Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ask Tony: Doesn't excommunication mean automatic defrocking?

On Tuesday, I wrote a post on The Other Blog about Fr. Roy Bourgeois' impending dismissal from the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers order. Along the way, I mentioned that in 2008 the superior general, Fr. Edward Dougherty, had received a letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) notifying Maryknoll that Fr. Bourgeois had incurred an excommunication latae sententiae reserved to the Holy See.

This prompted one reader, Dan, to ask a question:

I am a bit confused. If I read your article correctly you point out that this priest's actions brought upon himself excommunication latae sententiae, based on the 2008 letter from the Holy Office. Further on in your article, you describe the warnings given to this priest by his Maryknoll superiors which state that unless he recants he will be dismissed from the order.

Now, if he had already incurred excommunication that means he is, in fact, no longer inside the Church and by all logic that follows he would no longer be a member of any order. The excommunication is obvisouly [sic] the more severe — and quite final — punishment.

Did I miss something?
The confusion isn't over dismissal but over excommunication. Many people, both Protestant and Catholic, don't really know what excommunication is and does.

The first thing to remember is that excommunication does NOT "kick you out of the Church". The character of the marks the Holy Spirit leaves on your soul at Baptism and Confirmation are indelible. You only stop being Catholic in a formal sense if you apostatize, i.e., join another church or reject religion altogether.

Now, what is excommunication? What does it do?

A person who commits a sin of sufficient gravity, such as rejecting a dogma or doctrine of the Faith, has not only fallen out of the state of grace but has broken away from unity with the rest of the faithful. In other words, he is "out of communion" ... ex communione. In such a state, the Catholic is supposed to voluntarily refrain from other sacraments, especially the Eucharist, until he repairs the fault through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (also known as Penance or Confession). And if he's honest, the at-fault Catholic will abstain.

In common parlance, excommunication normally refers to the formal, public declaration by the local ordinary that Joe Schmuckatelli, having committed such-and-such delicts and having obstinately and pertinaceously refused to repent of his sins, has separated himself from the sacraments of the Church and the people of God. The term latae sententiae (L. "given" or "already passed sentence") refers to a formal excommunication that is incurred by the fact of the delict itself, meaning that it's a mandatory punishment rather than the most drastic of several options.

And it is a drastic penalty. "An excommunicated person is forbidden:

  1. to have any ministerial participation in celebrating the sacrifice of the Eucharist or any other ceremonies of worship whatsoever;
  2. to celebrate the sacraments or sacramentals and to receive the sacraments;
  3. to exercise any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, or functions whatsoever or to place acts of governance" (CIC 1331 §1).

Because of the severity, and because formal excommunications have a tendency to cause more problems than they solve, most bishops are very reluctant to reach for their pens, even when prominent Catholic public officials (such as Vice-President Joe Biden, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius) openly promote and give material support to the sin of abortion (cf. CIC 1371). 

Note also that the law in question prevents the exercise of ministerial office, but doesn't automatically strip a person of the office itself; the necessity of such further action depends on the nature of the delict and the delinquent's persistence in sin. Nor will Fr. Bourgeois' dismissal from the order return him to the lay state; however, he won't be able to function as a priest of the Catholic Church unless: 1) his excommunication is lifted; and 2) he can find a bishop willing to take him on at least probationally (CIC 701).

Finally, another condition is entailed in Fr. Bourgeois' excommunication: it is "reserved to the Holy See". The CDF, by the authority of Pope Benedict, issued the declaration, and only the CDF or the Pope can lift it. I'm almost sure there's a "danger of death" exception; however, for further details I refer you to Dr. Edward Peters, canon lawyer extraordinaire, who is posted on such things. For our purposes, it's enough to say that there are a handful of delicts serious enough that the Vatican requires notice; if the CDF, the descendant office of the Holy Inquisition, is involved — boy, have you f***ed up!

In summation, then, excommunication is the deprivation of sacraments and ecclesial function from a Catholic who continues in or refuses to repent a major sin. It's a drastic penalty because, in Catholic theology and spirituality, the sacraments are our contact points with God — especially the Eucharist, around which everything else is ordered. But an excommunicate Catholic is still a member of the Church; an excommunicate priest is still a priest.

And no, I don't think the CDF used the ritual shown here: