How Does an Excommunicated Catholic Have the Sanction Lifted? (Part I)

Q: What does an excommunicated Catholic need to do, to return to full communion with the Catholic Church? –Lauren

A: In a number of different articles on this site, we’ve discussed some of the reasons why a Catholic can be excommunicated, and the conditions which must be met for this sanction to be incurred (see “Am I Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part I,” for starters).  As has been emphasized repeatedly—in “Tithing and Excommunication,” for example—it’s actually pretty difficult for a Catholic to get excommunicated from the Church!  But for those Catholics who manage to incur this sanction, the question naturally arises: once you’ve taken yourself outside of communion with the Catholic Church, how do you come back?

Procedurally, the answer to Lauren’s general question is more complicated than you might think.  That’s because it basically depends on three factors, which are all interconnected:
(1) whether the excommunication was imposed/declared, or incurred ipso facto;
(2) whether the crime, known as a delict in canonical lingo, is one that is “reserved to the Holy See” or not; and
(3) who established the law (which has been violated) in the first place.
Let’s first look at each of these factors in turn.  Then, armed with all the necessary information, we can address what needs to be done to have the sanction of excommunication lifted, so an excommunicated Catholic can return to full communion with the Church.

(1) In “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?” we looked in greater detail at the Church’s age-old distinction between latae sententiae and ferendae sententiae penalties, including excommunication (cf. c. 1314).  But briefly put, our run-of-the-mill understanding of crime and punishment in the civil sphere—which involves (a) the commission of a crime, (b) an investigation and determination of guilt by legal authorities, and (c) a sentence imposed on the criminal by a judge—basically mirrors how the Church’s ferendae sententiae penalties work.  Canon 1374 (discussed at length in “Can Catholics Become Freemasons?”) is a good example of a delict punishable with a penalty to be decided and imposed by the appropriate church authorities—in other words, by a ferendae sententiae penalty, which could potentially be excommunication.  For a Catholic to be sanctioned in this way, a member of the church hierarchy must officially say so in writing, which is another way of saying that the sanction is imposed.

But latae sententiae penalties work very differently.  We took a more in-depth look at this type of penalty in the abovementioned “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?” but in short, if a Catholic commits a delict that is punishable by a latae sententiae penalty (such as, but not limited to excommunication), and if that Catholic meets every single one of the conditions found in canon 1323 (see “Is She Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part II” for more on this canon), then he incurs the sanction ipso facto.  In other words, there is no need for any church official to examine the situation and inform him that he has incurred excommunication; the Catholic knows this already, and is excommunicated by virtue of the law itself.  In fact, it can conceivably happen that a Catholic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication without anybody else knowing about it!  In this sort of situation, the excommunication of the offender is known only to him and to God.

That said, it sometimes does happen that a Catholic incurs a latae sententiae penalty and this fact is known to others, and church officials choose to make a formal statement that this has occurred.  Note that a formal statement isn’t actually necessary, since the Catholic is already under sanction without it; but in cases which involve some sort of factual uncertainty, and/or are very public, church authorities may decide that a public statement is appropriate.  In this sort of situation, we say canonically that the latae sententiae sanction has been declared.

Non-canonists frequently look at the canons relevant to this discussion, and fail to understand the important distinction in terminology which must be made here.  Ferendae sententiae penalties (like excommunication) are always imposed; penalties which are latae sententiae may be declared, but they don’t have to be.  We’ll come back to this later.

(2) In “Excommunication and Bad-Mouthing the Pope,” we saw that there are currently seven different crimes punishable by excommunication “reserved to the Holy See.”  This reservation pertains only to the lifting of the sanction, and has nothing to do with the way the excommunication is incurred.  Note that not all excommunications are reserved to the Holy See: canon 1398, for example, tells us that a person who actually procures an abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication, but it is not reserved to the Holy See at all.  As we’ll see later on, this factor is very relevant to Lauren’s question.

(3) One might think that every delict punishable by excommunication is mentioned in the Code of Canon Law—but this is not the case.  Diocesan bishops are themselves legislators (c. 391), and thus have the power to create laws binding the faithful of their dioceses.  Thus they have the power to declare to the Catholics under their jurisdiction that X is a crime punishable by excommunication, even if this specific crime and punishment isn’t listed in the code.

And occasionally bishops do exactly that.  Back in 1996, the then-Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska Fabian Bruskewitz famously published a list of organizations, the purposes of which he declared were contrary to the Catholic faith—and he further stated that the Catholics of his diocese who remained members of these groups would incur a latae sententiae excommunication.  Unlike the canons of the code, which bind all Latin Catholics around the world (cf. c. 1), this law bound only the Catholics residing within the bishop’s territory.  Thus we can see that not all laws pertaining to excommunicable offenses are issued by the same Catholic legislator.  Unsurprisingly, the method of lifting an excommunication will vary as a result.

Now that we’ve laid out some distinctions which are critical to the topic at hand, let’s see what the code tells us about remitting the sanction of excommunication.  You’ll see that it would be impossible to understand the Church’s rules on this subject, without first having a basic grasp of the concepts discussed above.

