My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
"Excommunication" is one of the most highly-charged and feared words connected with the Catholic faith. It is also one of the most misunderstood. Many people incorrectly believe that a person who has been excommunicated has been "kicked out" of the Catholic Church. They may also think that this is a permanent and irreversible punishment. The penalty may be viewed as harsh, lacking in charity, even un-Christian.
In his book, Excommunication and the Catholic Church, Dr. Edward Peters sets the record straight and answers a variety of questions about the ecclesiastical sanction known as "excommunication." He points out that "excommunication literally means 'out of full communion' with the Catholic Church. Because excommunication can be imposed only on a Catholic, excommunication deprives one of the fullness of the communion that he or she previously enjoyed ... . Excommunication does not mean that one is no longer a Christian (because Christian baptism imprints an indelible character on the soul) or no longer a Catholic... . Catholics who are in full communion with the Church are striving to live according to the teachings of Christ and to follow His will in all things."
Excommunication is a type of sanction known as a censure, in contrast to expiatory penalties. Expiatory penalties punish the offender for a prescribed time or an indefinite time and seek to remedy the damage or injustice done to societal values by the offense and to deter others from engaging in similar wrongdoing. In contrast, censures are considered to be "medicinal penalties," which means that they seek to persuade the offender to cease the wrongful behavior and reintegrate the person into the life of the ecclesial community. As such, censures are lifted when the offender ceases from engaging in the wrongful behavior and makes suitable reparation for damages, if necessary.
Properly understood in this way as a medicinal penalty, excommunication certainly does not expel the person from the Catholic Church, but simply forbids the excommunicated person from engaging in certain activities in the life of the church until the offender reforms and ceases from the offense. Once this happens, the person is to be restored to the fullness of participation in the life of the church. Although the remission of the censure pertains to the competent authority to determine whether the person has actually ceased from the offense, in a sense the offender holds in his or her own hand the key to the release from the censure. If the wrongful behavior ceases and any necessary reparation or restitution is made, the excommunication will be lifted; if not, it continues.
Thus, some people may be excommunicated for only a short time. For others, the excommunication may never be lifted if they do not repent and change their ways. Church history over the past two millennia provides many examples of both, some of them described in the book by Dr. Peters. For example, King Henry VIII was excommunicated for defying the pope and declaring himself to be head of the Church of England. Henry VIII never repented and hence died excommunicated. In contrast, the racist segregationist Leander Perez was excommunicated by New Orleans Archbishop Joseph Rummel in 1962, but since Perez repented before his death in 1969, he died as a Catholic in good standing with the church. This is the outcome that the church seeks and fervently desires.
Dr. Peters concludes that "the primary purpose behind excommunication is the personal reform of the offender. When excommunication works, it honors all these ends and accomplishes all these goals. When it does not work, it is probably the result of the individual's hardening of the heart against the grace of conversion that, more than anything else, the Church wishes to accomplish."
Seen in this way, a censure such as excommunication is not at all vindictive, but may be seen as a sort of "tough love," just as loving parents discipline their children to teach them the difference between right and wrong. In fact, it would be most unloving to allow people to persist in their wrongdoing without pointing out the fault. Jesus spoke about fraternal correction (Matthew 18:15-17) and St. Paul wrote that "love is the fulfillment of the law" (Romans 13:10). My own Episcopal motto reflects this: Lex Cordis Caritas, that is, the Law of the Heart is Love.
The ultimate aim of canon law is the "salvation of souls." In this context, excommunication is rightly understood as a loving remedy provided by the church for those who have strayed from the truth, so that all the Christian faithful may be formed into the one holy, Catholic and apostolic church as the loving Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:22-33).
May God give us this grace. Amen.