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The term excommunication (excommunicatus κοινώνητος) first appeared in Church documents in the fourth century. As the term suggests, excommunication involves a varying degree of "exclusion from the communion of the faithful" (1917 CIC c.2257.1). From the beginnings of Christianity the central realization and embodiment of "the communion of the faithful" has always been the Eucharistic Communion; hence it is from the Eucharist as the center of the common socio-mystical life of the faithful in Christ's Body, the Church, that the excommunicate is primarily excluded. This is the prime factor characterizing excommunication in all the stages of its historical development.


New Testament. Faced with the scandal of a gravely sinful brother who resisted all correction and rebuke, the New Testament κκλησία was constrained to isolate such a sinner from its midst (1 Cor 5.2, 13), without necessarily taking away his membership in the community (see 1 Cor 5.11). The Church was, however, no holy remnant ruthlessly ridding itself of sinners (see Mt 13.2830); rather it remained open to the return of the penitent sinner, so that the segregation of the obdurate sinner had a hopeful outlook (see 2 Thes 3.15; 2 Cor2.511). Even when St. Paul uses a seemingly harsh curse formula, there is still the perspective of hope (see 1 Cor5.45; 1 Tm 1.20).

Mt 18.1518 is the classical locus in which the Church, after having vainly tried to turn a sinful brother from his ways, is presented as competent to dissociate the sinner from its midst by a judgment that is divinely ratified. If there can be a "binding" of the sinner in his sinful alienation from God and from God's people, there always remains the alternative of a "loosing" of the same sinner, providing he repents and heeds the voice of the Church (see binding and loosing).

Patristic and Medieval Period. Two factors distinguish the penitential practice of the ancient Church from that of later ages. First, until about the sixth century the grave sinner was permitted to avail himself of the Church's sacramental penitential procedure only once in his lifetime. Second, the canonico-disciplinary phases of penance, imposed by ecclesiastical authority, were closely inserted into the strictly sacramental elements of penance in a unified procedure. The grave sinner, resolved to make his peace with God in the Church, presented himself to the bishop, who assigned him, by a liturgical excommunication, to a special category of Christians with a separate and juridically inferior status in the Church, i.e., to the class of penitents (ordo paenitentium ), and imposed on him a varyingly protracted period of public penitential works. At the close of this period of onerous penance, during which the penitent was publicly cut off from the central life of the Church, the bishop lifted the liturgical excommunication, reconciling the penitent to God in the Church, and receiving him once again into communion with the Church, primarily into the Eucharistic life of the Church and then into a sharing in its whole common life. The excommunication of the sinner was thus assumed into the sacramental penitential process, being an integral part of the satisfaction performed in view of an ultimate reconciliation with God in the Church. The ancient Church accordingly wished as little dissociation as possible between what today we would call the internal and the external forums, between sacramental penance and the canonical penalty of excommunication.

The decisive step in the widespread development of a canonical excommunication separated from sacramental penance was the gradual introduction, starting in the sixth and seventh centuries, of a sacramental penitential procedure that was repeatable. Once it became possible for the grave sinner to approach the Sacrament of Penance more than once, then inevitably a more simplified procedure had to be introduced into sacramental penance; and by about the 11th to the 12th centuries the external forms of the administration of Penance had become much the same as we know them today. One result of this development was the gradual, clear emergence, from the 7th century onward, of a canonical disciplinary excommunication, dissociated from its former prominent place within sacramental penance, and as a consequence, applied, not to repentant, but to impenitent sinners. By the high Middle Ages, and for centuries afterward, the interior and exterior forums were, both in theory and in practice, less intimately associated than in patristic times. See St. Thomas, In 4 sent. 18.2.2 sol. 1.

Conclusion. Once it has become clear that any culpable dissociation from the full visible common life of the Church marks some measure of disruption of the full interior life of grace in the Body of the Lord, there is less likelihood of an excessive separation of delict and sin, and of excommunication and penance. Just as the theology of sacramental penance has regained a firmer ecclesial dimension in that the res et sacramentum of the Sacrament is often described as peace with the Church, so too canonical excommunication can be seen in this orientation as a firmer delineation of the sinner's alienation from full communion, and the lifting of the censure can be placed as a preliminary stage to the sacramental absolution conferring on the repentant sinner that peace with the Church which means peace with God.

See Also: anathema; penance, sacrament of; schism; society (church as); visibility of the church.

Bibliography: b. poschmann, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick, tr. and rev. f. courtney (New York 1964). p. anciaux, The Sacrament of Penance (New York 1962). w. doskocil, Der Bann in der Urkirche (Munich 1958). k. rahner, De paenitentia: Tractatus historico-dogmaticus (3d ed. Innsbruck 1955).

