At baptism, we as Christians enter into a “communion” with our Lord Jesus Christ and His Church. When we sin, it is possible to break that communion. This is what happens with serious or mortal sin, when one has knowingly and willingly disobeyed God. As a result, we cut ourselves off from Him. If a person repents, however, and asks forgiveness through the sacrament of Reconciliation, this communion with Christ and His Church can be restored. This is what excommunication attempts to achieve.
For the ordinary laity, canon law states that an excommunicated person is forbidden “to celebrate the sacraments and sacramentals and to receive the sacraments” (canon 1331.1.2) (CCC 1463). In most cases, the person would have to have the penalty formally pronounced by a sentence and the guilty party would not be bound to it until this had been done. There are certain offenses, however, that would incur an automatic excommunication simply by having committed the offense (canon 1314).
Some examples of the grave offenses that would incur automatic excommunication would be the following: apostasy (total denial of the faith), heresy (denial of some truth of the faith), schism (refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff) (canon 1364); direct violation of the seal of confession by a priest (canon 1388); and procuring or performing an abortion or cooperation in an abortion in a way which is necessary to its being performed (canon 1398).
The Church realizes of course that there are certain factors that can remove or diminish a person’s guilt, such as age (too young), ignorance of the law, lack of freedom, and several others (canon 1323). In addition, a person must know that what they are about to do will result in a separation from Christ and the Church. There are situations, however, when the person could have known but chose not to be informed. In that type of case, there would be some accountability to God for the offense.
We need to keep in mind that excommunication is not for the purpose of separating someone from the Church or the sacraments. Rather, it is a medicinal penalty that is imposed in order to help the sinner to repent and turn back to God and be reconciled with Him and the members of His Body, the community of believers. It heals the wound caused by the sinner, who is wounded himself, as well as the Church. The excommunication will hopefully be lifted as soon as the person has repented.
© Copyright 2004 Grace D. MacKinnon
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Grace MacKinnon holds an MA in theology and is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine. Her new book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith is available in our online store. If you enjoy reading Grace’s column, you will certainly want to have this book, which is a collection of the first two years of “Dear Grace.” Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also visit her online at www.DearGrace.com.