’s discipline will be denounced as politically motivated, nonetheless, if it proves otherwise impossible to bring back the sinner from his evil way (James 5:20), the step of excommunication is essential.
Surely there can be no reasonable fear of making things worse than they already are. The use of this spiritual discipline is vital to the Church’s moral seriousness, the Church’s public credibility, and the good of all of the other souls entrusted to the Church’s care.
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