[f. x. lawlor]

Canon Law

Breaches of ecclesial faith or order may lead to the declaration or imposition of ecclesiastical penalties. Accordingly, Church members are deprived of certain spiritual or temporal goods of the Church, either temporarily or permanently. Expiatory penalties highlight the ecclesial goods of restoring community order, repairing scandal, and precluding further disciplinary violations. Censures or so-called medicinal penalties are geared much more toward reconciling the offending party with the community.

The most ecclesially significant censure is excommunication, described in the 1917 code as excluding one from the communion of the faithful and entailing various inseparable effects (cc. 22572267). The present law does not define this most serious penalty, but simply specifies its inseparable effects, i.e., various prohibitions to one's involvement in the Church's public life (c.1331). The first part of this canon indicates the effects of any excommunication, and the second describes specific effects of excommunication when there has been a formal intervention by ecclesiastical authority. This may involve either administrative procedure or judicial process before a collegiate court of three judges (c. 1425n1, 2).

An intervention may involve a declaration that an automatic excommunication (latae sententiae ) has been incurred; or it may entail the infliction of a so-called ferendae sententiae excommunication. The intervention of Church authority lends a special solemnity to the legal situation and results in more serious restrictions on the penalized party, e.g., invalidity and not simply illiceity of prohibited acts of ecclesiastical governance.

Some restrictions affecting the excommunicated person are liturgical in character, e.g., prohibition of active ministerial participation in the Eucharist and other acts of public worship and prohibition of celebrating the sacraments or sacramentals or of receiving the sacraments. During the code revision process it had been proposed to exempt penance and anointing from the aforementioned prohibition, but it was finally decided that the excommunicated person needed to have the penalty remitted before receiving any sacraments. Some restrictions flowing from excommunication are governmental in nature, e.g., prohibitions of holding various ecclesiastical offices, exercising various ministries or functions, or positing acts of governance. If an excommunication has been formally inflicted or declared, such a person is also barred from enjoying privileges already acquired, validly acquiring any ecclesiastical dignity, office, or function, and receiving certain ecclesiastical income.

The current law is somewhat circumspect about establishing censures, especially excommunication; such penalties should be reserved for the most serious disciplinary violations (cc. 1318;1349). Not surprisingly the law notably reduces the number of excommunications specified in the 1917 code. Nine ecclesiastical offenses may make a guilty party liable to an excommunication; seven involve latae sententiae or automatic penalties; two entail ferendae sententiae penalties. The following offenses may lead to a latae sententiae excommunication: apostasy, heresy, schism (c. 1364nl); violation of sacred species (c. 1367); physical attack on the pope (1370); absolution of an accomplice (c. 1378nl); unauthorized episcopal consecration (c. 1382); direct violation of confessional seat by confessor (c. 1388n2); and procuring of an abortion (c. 1398). Finally two offenses may warrant a ferendae sententiae excommunication: pretended celebration of Eucharist or conferral of sacramental absolution by one not a priest (c. 1378); and violation of the confessional seal by an interpreter or those other than confessor (c. 1388n2).

Bibliography: t. green, "Book VI: Sanctions in the Church," j. coriden, et al., eds., The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary (New York 1985) 906907; 932.

[t. j. green]

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EXCOMMUNICATION . To excommunicate means "to cut off from communion" or "to exclude from fellowship in a community." In a Christian setting, the term excommunication also applies to exclusion from Holy Communion, or the Eucharist.

Historically, religious practice admitted some form of putting a person outside the community. Any community claims the right to protect itself against nonconforming members who may threaten the common welfare. In a religious setting this right has often been reinforced by the belief that the sanction affects one's standing before God, inasmuch as it entails being cut off from the community of the saved. In religious traditions in which nonconformity was punishable by death, excommunication was introduced as a mitigation of the death penalty. In medieval Christendom and during the early years of the Reformation, excommunicated persons were turned over to civil authorities, who could inflict the death penalty upon them.

With the shift in modern times to considering religious affiliation a matter of free choice, doubts have been expressed about the meaning and value of excommunication. Although practiced less frequently today, some current examples include the erem in Orthodox Judaism, "shunning" among some traditional Christian bodies, withdrawal of membership by congregation-based communities, and "excommunication" as practiced by Mormons, Roman Catholics, and some other mainline Christian churches.

In the Western Christian tradition, excommunication is seen as based on practice reflected in scripture, especially Paul (see, for example, 1 Cor. 5:113, 2 Cor. 2:511, 2 Thes. 3:1415). Theoretical justification is taken from the command to bind and loose (Mt. 18:1518). This same passage supplies key elements of procedure, including advance warning and attempts to lead the delinquent to conversion.

Early Christian practice mixed liturgical excommunications, which were part of the nonrepeatable public penitential practices, with disciplinary ones that could culminate in a person being declared anathema. In the thirteenth century Innocent III specified excommunication as a disciplinary penalty distinct from other punishments, characterizing it as specifically medicinal, intended to heal the delinquent. The number of crimes for which excommunication could be incurred increased steadily through the eighteenth century, but a marked reduction in their number began with the reforms of Pius IX in 1869 and continued with the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law in 1917.

