Strong Medicine

Canon Law and Excommunication

Pete Vere

"I wish I could come back to the Catholic Church," the woman said, wiping tears from her eyes, "but I know I’m excommunicated and the Church cannot forgive me."

She had been born and raised in a nominally Catholic family, but fell away as a teenager. She then became involved with an older man of dubious character. By the age of 17 she found herself alone, pregnant, and brokenhearted. Succumbing to pressure from friends and family, she procured an abortion.

In the years that followed, she had felt tremendous guilt. She now wanted to make peace with the Lord, but two misunderstandings prevented her from resuming the practice of the Catholic faith: God cannot forgive me for aborting my child and I am excommunicated.

The first misunderstanding was theological. There’s no sin God cannot forgive, and there’s no sin he will not forgive if one confesses one’s sins with contrition and receives sacramental absolution.

The second misunderstanding concerned a potential excommunication, which takes us into the realm of canon law. The situation may at first seem cut-and-dried. Canon 1398 states: "A person who actually procures an abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication." We will define the terms "excommunication" and " latae sententiae " momentarily, but for now it suffices to know that even most non-Catholics recognize excommunication as the Church’s highest penalty—one that cuts off the individual from the sacraments and from many other practices of the Catholic faith.

Granted, the woman had free will and is not without sin—some quite serious—but this penalty seems rather harsh when applied to a frightened teenager who acted under undue pressure from friends and family rather than out of malice. We will return to her situation near the end of this article.

Medicine for the Soul

First, we will look at how the Church understands excommunication. To begin, excommunication is one of three types of censure (the other two are suspension and interdict).

Censures are otherwise known as medicinal penalties. Their purpose is not to punish an individual for violating the law. The purpose is to act as medicine for the soul that will bring about repentance, so that the person can return to full communion with the Church.

Excommunication is the most serious of the three censures. Canon 1331 prohibits an excommunicated person from sharing in any ministerial function in the liturgy, including receiving or celebrating the sacraments and sacramentals and exercising any ecclesiastical office, ministry, function, or act of governance within the Church.

Not all excommunications are publicly known. For example, I once assisted in an investigation of a priest who desecrated the Blessed Sacrament in the privacy of his rectory. The priest being investigated had automatically incurred an excommunication; however, it took years before anyone knew about it because he had carried out the action in secret. Until the offense came to the bishop’s attention several years later, only the priest knew of his excommunication.

An excommunication may be made public in one of two ways. If the excommunication is ferendae sententiae, it is imposed by an ecclesiastical judge. Latae sententiae (automatic) excommunications, on the other hand, are made public when a competent Church superior declares them. For example, the Holy See publicly declared Archbishop Lefebvre excommunicated within days of his consecrating bishops without a papal mandate.

If a competent ecclesiastical authority imposes or declares the excommunication, then the offender is removed from all liturgical functions; invalidly exercises any governing authority he previously possessed within the Church; cannot benefit from any privileges previously received within the Church; forfeits his ecclesiastical office, position, and pension; and cannot assume any other position or function within the Church. For example, an excommunicated priest cannot hear confessions outside of a state of emergency, and an excommunicated canon lawyer cannot serve as a judge on a Church tribunal.

Multiply Favors; Restrict Burdens

Interdict and suspension are lesser censures. They often precede excommunication when attempting to resolve a difficult situation. For example, years before he was excommunicated for consecrating bishops without papal mandate, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s priestly faculties had been suspended by the Holy See. Interdict and suspension are also medicinal penalties in that their purpose is to encourage the offender to repent.

Canon 1332 outlines the censure of interdict. Those who labor under this penalty are prohibited from exercising any ministerial role in the celebration of the Eucharist and other acts of public worship. They may not celebrate or receive the sacraments or sacramentals. Moreover, if the interdict has been imposed or declared, the offender is removed from any ministerial role in the celebration of public liturgy. This includes the sacraments and the Liturgy of the Hours. An interdict, like excommunication, can be imposed upon laity, religious, and clergy.

In contrast, a suspension can only be imposed upon clergy. A suspension can suspend all of a cleric’s rights or powers within the Church, or only some. Thus a suspension can be particular to the cleric based upon his offense. For example, a priest who swears in public might be suspended from celebrating the sacraments, but not from quietly judging marriage annulment petitions in the solitude of his office at the diocesan tribunal.

