PITTSBURGH — Excommunication literally means “out of the community” and signifies when someone has put himself or herself outside the religious community. Along with practices such as social shunning, it has been used by groups ranging from Orthodox Jews to Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons.
In Catholic and many other circles, excommunication is “medicinal,” or like “being sent to your room without supper,” with the hope that the punished person will repent of error and return to the fold, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter and author of books on the Catholic hierarchy. It’s not, he said, a permanent punishment akin to a spiritual “capital punishment.”
In Catholic history, the list of those who have been considered excommunicated has amounted to a who’s who — from the ancient Arius and Nestorius, whose teachings were condemned, to a medieval Orthodox patriarch during the definitive 11th century split between Eastern and Western churches to such Protestant Reformation figures as Jan Hus, Martin Luther, and Henry VIII.
But the common use and sometimes abuse of this authority has led to church legal reforms that have limited its application in modern times.
Still, the practice does continue. In the 1980s, for example, the Vatican has said clerics led by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who rejected the edicts of the Second Vatican Council, had excommunicated themselves, although some were later restored.
The American activist priest Roy Bourgeois, who participated in a Kentucky ordination ceremony for a woman, was told by the Vatican that if he didn’t repent, his actions would automatically incur excommunication.
If an excommunicated person dies without being reconciled, his or her eternal salvation or damnation is considered “up to God,” Father Reese said.
— Peter Smith