Excommunication in the Roman Catholic Church: Why and How


Excommunication is a form of ecclesiastical censure that is meant to correct behavior by excluding a person from participating in the sacraments and the communal life of the Church.

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The Vatican announced the excommunication of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former ambassador of the church to the United States. He was found guilty of schism for his refusal to acknowledge the authority of Pope Francis and the liberal reforms implemented following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

Archbishop Viganò has become one of the most outspoken conservative critics of Pope Francis, publicly labeling him as a “false prophet” and a “servant of Satan.” He has also supported right-wing conspiracy theories and praised former President Donald J. Trump.

Despite his excommunication, Archbishop Viganò will retain his title but will be prohibited from celebrating Mass, receiving or administering sacraments, and holding official positions within the church’s hierarchy.

Excommunication is one of the most severe penalties that the Roman Catholic Church can impose on its members. It is a form of ecclesiastical censure that is meant to correct behavior by excluding a person from participating in the sacraments and the communal life of the Church.

The measure is not intended to be punitive but rather medicinal, aimed at bringing the individual back into the fold after sincere repentance. Excommunication has a long history in the Catholic Church, with several high-profile cases involving clergy members over the centuries.

Understanding Excommunication

Excommunication can be either automatic (latae sententiae) or imposed (ferendae sententiae). Automatic excommunication occurs as soon as a grave offense is committed, such as apostasy, heresy, or schism. Imposed excommunication, on the other hand, is declared by a Church authority after a formal process. Regardless of the type, the effect of excommunication is the same: the individual is barred from receiving the sacraments, including the Eucharist, and from participating in the liturgy in a ministerial role.

The Code of Canon Law outlines specific offenses that can lead to excommunication. These include, but are not limited to, physically attacking the Pope, consecrating a bishop without papal approval, violating the sacred species (Eucharist), and procuring an abortion. The purpose of these penalties is to underscore the seriousness of these actions and to encourage repentance and reconciliation.

Historical Cases

1. Martin Luther (1521):

   One of the most famous cases of excommunication in Church history is that of Martin Luther, the German monk whose 95 Theses sparked the Protestant Reformation. In 1521, Pope Leo X issued the papal bull “Decet Romanum Pontificem,” excommunicating Luther for his persistent criticism of the Church’s practices and doctrines, particularly the sale of indulgences.

2. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1988):

   Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), was excommunicated in 1988 by Pope John Paul II. Lefebvre consecrated four bishops without papal approval, an act considered a grave offense against the unity of the Church. The excommunication was lifted by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 in a move aimed at fostering reconciliation with the SSPX.

3. Fr. Leonardo Boff (1985):

   Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, a leading figure in the liberation theology movement, faced disciplinary actions in the 1980s for his writings, which were deemed inconsistent with Catholic doctrine. Although not formally excommunicated, Boff was silenced and eventually left the Franciscan Order. His case highlights the tension between theological innovation and Church orthodoxy.

4. Fr. Ernesto Cardenal (1985):

   Nicaraguan priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal was publicly reprimanded and suspended from priestly duties by Pope John Paul II for his involvement in the Sandinista government. While not excommunicated, his suspension underscored the Church’s position on clergy participating in political roles that conflict with Church teachings.

5. Fr. Tomislav Vlasic (2009):

   Fr. Tomislav Vlasic, a former spiritual director to the alleged visionaries of Medjugorje, was excommunicated in 2009 for disobedience, heresy, and schism. The Vatican’s actions against Vlasic were part of a broader investigation into the Medjugorje apparitions, which remain a controversial topic within the Church.

Excommunication remains a powerful tool within the Roman Catholic Church, used sparingly and to promote repentance and reconciliation.

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