Are Catholics Supposed to Avoid Contact With Excommunicated Persons?

Q1: A friend of mine who was raised evangelical, but has recently decided to join the Church, asked me about the Church’s rules (or potential lack thereof) regarding social interaction with excommunicated people. He was raised in a church which, after removing someone from their own community through a vote of the registered church members, would not permit their members to engage in normal social interaction with that person apart from perhaps a casual, polite greeting if a member were to pass that person on the street. They cite Matthew 18:15-17 where Jesus ends by saying, “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” someone with whom the original audience of that saying was not even permitted to share a meal. What does the Church say about how to interact with those who have been excommunicated? –Thomas

Q2: My husband is a non-Catholic Christian, and he and I have been having some difficult discussions lately regarding the teachings of the Church.  He claims that, since he is a “schismatic,” he is not only automatically excommunicated from the Church, but that the consequences of that excommunication would include a loss of the following:
“the sacraments, public services and prayers of the Church, ecclesiastical burial, jurisdiction, benefices, canonical rights, and social intercourse.”  Our main point of contention rests on the final penalty listed, the loss of social intercourse.
My question has two parts:
1) Assuming my husband is excommunicated from the Church (or, rather, has effectively excommunicated himself by being a non-Catholic), what are the consequences according to Canon Law?
2) Clearly, in practice, the Church does not expect me to actually shun my husband, and clearly non-Catholics (even hopeless schismatics) are allowed to attend Mass, but does this mean there is a discrepancy between the content of the law and its application? –Marianne

A: It’s been said before in this space, but it bears repeating: after marriage and annulment, the issue of excommunication is probably the most misunderstood canonical concept on the planet.  In “Am I Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part I,” we looked at the Church’s “medicinal penalty” of excommunication, and how this sanction basically works.  These questions, however, don’t center around the effects it has on the excommunicated person himself, but focus instead on the obligations of those non-excommunicated Catholics who come in contact with him.  Let’s first take a general look at what Thomas is asking, and then we should be able to tackle Marianne’s more specific question.

Canon 1331 tells us what an excommunicated person is forbidden to do:
—Have any ministerial role in the celebration of the Mass or any other ceremonies of public worship (c. 1331.1 n. 1);
—Celebrate the sacraments or sacramentals [blessings, for example], and receive the sacraments (n. 2); and
—Exercise any ecclesiastical offices or ministries (n. 3).

Note that much of the above applies only to priests.  If a lay Catholic is under excommunication, far and away the most important effect is found in canon 1331.1 n. 2, which was just mentioned: he is forbidden to receive the sacraments until he returns to communion with the Church.

The following paragraph of canon 1331 provides a list of other restrictions on a person whose excommunication was “imposed or declared.”  As was discussed at length in “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?” censures such as excommunication can, under certain circumstances, be incurred without anybody else even knowing about it.  In these situations, the sentence of excommunication is not “imposed or declared,” and therefore the restrictions in canon 1331.2 would not apply.  In any case, speaking generally, these provisions are applicable almost exclusively to members of the clergy.

So far, we’ve looked at how a censure like excommunication affects the excommunicated person himself.  But what does the code have to say about other Catholics in good standing, who for whatever reason have contact with the excommunicated person?  In a word, nothing.  For Catholics who remain in communion with the Church, there are no legal restrictions whatsoever on their social interactions with excommunicated persons.

Does that mean, therefore, that Catholics can communicate with someone under excommunication exactly as they would if everything were fine?  The answer is, “it depends.”  If the pastor of a parish (for example) was excommunicated for some reason, the Catholic faithful shouldn’t ask him to baptize their babies or bless their rosaries—because as we’ve just seen, he is forbidden to do such things.  If someone were unaware of the excommunication and made this request in good faith, the priest would be obliged to refuse.  Similarly, if a lay theology professor is known to be under excommunication, it would make little sense for a Catholic to sign up for his theology course, or ask him for information on what the Church teaches!  (See “Was Theologian Hans Küng Ever Excommunicated?” for more on excommunicated theologians.)  Canon law doesn’t assert explicitly that we must not do these things; rather, they are simply logical consequences of the canonical restrictions placed on the excommunicated person.

Imagine now that a Catholic laywoman was declared to be excommunicated because she deliberately desecrated the Blessed Sacrament, as per canon 1367.  She is completely defiant, making it clear that she does not repent of her action at all.  Let’s say she is married to a Catholic man, and they have children who are being raised Catholic too.  If you search the code for some statement to the effect that her Catholic family-members can no longer live in the same house with their wife/mother, you will look in vain.  Granted, we would hope that her husband would be appalled at his wife’s actions, and that the children would likewise be upset if they’re old enough to understand what is happening.  If they are genuinely concerned for the woman’s spiritual wellbeing, it’s only natural that they will try to remonstrate with her, to convince her that she needs to repent, make amends in some way, and return to full communion with the Church.  But strictly speaking, there’s no canonical obligation for them to do even this much—and they certainly are not required to move out of the house, cease talking to her, or refuse to share a meal with her.

