Q: A man at our parish took the Eucharist home and [desecrated It], and now refuses to hand the Host over to the priest or even admit that what he did is wrong. We know that our clergy are actively involved, they have informed him that this is an excommunicable crime … we parishioners are praying for a positive resolution.
We don’t want to pester our priest with questions. We know his discussions with the man are private, but we are just curious about the law. Could you explain what, procedurally, the man and/or our priest will need to do to get the excommunication formally removed? … Does the excommunication automatically disappear once he repents and returns the Host, or is there more to it? –Meredith
A: In “How Does an Excommunicated Catholic Have the Sanction Lifted? (Part I),” we saw that the procedure to have a sanction like excommunication remitted, so that a Catholic can return to full communion with the Church, is not always the same because it depends on several different factors. We looked at all of the possible scenarios except one: crimes involving sanctions which are reserved to the Apostolic See. Let’s first look at this category of sanctions and then we’ll be able to address Meredith’s specific question, since it is directly related.
In “Excommunication and Bad-Mouthing the Pope,” you’ll find a list of the seven excommunicable offenses which are reserved to the Holy See. Five of them are listed right in the Code of Canon Law; the other two were added later, in separate documents after the promulgation of the code in 1983. The phrase “reserved to the Apostolic See” pertains not to the way that the penalty is incurred, but to the way it is lifted when the sanctioned person repents.
Most sanctions like excommunication are not reserved to the Apostolic See. Speaking broadly, the diocesan bishop can ordinarily remit them as per canon 1355, as was discussed at length in Part I. In some circumstances, as we saw in Part I, any bishop can lift a sanction in the confessional (c. 1355.2). We also saw that in certain cases an excommunication can be lifted by a priest in the course of a confession, provided that the penitent agrees to make recourse to the bishop within one month (c. 1357.2). The priest-confessor can even contact the bishop himself, and ask for the lifting of the excommunication without identifying the penitent by name—and the priest can arrange to meet again with the penitent at some point in the near future so that the confessor can relay the bishop’s response.
But none of these procedural possibilities is an option, if the sanction is reserved to the Holy See. The point of reserving certain delicts to the Holy See is to show the true gravity of the crime involved—and it also ensures that Rome knows when/where/who committed it and now repents of it. That’s because in these cases, your diocesan bishop cannot remit the excommunication in accord with canon 1355, as noted above. The excommunicated Catholic is expected to petition the Vatican for the lifting of the sanction, and the appropriate Vatican official does so formally, and in writing.
As was mentioned in Part I, there are plenty of Catholics out there who don’t know how to get in touch with their own diocesan bishop—so how would they possibly understand how to go about contacting the Vatican to ask for their excommunication to be lifted? On the surface it sounds like a surefire way to keep them from ever getting their sanction remitted, doesn’t it? Fortunately, the same canon 1357 which was addressed in Part I is also applicable to sanctions reserved to the Apostolic See. An excommunicated Catholic who committed a delict that is reserved to the Holy See, and who now expresses contrition for his crime and wants to have his sanction lifted, can go to confession to any confessor, and the priest can remit the penalty right there in the confessional, on the spot—but once again, this is provided that the penitent agrees to petition Rome to have the sanction lifted. And once again, the confessor himself can help the person to do this, contacting Rome on the penitent’s behalf if the penitent wishes, and explaining that the penitent has demonstrated that he regrets commission of the excommunicable offense and wants to return to full communion with the Church. Naturally it will be necessary to wait some time before the response arrives in the mail; but as was just noted, the excommunicated Catholic has already had the sanction lifted in the course of his confession.
It could be argued that this procedure is actually pretty simple for the Catholic who incurred the excommunication (in fact, it may be a greater headache for the priest-confessor, who usually has to contact the chancery in order to figure out how to contact Rome on his behalf!). But in recent years it has become even easier, thanks to the 1000 Missionaries of Mercy who were commissioned by Pope Francis in 2016, during the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Briefly put, these priests from around the world were given faculties to remit almost all of the sanctions which are reserved to the Holy See (see “Excommunication and Bad-Mouthing the Pope” for more on this). They can, therefore, lift an excommunication that is reserved to the Holy See on the spot—and because of their special commission from the Pope, there is no need to contact Rome at all. Because they are engaged in ministry in many different countries, if you want a penalty reserved to the Holy See to be lifted, it can often be far less cumbersome to find a priest who is a Missionary of Mercy, than to petition the Vatican.
