Are We Under Interdict? Sanctions, Part V

Q:  Are we under interdict, and if so what kind?

This website taught me everything I know about interdicts.  They way I read the article, here in [my diocese] we are under particular local interdict: Public liturgy cancelled, throughout the whole diocese, for an indefinite time.

It also seems to canonically ignorant me that the bishops of [two other dioceses in my country] not only imposed the same particular interdict on all the faithful, but further imposed general personal interdicts on every priest under their jurisdiction.  In [the first diocese], for example, priests are forbidden to hear confessions and there is no exception for emergencies. In [the second diocese], priests are forbidden from administering any sacraments with the exception of emergencies.

Also, the bans have the character of both censures and punishments, although they neither allege grave crimes nor demand reparations. What gives? –David

A:  Throughout history, interdicts have been imposed in the Church as penalties for commission of a crime.  Nowadays, however, you rarely hear about Catholics being interdicted—and there’s a good reason for that, which we’ll get to in a moment.

In the current (1983) Code of Canon Law, the definition of an interdict is found in the section dealing with sanctions.  Interdiction is included in the category of sanctions known as censures, together with excommunication and suspension.  As we saw in “Am I Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part I,” the overall purpose of censures can be inferred from this category’s alternate title, that of medicinal penalties.  These sanctions are imposed with the intention that they serve as a sort of “wake-up call” to the offender.  Like excommunication, interdiction 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.

What happens to you if you’re put under interdict?  Canon 1332 defines an interdict in a sort of back-door way, by comparing it to excommunication (c. 1331) and then noting the differences.  But in general, a Catholic who is interdicted cannot
(1) Have any ministerial role in the celebration of the Mass or any other ceremonies of public worship (c. 1331.1 n. 1);
(2) Celebrate the sacraments or sacramentals [blessings, for example], and receive the sacraments (n. 2).

Note that much of the above applies only to priests.  If a lay Catholic is under interdict, 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 repents of his crime and the interdict is lifted.

That sounds an awful lot like excommunication!  So what’s the difference?  An excommunicated person cannot do these things either, but if you’re under excommunication there’s even more to it: you cannot exercise any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, functions, or acts of governance.  In contrast, a person who is under interdict can still do these things.

If you’re an ordinary Catholic layperson, odds are relatively low that you would be exercising ecclesiastical offices or ministries anyway—so for all practical purposes, in your case excommunication and interdict would amount to much the same thing.  (The concept of an ecclesiastical office was discussed in greater detail in “Who’s in Charge of the Parish, When There’s No Parish Priest?”)  If you’re a cleric, or a member of a religious institute, or are employed by the Church in some official capacity which constitutes an ecclesiastical office, being interdicted wouldn’t stop you from exercising your ordinary governing authority in that office, although sacramentally you’d be out in the cold.

The code lists several specific offenses (known as delicts) that are punishable by interdiction.  Canon 1378.2, for example, tells us that the penalty is incurred by a person who is not an ordained priest, but who nevertheless attempts to celebrate Mass (see “How Can a Priest’s Ministry Be Illicit?” for more on this canon).  Another example is found in canon 1380, which states that a person is to be punished by an interdict if he either celebrates or receives a sacrament through simony.  Broadly defined, simony involves doing spiritual things in exchange for money; so in this case, it would refer to the cleric who administers a sacrament for financial gain, as well as the person who pays that money in order to obtain the sacrament.

There are other delicts listed in the code that are punishable by interdict (e.g., cc. 1390 and 1394.2); and in many other cases where the penalty for a crime is not delineated in the code (cf. c. 1396, for instance), authorities could in theory impose an interdict as a punishment—but that’s not the point here.  Of interest to us Catholics today, in those parts of the world where bishops have illegally violated our rights by cancelling public celebration of Masses (see “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?” and “Can Priests Cancel Public Masses, and Say a Private Mass Instead?” for more on this) and in some cases have also forbidden the clergy to administer some or even all of the sacraments, is the fact that an interdict is a sanction—and you can only be sanctioned for commission of a crime.

As we’ve already seen in the two articles just mentioned, what these bishops have done is a simply indescribable violation of the rights of the Catholic faithful.  But you can also look at it another way, if you like: if you’re a lay Catholic living in a diocese whose bishop has barred you from attending Mass (and maybe even receiving the sacraments), or if you’re a priest assigned to parish ministry and your bishop has barred you from administering the sacraments to the faithful … know that this action technically constitutes punishment for a delict. And in order to impose such a penalty on you, your bishop must first have informed you that you incurred this penalty, and given you the opportunity to repent of whatever crime you had committed, before the penalty could be imposed (cc. 1341 and 1347).

Did your bishop do that?  Of course we all know the answer already.  The fact is, Catholics in these dioceses didn’t commit any crimes, and nobody is even suggesting that they committed any crimes.  Therefore these Catholics can’t be sanctioned.  And since these Catholics are being punished by their diocesan bishops without cause, this is an illegal action.