As a medicinal, or healing, penalty, excommunication under Roman Catholic law may be incurred only if a serious sin has been committed, or if the person is obstinate in a position after being given formal warnings and time to repent. Reflecting medieval and later developments, some excommunications are automatic (latae sententiae ), incurred by committing a specified act, such as abortion or physically striking the pope. Other excommunications are imposed (ferendae sententiae ) after an administrative or judicial investigation. Excommunication must always be lifted as soon as the delinquent repents and seeks peace with the church.

A distinction used to be drawn between major excommunications, which cut a person off from all participation in community life, and minor ones, which prohibited participation in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. Current canon law has dropped this distinction, although the 1917 code did characterize some excommunicates as vitandi, with whom contact must be completely avoided. Under the 1917 code all others were tolerati, and contact with them could be permitted.

An excommunicated person loses basic rights in the church, but not the effects of baptism, which can never be lost. In the revision of the code carried out after Vatican II the effects of excommunication were clarified, and the distinction of vitandi and tolerati was dropped. Instead, all are treated as tolerati so far as the effects are concerned. These depend on whether the excommunication was imposed by a public declaration or sentence of condemnation, or was incurred automatically but without much public notice.

Generally, a person who is excommunicated is denied any role in administering the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. He or she may not receive any of the sacraments or administer sacramentals, such as burials, and is forbidden to exercise any church offices or functions. If the penalty has been declared or imposed by a sentence, any liturgical actions the excommunicate attempts are to be suspended until he or she leaves; the excommunicate loses any offices or other functions in the church; and may make no claim for income or other benefits from the church.

Under the reform of the law, automatic excommunication can be incurred in only six instances, including abortion. It may be imposed for a limited number of other crimes against faith, the Eucharist, or the seal of the confessional in the sacrament of penance. If imposed by a sentence or public declaration, excommunication can be lifted only by a public authority in the church, usually the local diocesan bishop. Otherwise, it can be lifted by a priest during the sacrament of penance, but unlike the 1917 code the revised rules require that in all cases the bishop be contacted afterward for the reconciliation to remain in effect.


Recommended studies of early Christian practice are Kenneth Helm's Eucharist and Excommunication: A Study in Early Christian Doctrine and Discipline (Frankfurt, 1973) and John E. Lynch's "The Limits of Communio in the Pre-Constantinian Church," Jurist 36 (1976): 159190. For historical background and detailed commentary on Roman Catholic canon law through the 1917 Code of Canon Law, see Francis Edward Hyland's Excommunication: Its Nature, Historical Development and Effects (Washington, D. C., 1928), and for an overview of efforts to reform Roman Catholic law on this subject, see Thomas J. Green's "Future of Penal Law in the Church," Jurist 35 (1975): 212275, which includes a bibliography. Both the Dictionnaire de droit canonique (Paris, 1953) and the Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 2d ed. (Freiburg, 19571968), offer extensive articles, under the terms Excommunication and Bann, respectively.

James H. Provost (1987)

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ex·com·mu·ni·cate • v. / ˌekskəˈmyoōniˌkāt/ [tr.] officially exclude (someone) from participation in the sacraments and services of the Christian Church. • n. / ˌekskəˈmyoōniˌkit/ an excommunicated person. DERIVATIVES: ex·com·mu·ni·ca·tion / ˌekskəˌmyoōniˈkāshən/ n. ex·com·mu·ni·ca·tive / -ˌkātiv/ adj. ex·com·mu·ni·ca·tor / -ˌkātər/ n. ex·com·mu·ni·ca·to·ry / -kəˌtôrē/ adj.

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Excommunication. A censure imposed by the Christian Church which deprives a person of the right to administer or receive the sacraments or to hold office in the church.

The term is then applied to the process of expelling members from the, or a, community in other religions—e.g. the expulsion of a member of the Buddhist saṅgha (monastic community) if he has committed one of the four offences which are known as pārājika (involving defeat): sexual misconduct, theft, murder, boasting of supernatural powers. See also (in Judaism) ḤEREM.

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excommunication Formal expulsion from the communion of the faithful, from sacraments and from rites of a religious body. Largely abandoned by Protestants, excommunication has been retained by Jewish congregations and by the Roman Catholic Church. In the days when the Church held great temporal (as well as spiritual) authority, excommunication was a severe punishment for heresy or blasphemy.

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excommunicate XV. f. pp. stem of ecclL. excommūnicāre, f. EX-1 + commūnis COMMON, after commūnicāre COMMUNICATE.
So excommunication XV. — late L.

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excommunicate officially exclude someone from participation in the sacraments and services of the Christian Church. The word is recorded from late Middle English, and comes from ecclesiastical Latin excommunicat- ‘excluded from communication with the faithful’.