Originally, the commission which Pope Francis gave to the Missionaries of Mercy was to last only until the end of the Jubilee Year. But on November 20, 2016, the very last day of the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter called Misericordia et Misera, in which he extended their faculties indefinitely:
I thank every Missionary of Mercy for this valuable service aimed at rendering effective the grace of forgiveness. This extraordinary ministry does not end with the closing of the Holy Door. I wish it to continue until further notice as a concrete sign that the grace of the Jubilee remains alive and effective the world over. (9)
With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at the tragic situation in Meredith’s parish. Meredith provided more details which are not included here, but in short, a fellow-parishioner has deliberately desecrated the Holy Eucharist. Worse, he still has the desecrated Host in his possession, and refuses to give It to the priest of the parish. He is insisting that he has done nothing objectionable, which obviously means he is not sorry for what he did. The clergy of the parish have explained to him at length why this is gravely wrong and constitutes a crime punishable by excommunication—as per canon 1367, which also indicates that this crime is reserved to the Apostolic See—but the man is unmoved.
The priests of the parish have two problems on their hands here: on the one hand, they naturally want this parishioner to admit that what he’s done is wrong, and to express some sort of remorse. At the same time, of course, they want him to give the Host back to them! There is, consequently, some sort of ongoing discussion between the man and the clergy of the parish; and it may be that plain old pride is preventing the man from honestly acknowledging that what he did was wrong, and he shouldn’t have done it. It is thus laudable that the parishioners are praying that this difficult situation will be resolved soon—and it would be great if we all joined them in praying for this.
Since the man did this deliberately and freely (i.e., it wasn’t accidental and he wasn’t forced against his will), and the parish clergy have explained to him that a Catholic is excommunicated for committing this crime (so he can’t claim ignorance of the law), it seems that he has met all the conditions of canon 1323 and thus has indeed incurred excommunication. Since this delict is reserved to the Apostolic See, what will have to happen before this man can be restored to full communion with the Church, once he finally regains his senses and expresses remorse for his crime?
We already know that the excommunication will not “automatically disappear once he repents and returns the Host,” as Meredith puts it. It will have to be lifted by someone with authority to do that. As we’ve seen above, if the man gives the consecrated Host to the parish priest, and then enters the confessional and expresses sincere contrition for his past action, the confessor can remit the sanction right then and there, with the stipulation that the man must take steps to contact the Vatican and request that the excommunication be lifted. Since it’s highly likely that the man doesn’t know how to go about doing this, he can have the priest-confessor contact the Vatican for him and make the request on his behalf.
Alternately, if there happens to be a priest who is a Missionary of Mercy in the vicinity, this man can ask him to hear his confession. The Missionary of Mercy then can not only grant him absolution, but also remit the excommunication—and there will be no need to contact the Vatican.
Now Meredith has the answer to her question, and we have finally covered all the ordinary bases when it comes to remitting the sanction of excommunication. But there is one extraordinary and all-important scenario which trumps nearly everything we’ve seen on this subject, both here and in Part I: danger of death. If an excommunicated Catholic is dying, and there’s no time to be contacting anybody to have the sanction officially lifted, what can you do?
When a Catholic is on his deathbed, the Church does everything in her power to ensure that he has whatever he spiritually needs to die in the grace of God. Unchanging Catholic moral teachings can’t be ignored, of course, but procedural rules often can. Sometimes, therefore, the Church’s legal niceties go right out the window, so the dying Catholic can concentrate on preparing to meet Almighty God. After all, the main focus of someone about to enter eternity shouldn’t have to be on canonical technicalities!
That’s why canon 1352.1 tells us that if a person is under a sanction like excommunication and thus shouldn’t be receiving the sacraments, this prohibition is waived if he is in danger of death. Furthermore, even if the excommunication is reserved to the Apostolic See, in danger of death it can be lifted by any priest at all who hears the dying Catholic’s confession (c. 976): in this specific case, the priest doesn’t even need to have confessional faculties (something which normally is required, as was discussed in “Can All Priests Always Hear Confessions?”)! In fact, a priest can and should lift the excommunication of a dying Catholic even though the priest has been laicized (see “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?” for more on this), or even if the priest himself is under sanction and forbidden to celebrate the sacraments (cf. c. 1335). The needs of a dying Catholic are paramount, and the procedural canons on how to go about lifting a sanction take a back-seat.
That said, what happens if an excommunicated Catholic genuinely seemed to be dying, and a priest remitted the excommunication on-the-spot … and then the dying person got better? Canon 1357.3 tells us that if the person recovers, he must make recourse—or ask the confessor’s help in doing this, as discussed above—and request that the appropriate authority remit the sanction. This is true, regardless of whether the sanction is reserved to the Holy See or not.
The Church’s willingness to throw its procedural requirements completely to the winds, in the case of a Catholic dying under excommunication, should serve as proof that it is never the Church’s goal to use sanctions to drive people away. The whole point of a sanction like excommunication is to tell a Catholic that by his actions, he has taken himself outside of the Church—and the Church wants him to come back! Just as a loving parent may discipline his children for their own good, the Catholic Church seeks only our spiritual wellbeing, even if/when it punishes us. There are, as we’ve seen here, specific procedures to remit these punishments; and the Church wants us to use them, which is why it makes these procedures as flexible as can possibly be.