Q: I did some really stupid things in my earlier years, and am wondering whether I got myself excommunicated. How can I find out? –Bill
A: After marriage law, the notion of excommunication is probably the most widely misunderstood concept in the entire Code of Canon Law. In fact, the whole system of church sanctions will be perplexing to anyone who wrongly presumes that that it works in the same general way as criminal laws in the United States. Additionally, much of this section of the code is organized in a somewhat circular (and therefore confusing) manner, which certainly doesn’t help! Let’s take a look first at the general purpose of all of the Church’s sanctions, and then examine the conditions in which the various types of penalties, including excommunication, may be imposed on Catholics who violate church laws. The issue of which particular actions actually constitute punishable offenses under canon law will be addressed in future articles.
Canon 1312.1 notes that there are two basic types of sanctions in the code: censures (also known as medicinal penalties), and expiatory penalties. They serve two quite different functions and are therefore not interchangeable. The code generally notes whether a particular crime—or delict—is punishable by an expiatory penalty or by a censure.
Expiatory penalties are imposed once an offense has already been committed, as a means of atonement. Imagine, for example, that a priest has secretly been embezzling funds from his parish. The crime is not discovered, of course, until after it has occurred, and the money is already missing. The diocesan bishop might wish to penalize the embezzler by (apart from returning the money, if possible) sending him to a monastery for six months, to live a strict penitential life. Such a punishment would be a means for the offending priest to expiate his crime in some way—hence the name of this category of sanctions.
This type of sanction more or less parallels our American criminal law system, at least conceptually: a person commits a crime, the crime and the perpetrator are discovered, and a punishment is imposed, so that the offender may somehow make amends. Excommunication, however, does not work in this way, for it falls under the second classification of sanctions, that of censures.
The overall purpose of censures can be inferred from this category’s alternate title of medicinal penalties. These sanctions are imposed with the intention that they serve as a sort of “wake-up call” to the offender. Picture, if you will, a theology professor in a diocesan seminary, who repeatedly makes doctrinal assertions in his classes that directly contradict fundamental church teachings. Imagine that this prof makes clear that he personally believes that the falsehoods which he is teaching his students are in fact the truth. In such a case, the imposition of a censure such as excommunication would be meant to let the professor know that he has strayed from Catholic teaching, and has thereby removed himself from communion with the Church. Excommunication should not be understood as pushing somebody outside the Catholic fold; rather, it is a statement that the offender has in fact already left the Church of his own accord—and that the Church wants him to come back.
Like ordinary medicine, a censure is imposed for a person’s own good, and not with any intent to cause him harm. Far from being some sort of fatal death stroke, such a penalty is meant to warn a person of his error and encourage him to renounce it. When it is viewed in this light, it may, in fact, be seen as an act of kindness! As Scripture says, “I desire not the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live” (Ezech. 33:11). Once an individual who is under censure takes the appropriate steps to undo whatever action led to the penalty in the first place—or at least to disavow it, if there is no way to undo it—it can be lifted, and then the person will once again be in good standing within the Church.
A censure, therefore, differs from an expiatory penalty in that it may be imposed while an offender is in the continuing process of committing a delict. Once the person ceases this illegal activity and acknowledges that it was wrong, the censure can be ended by the appropriate church authorities. Censures, including excommunication, really have no direct parallel in our legal system, which may be why American Catholics generally have a confused idea of how they work. The fact is, it is extremely difficult to get yourself excommunicated from the Church! Let’s now look at the requirements which must be in place before any penalty, including the censure of excommunication, can possibly be imposed on an individual.
The chapter on sanctions contains a whole host of principles and restrictions that limit the imposition of penalties on any person who commits a delict, but for a relatively clear and direct list, take a look at canon 1323. It lists a whole series of conditions, all of which must be present for the application of any sanction even to be possible. For starters, a person must have been at least 16 years of age when the crime was committed (c. 1323 n. 1), so it is absolutely impossible for anyone to be excommunicated—or subject to any other penalty—if had had not yet reached his sixteenth birthday when he committed an otherwise punishable offense.
A person cannot ordinarily be penalized for committing a delict if he was ignorant of the law (c. 1323 n. 2). Simply put, if a Catholic is unaware that a particular action is punishable by a sanction, he cannot be sanctioned for doing it! Any U.S. civil lawyer is familiar with the general norm that “ignorance of the law is no excuse”; but in the realm of canon law, with a few exceptions, ignorance actually has the opposite effect when it comes to sanctions.
Anyone who has committed a punishable offense because he was either physically forced to do so by someone else, or was otherwise acting through grave fear, is not liable to any punishment (c. 1323 nn. 3 and 4). In a similar vein, a person who commits a delict either in self-defense or in defense of another person cannot be penalized (c. 1323 n. 5).
Persons lacking the full use of reason are not subject to punishment (c. 1323 n. 6). This means that no church sanction can ever be applied to anyone who is insane, senile, or mentally handicapped. (Children normally would fall into this category as well, but as seen above, they are already exempted under n. 1.)
By this point, it should be clear that anyone who believes that the Catholic Church is quick to punish its members has never bothered to study the Church’s laws on sanctions! While it is impossible to compile any statistics on this question, it is reasonable to assume that an overwhelming percentage of persons who commit punishable offenses cannot be penalized, because so many of them fit into one or more of the categories described in canon 1323 and are therefore exempt.
The specific case of excommunication, which Bill references in his question, is subject to even further distinctions and restrictions, which are quite complex and beyond the scope of this article. (There is a running joke among canonists that, since the requirements for imposition of a canonical penalty are so complex, and require so much knowledge on the part of the perpetrator, that the end result is that the only people who can be excommunicated are…canon lawyers.) But in a nutshell, excommunication is an absolutely last resort, and normally is only imposed after church authorities have vainly issued repeated warnings to the offender, urging him to disavow whatever crime he has committed. The Church’s goal here is to ensure that the perpetrator is not only made totally aware of the serious nature of his offense, but also given every possible opportunity to reject and repent of his past action.
By now, the answer to Bill’s question should be clear. If he doesn’t know for certain that he was excommunicated, he wasn’t.