This was exactly the same finding in the two previous articles cited above: diocesan bishops are blatantly breaking multiple church laws by violating your rights.  What these bishops are doing is totally illegal.  It’s worth observing that from whichever legal direction you approach this issue, you invariably reach the same conclusion.

But on top of the obvious, there’s another reason why entire dioceses cannot be said to be under interdict.  Under current law, the notion of a “local interdict” is nonexistent.

David is citing information contained in a 1910 article from the Catholic Encyclopedia—and as we saw in “Are Catholics Supposed to Avoid Contact With Excommunicated Persons?” that edition of the Encyclopedia contains numerous historical and biographical articles which are veritable masterpieces of writing and research, which is why they are still cited to this very day.  But given its age, the Encyclopedia’s entries on any issue pertaining to current canon law are hopelessly out of date.  The article on interdicts is a case in point.

What clearly prompted David to raise this question in the first place was his knowledge of history.  In generations past, the penalty of interdiction was sometimes imposed on an entire territory, affecting every Catholic who happened to reside there.  For example, a prince who dared to defy the Pope might find that his entire realm was placed under interdict.  The same was true of a rebellious bishop, whose actions could potentially induce the Pope to interdict his whole diocese.  This is why the penalty of interdiction used to be more commonly known than it is today.

If you’re thinking that it’s unjust to penalize an entire group of Catholics when only one has committed a delict, you’re right.  Back then, the presumed motivation for political/ecclesiastical leaders not to violate church laws was their sense of responsibility for the people under their jurisdiction.  It was expected that clergy and kings alike would want to avoid causing such suffering to the innocent people living in their territory—both for ethical reasons, and also for motives of political expediency.  No prudent leader would want all the people whom he governs to be furious with him, for having brought this spiritual catastrophe upon them!


The Interdicted Church, Johann Arthur Severin Nikutowski, 1879

Artists have occasionally depicted poignant scenes of interdicted regions, usually showing that churches are locked and funerals may not be held (sound familiar?), so coffins containing deceased locals sit abandoned in the church yard, awaiting a proper Christian burial after the lifting of the sanction.  The basic injustice of this situation led to the abolishment of local interdicts in the current code.

In the previous (1917) Code of Canon Law, you’ll find (in the former cc. 2268-2270) a headache-inducing explanation of all the categories and conditions of the various types of interdicts that existed up until the promulgation of the current code in 1983.  David references some of them, which involved distinctions between personal and local interdicts, as well as between general and particular ones, and then forming combinations of these two categories.  Since most of it has been completely done away with, it generally doesn’t get much attention today; but since David has prompted us to compare the Church’s former system of interdiction with the current situation in so many dioceses, there are two aspects in particular that are worth noting.

Firstly, under previous law, it was indeed possible to interdict an entire diocese.  But as per the former canon 2269.1, this sort of diocesan-wide interdict could only be imposed by the Apostolic See.  A diocesan bishop had no authorization whatsoever to impose such a penalty on his own diocese.  Such an action was (and is) not only illegal, it is legally unthinkable.

There seem to be far too many Catholic priests and laypeople who fail to appreciate the utterly breathtaking illegality of what these bishops have done to the people entrusted to their care!  The fact is, even if every single Catholic in a given diocese had committed crimes that merited interdiction, and even if this took place before the 1983 code came into effect, when local interdicts were still legally possible … a diocesan bishop still had no authority to impose such a penalty on them.

That would be bad enough–but it actually gets worse.  Under the former canon 2270, there were a couple of important exceptions, permitting Catholics who were under a local interdict to receive the sacraments on particular occasions:
(1) If they were dying (former c. 2270.1); or
(2) On the feasts of Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Corpus Christi and the Assumption (former c. 2270.2).

But in many of those dioceses where bishops have prohibited the faithful from attending Mass and receiving the sacraments, even the dying are prevented from making their confession and receiving Viaticum and/or the Anointing of the Sick.  And as for Easter, the most important day of the Catholic liturgical year … well, everybody knows that no such exception was made.  This means that in generations past, when Catholics committed crimes punishable by interdict, they were treated better than innocent Catholics are being treated by many of their bishops today.  The legal implications are positively staggering.

So to answer David’s question: no Catholic who is currently suffering, because his bishop has illegally deprived him of his rights to Mass and the sacraments, is suffering because he is under an interdict of any kind.  David is, like so many bewildered Catholics out there, trying vainly to make logical sense of what is in fact sheer madness.

As was discussed in detail in “Can We be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?” as well as in the abovementioned “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?” the Catholic Church has long taught that an unjust law is not to be followed.  Let’s continue to pray that our clergy demonstrate some backbone, and recognize that if their bishops are ordering them to violate the law, the order must be disregarded.  Catholics who are not under sanction have the right to attend Mass and receive the sacraments, and it is the duty (and the right) of the clergy to provide them.


The Interdict, Jean-Paul Laurens, 1875

This is Part V in an occasional series on the topic of Sanctions.  Previous articles on the same subject can be read here:
Am I Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part I
Is She Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part II
Are They Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part III
Are They Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part IV


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