Canon 1355 tells us how a penalty like excommunication is lifted, if it is not reserved to the Holy See, and if the penalty was established by law (which usually means the delict is mentioned in the code).  In those cases where the excommunication was either imposed (meaning it was a ferendae sententiae penalty) or declared (some but not all cases of latae sententiae penalties), it can be remitted by either
(a) the Ordinary (normally the diocesan bishop) who imposed or declared the penalty (c. 1355.1 n. 1); or
(b) the Ordinary of the place where the excommunicated Catholic currently is, after consultation with the Ordinary who had imposed/declared the excommunication (c. 1355.1 n. 2).

So by way of example, imagine that George is a high-ranking politician and a practicing Catholic.  In his country, the Catholic Church owns a lot of real estate; and on numerous occasions, George attempts to coerce the local bishop and other diocesan officials into renting/selling various buildings to his relatives at an absurdly low rate.  Whenever the diocese refuses, George threatens to use his political power to arrange to have the bishop’s finances investigated, or to block construction of a new parish school, or cause other unwarranted problems for the Church, purely out of revenge.

Finally, after appropriate remonstrances and warnings prove to be fruitless (cf. c. 1347, and also see “Divorce, Remarriage, and Excommunication” for more on this), the bishop announces that George is excommunicated for multiple violations of canon 1375, as he has repeatedly hindered the bishop and other diocesan clergy from governing the diocese and lawfully using ecclesiastical property.  This would be a ferendae sententiae penalty, imposed on George by his diocesan bishop.

Now let’s say that this excommunication is a real wake-up call for George, who realizes he has gone way too far and sincerely wants to make amends.  Once he can convince the bishop that he is truly contrite and will never do this again, the bishop can remit the excommunication, as per canon 1355.1 n. 1.  If George had moved to another diocese and repented of his crime while living there, the bishop of that place could lift the excommunication after discussion with George’s original bishop.  In a case like this, when the sanction is lifted, it must be done in writing (c. 1361.2).

So far, so good.  But what if a Catholic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication which was never declared?  What if the Catholic who committed the crime knows about it, but nobody else does?

Canon 1355.2 has the answer, so long as the delict is not reserved to the Holy See.  Since no ecclesiastical authority has been involved in the case, the diocesan bishop can lift such an excommunication, or indeed any bishop has the power to do so in the confessional. It sounds, therefore, like an excommunicated Catholic in this sort of situation has a fairly broad range of options—except that he might live a hundred miles away from the bishop, or not even know who the bishop is or how to contact him!  In such circumstances as these, what is an excommunicated person expected to do?

Fortunately, there’s a relatively straightforward work-around, found in canon 1357.  If a Catholic has incurred a latae sententiae excommunication which has never been declared, he simply needs go to confession, and explain the whole situation to the priest.  Canon 1357.1 tells us that the confessor—who is ordinarily not a bishop himself—can remit the sanction right there in the confessional, provided that the penitent agrees to make recourse to the bishop (or other appropriate superior, depending on the situation) within one month (c. 1357.2).  The confessor can, of course, explain to the penitent how to go about doing this.

But if the penitent is afraid of contacting the bishop, or unsure how to handle things, the canon states that the confessor can do it for him: the priest can make the request on the penitent’s behalf (anonymously), and arrange to meet again with the penitent at some point in the near future so the confessor can relay the response.  Once again, let’s look at a concrete example.

Betsy is a Catholic who aborted her unborn child, knowing full well that this is an excommunicable offense.  She met all the necessary conditions found in canon 1323 (which, as discussed in “Is She Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part II,” almost never happens!), and thus incurred a latae sententiae excommunication in accord with canon 1398.  Years later, she is coming to terms with what happened and wants to be a Catholic in good standing again.  What can she do?

Well, the latae sententiae excommunication which Betsy incurred for the abortion is not reserved to the Holy See.  As we’ve just seen, the bishop of the diocese where she had the abortion can remit the excommunication; if she lives elsewhere, the bishop of the place where she currently is can do so as well.  For that matter, if she perhaps runs into a bishop from a totally different part of the world, she could ask him to hear her confession, and in addition to granting Betsy absolution for her sins, he can remit the excommunication too.

In fact, in the specific case of canon 1398, having the excommunication lifted may be even easier: in many dioceses around the world, bishops have also granted the power to lift an excommunication incurred because of an abortion to all the priests of the diocese!  This is not spelled out in the code, since it doesn’t apply to the entire Church; but it is theologically consistent with the basic concept found in canon 1357.  The difference is that in the case of abortion, the confessor can lift the sanction in the confessional, and there is no need for the additional step of contacting the bishop within one month, as is required by canon 1357.2.  The confessor can remit the sanction, grant the person absolution, and that’s it.  If you’re curious, ask your parish priest if this is permitted in your diocese—he’ll know the answer.

By now, readers’ heads might be spinning from all the technicalities … and yet Lauren still doesn’t have a complete answer to her question.  That’s because we haven’t yet addressed lifting an excommunication that is reserved to the Holy See.  What is a Catholic supposed to do in that case?  We’ll take a look in the next column.

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