Well, I’m hoping you are asking this because you want to know and not as some sort of goal. But all kidding aside, this is coming up more and more, isn’t it? So, let’s get right to it.
First of all, the word “excommunication” literally means “out of communion.” With that in mind, we have to look at the idea of communion: What does it mean?
Father John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary has a really fantastic definition of communion:
In Christian parlance the most sacred expression for any one of different forms of togetherness. As communion between God and the human soul in the divine indwelling; between Christ and the recipient of the Eucharist in holy Communion; among all who belong to the Mystical Body in heaven, purgatory, and on earth in the Communion of Saints; and among those who belong to the Catholic Church as a communion of the faithful. (Etym. Latin communio, sharing unity, association; participation.)
In other words, to be in communion means to be together; the deeper the communion we have with God and the Church, the better the communion. Like any relationship, we understand there are certain things that can really damage the relationship/connection.
Now, when we look at the Blessed Sacrament, we are looking at what, among other things, the Church calls the “sign and source of” that communion – got it?
So, when we receive the Eucharist, we do so as a sign of our unity with the Church, which is only possible because of the Eucharist we are receiving! This is one of the many reasons that we call the Eucharist or Communion the blessed Sacrament.
Now we are finally to your question! In automatic excommunications, we as a Church recognize there are some things we do that are so damaging to our souls they sever our unity with the Church. The effects of these sins are so profound it takes a deliberate act on God’s part to heal the wounds and restore the unity we’ve lost – we’ll get to that in a minute.
So, what are these acts? I’ve listed them below in the briefest way I can:
Offenses that merit automatic excommunication:
• Apostasy (the total repudiation of the Christian faith)
• Heresy (the obstinate denial or doubt, after baptism, of a truth which must be believed by divine and Catholic faith.)
• Schism (the withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him.)
• Profaning the Eucharist
• Physically attacking the pope
• A priest absolving his partner in a sin against the 6th Commandment
• Bishops who consecrate new bishops without the pope’s directive
• A priest who reveals or acts on what he hears in confession
• A person procuring a completed abortion (in the Diocese of Lansing and in some other dioceses, the bishop has given his priests the faculties to remit the penalty of excommunication in the sacrament of reconciliation.)
It’s possible that the following people may not be punished for the offenses:
• People who aren’t yet 16
• People who didn’t know and had no opportunity to know that their action was wrong
• People who acted out of force or fear of force
• People mentally unable to think things through first
• A person who reasonably believed they fit one or more of the exceptions I just listed
So, why does the Church do this? Why would she automatically excommunicate someone?
Well, it’s not so much that the Church says “No communion for you!” as much as we, by our words or actions say “I have left communion.” There are times when, out of faithfulness to his conscience and his duties as bishop, we may hear an explicit comment from the bishop that a person or persons are excommunicated, but make no mistake, often what the bishop is proclaiming is not a declaration but a revelation: He’s not doing something as much as naming what someone did to themselves.
What are the consequences of being automatically excommunicated? Well, the person is still considered Catholic and still has all the duties of that relationship, including going to Mass and the like. These persons are, however to refrain from receiving Communion.
Why, you may ask, do we say the person is still Catholic and should go to Mass if they are to refrain from receiving Communion? The answer ties into the “why” of the excommunication itself: Excommunication is a “medicinal” act. Its purpose is to bring about healing and conversion, not to inflict pain. Catholics who are excommunicated – except those guilty of apostasy, heresy and schism – are still in full communion with the Church – still members of the Catholic family. It’s like the loving parent who deprives us of some of the benefits of the family to help us see how valuable we are to the family and the family to us. This is not the same as someone who is not in full communion with the Church, but has not been excommunicated – such as non-Catholic Christians of good faith.
Let’s say it works. Let’s say one of our Catholic brothers or sisters experiences this and wants to rejoin the family. What can they do?
Generally, it depends on the sin that brought them there. Sometimes, a declaration of repentance to the proper person/persons or a reading of the Creed will do it – other times, it requires a private meeting with a bishop or a priest, if the bishop approves. And in some situations, it is necessary that the person needs to work with the Holy See. Persons who are excommunicated are, to my knowledge, always given exactly what needs to happen in order for them to come back to The Table.
As a side note, it used to be an automatic excommunication for anyone who physically assaulted a priest, but that was removed – don’t get any ideas!
Enjoy another day in God’s presence!
- Father Joseph Krupp