What’s So Bad About the Excommunicated?

For the past two days, Catholic news sites and blogs have been giving wall-to-wall attention to the Pope’s statement that the divorced and remarried are not excommunicated. It’s very common for Catholics to have a hazy idea of what excommunication is; generally people understand it as “what happens to bad people”, a sort of sending to hell in advance. The “announcement” that the divorced and remarried are not excommunicated is being hailed as, if not an actual change, an indication of how the divorced and remarried should not be considered among the very worst defaulters (supposedly the excommunicated) and their situation seen in a more benign light. But what’s so very bad about the poor excommunicated that they’ve become the benchmark for moral failure in the mind of the catholic media? Are they so very much worse then other grave sinners?

Excommunication is, properly understood, a canonical penalty for the commission of a crime: the breaking of a canonical law. It is a frequent misconception that all sins, and especially the really bad ones, are crimes in canon law; this is not the case. While the reverse is true, all canonical crimes are sins, the vast majority of sins are moral, not canonical, violations and so do not incur canonical penalties, though they may have canonical consequences. As an example, murder is a canonical crime which does not carry the penalty of excommunication, with the exception of abortion (cc. 1397, 1398). Murderers are also in a state of grave sin and they cannot receive communion until they have been to confession (c. 916).

Those who have left their marriage (even if for deeply tragic and personal reasons) and who remarry (and ONLY those who remarry) commit adultery. Like murder, this is breaking one of the Big Ten, and is a grave violation of the moral law; but, unlike murder, it is not a canonical crime,* though it has the consequence of not being admitted to receive communion (c. 915).

Excommunication, in the current code, is generally applied to crimes which attack the Church, the faith, or or the sacraments, examples being: illicit consecration of a bishop (c. 1382); heresy, apostasy, or schism (c. 1364); violating the seal of confession (c. 1388). As such, it carries a number of canonical consequences, most of which relate to the exercise of an office or ministry in the Church (c. 1331). But even in these cases, it should be understood that excommunication is not the mechanism by which the Church casts into outer darkness, where there is weeping and grinding of teeth. It is a medicinal penalty; its aim is the eventual return of the offender, it assumes their capacity for reform, and its primary motivation is their salvation – not their exclusion from it. The Church does have “expiatory penalties”, those that aim for a more public restoration of justice and which are not affected by the remorse of the offender (c. 1336), loss of office being an obvious example; but excommunication is expressly not one of them.

The excommunicated should, in fact, be handled with the same loving concern and pastoral solicitude which is being championed for the remarried. Even in the more strident days of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the excommunicated were divided into two distinct classes: the tolerati and the vitandi (c. 2259, CIC 1917). The tolerati were the vast majority and were allowed to passively participate in (attend) liturgies, though not receive communion, and otherwise remain part of the catholic community. Only the vitandi (those to be shunned) were to be expelled from the church and avoided by Catholics; these were a tiny minority who had to be individually declared as such, by name, by the Holy See, and whose crimes and opinions were so grave their mere presence would not just be a scandal but a danger to the community. But even the vitandi were under a medicinal penalty aimed at their reform and towards whom the Church was lovingly concerned.

The general tone taken in the catholic media’s coverage of the Pope’s comment about the divorced and remarried shows a sad, frankly Protestant, misunderstanding of what excommunication is, what it does, and whom it benefits. It feeds a caracature of the Church as an inquisitorial (another misunderstood and abused word, and a good subject for a later post) star chamber, more interested in locking people out than welcoming them in. As is usually the case with public assumptions about the Church, the opposite is true.

*While remarriage by the divorced was not a delict qua adultery in the 1917 Code, the couple would probably have committed the crime of marrying before a non-catholic minister and incurred the penalty of excommunication for that.

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