Does this contradict Our Lord’s words in Matt. 18:15-17, which Thomas cites in his question?  Not necessarily.  Remember that Jesus Himself sometimes ate with tax collectors (see Matt. 9:10-12, Mark 2:15-17, and Luke 5:29-32)—not because He wanted to signal approval for their line of work, but in order to draw them away from their immoral way of life.  Similarly, we Catholics should obviously be unhappy when one among us is excommunicated, and we shouldn’t want to be rubbing shoulders unduly with such a person if we can help it, in great part because we could conceivably be influenced by him in some negative way; but if there’s an opportunity (through our words or our example) for us to urge that person to amend and come back to the Church, then we should certainly be willing to have contact with the excommunicated Catholic in order to do this.  Thomas now has the answer to his question.

Marianne’s question, on the other hand, is not only more specific, but it is filled with erroneous assumptions that cannot be ignored.  For starters, her husband claims that he is excommunicated for schism, because he is not a member of the Catholic Church.  But note that Marianne describes her husband as “a non-Catholic Christian,” which would suggest that he has never been a Catholic at any point in his life.  And if her husband has never been a member of the Catholic Church, then it’s quite impossible for him to be sanctioned by the Church as a schismatic!

Schism is defined in canon 751 as the withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church who are subject to him; and as canon 1364.1 tells us, a schismatic incurs excommunication.  But like the rest of the Code of Canon Law, these canons pertain only to Catholics (cf. c. 1).  If you’ve never been a member of the Catholic Church in your whole life, then as a general rule, what it requires or forbids does not concern you, and its penalties do not apply to you.

This is—or should be, at least—particularly obvious with regard to the sanction of excommunication.  You can’t be excommunicated, if you were never in communion in the first place!  Once again, we see here an example of a very common misunderstanding about what excommunication really is.

Consequently, Marianne’s assertion that her husband “has effectively excommunicated himself by being a non-Catholic” makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.  Much of her question, therefore, instantly becomes irrelevant.

While we’re on the subject, note also that, as was discussed at length in “Could a Pope Ever Be Excommunicated? (“Excommunication” Defined),” it is extremely misleading to assert as Marianne does that anybody is ever “automatically excommunicated.”  That’s because canon 1323 contains a list of conditions which must first be in place, before anyone incurs excommunication.  In other words, if a person fails to meet even one of the conditions found in canon 1323, he is not excommunicated.  Period.

So far, it should be clear to all that Marianne’s non-Catholic husband isn’t a schismatic, and isn’t excommunicated.  But where did he get that astonishing phrase about excommunicated persons losing “the sacraments, public services and prayers of the Church, ecclesiastical burial, jurisdiction, benefices, canonical rights, and social intercourse”?  There are multiple problems with this assertion, but let’s stick to the topic at hand.  As we’ve already seen here, there’s nothing in the code about Catholics who are under excommunication losing “social intercourse.”

The answer is only an internet-search away.  If you search for the phrase in quotation-marks that Marianne cites, you’ll quickly discover that it was taken from an entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia, written all the way back in 1909.

There’s no denying that the older edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia is a treasure-trove of valuable information.  Its entries on historical subjects contain a vast amount of detailed info that remains extraordinarily useful today.  But many of the entries in the Catholic Encyclopedia are, by their very nature, completely outdated by now, and are thus of only historical interest.

Anything pertaining to canon law would, of course, fit into this latter category.  Note that an encyclopedia entry from 1909 was written not only before the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which is in force today; it predates even the previous code, from 1917.  As a source of current church law, therefore, the old Catholic Encyclopedia is essentially worthless; and once again, Marianne’s questions that stem from this outdated reference are irrelevant.  There is no “discrepancy between the content of the law and its application,” as she puts it.

By now, you have to wonder whether Marianne’s husband is actively looking for an argument!  It seems that he may be cherry-picking canonical trivia off the internet, in order to force the facts to fit his predetermined theory.  Heaven only knows how many Catholics are married to non-Catholics, all around the world; it’s perfectly obvious that the Catholic Church does not tell them all to shun “social intercourse” with their spouses.  We have here a perfect example of a canonical non-issue.

To sum up, if a Catholic incurs the penalty of excommunication, his involvement in the spiritual life of the Church is limited severely.  He has, after all, cut himself off from communion with the rest of the Catholic faithful.  It should come as no surprise if other Catholics don’t care to spend lot of quality time with such a person; but there are plenty of circumstances where contact with the excommunicated Catholic is unavoidable—and, if it results in the person’s return to full communion in the Church, that contact can do a world of good.

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