A censure’s prohibition against celebrating the sacraments is not to be enforced when a cleric encounters a Catholic in danger of death. This applies regardless of whether a cleric is laboring under suspension, interdict, or excommunication. The law’s intention is to punish the wayward cleric, not the individual Catholic who requires the sacraments in an emergency.

This brings us to the topic of broad versus restrictive interpretation. A broad interpretation of a canon is one that attempts to apply the law to as many cases as reasonably possible, whereas a restrictive interpretation attempts to restrict the application of a canon to as few cases as possible. An ancient canonical principle advises that favors are to be multiplied and burdens restricted.

Canon 18 reiterates that in the interpretation of individual canons, "Laws which prescribe a penalty . . . are to be interpreted restrictively." Excommunication is the Church’s highest penalty; therefore, it should only be applied with extreme caution. Canon 18 requires that excommunication be restricted to those cases only where a strict reading of the law warrants it.

Excusing and Diminishing Causes

Canons 1321 to 1324 establish liability for a canonical penalty. For example, canon 1322 treats those who normally lack the use of reason, such as infants or the mentally insane, as incapable of breaking the law. This is the case even when an individual appears sane while carrying out the act. The Church presumes such folks are not capable of forming the intention of acting out of malice; therefore, they are incapable of being excommunicated.

Canon 1323 list several circumstances in which one is not liable to a penalty when acting contrary to the law. These circumstances apply to individuals who, although they committed an infraction:

  • were under 16 years of age,
  • were ignorant of violating the law through no fault of their own,
  • were physically forced to carry out the action in question,
  • acted under grave fear of something more terrible happening, provided that the action is not intrinsically evil or harmful to souls,
  • acted in self-defense or defense of someone else against an unjust assailant, provided that the person only used that force deemed necessary in self-defense,
  • lacked the use of reason,
  • through no fault of their own, mistook a situation for one involving a grave necessity or the need for defense against an unjust aggressor.

Similarly, the first paragraph of canon 1324 lists several circumstances in which a penalty must be diminished, or a lesser penance substituted, for someone who violates the law. In other words, the law gives the offender some leeway without completely letting him off the hook. These circumstances apply to individuals who:

  • only had the imperfect use of reason,
  • lacked the use of reason because of drunkenness or other culpable actions that reduced their mental state,
  • acted in a moment of passion without time to think carefully through their actions,
  • were 16 or 17 years old at the time of the offense,
  • acted under grave fear, if the act is intrinsically evil or harmful to souls,
  • acted out of self-defense, but went beyond what was reasonably necessary to stop the aggressor,
  • acted in response to someone who was being seriously and unnecessarily provocative,
  • negligently mistook a situation for one involving a grave necessity or the need for defense against an unjust aggressor,
  • through no fault of their own were ignorant of a penalty attached to the law,
  • acted with only partial imputability in a very serious matter.

 Young Offenders

Returning now to the 17-year-old girl who procured an abortion, the most obvious diminishing factor is that of age. When Pope John Paul II promulgated the Code of Canon Law, he did not feel that a minor should be subjected to severe canonical penalties. Thus he legislated canon 1324, which prohibits those between the ages of 16 and 18 from being subject to the penalty of excommunication. This canon nevertheless permits a lesser penalty. Canon 1324 applies even in the case of abortion because as a penalty, excommunication is to be restricted in its application.

Canon 1329 specifies that accomplices are also bound to the same or lesser penalties for an offense. This includes latae sententiae penalties like excommunication when the crime could not be accomplished without their help. For example, I once advised a religious superior in a case where a Catholic schoolteacher drove a pregnant student across state lines to an abortion clinic. While the student avoided the latae sententiae excommunication by virtue of being a minor, the teacher automatically incurred the penalty as an accomplice because he made the abortion possible—it would not have happened without his help.

What Incurs Excommunication?

Not all offenses are worthy of excommunication in the Church’s eyes. This is similar to the civil law where penalties are dispensed according to the severity of the crime. For example, life in prison might be a just penalty for a cold-blooded murder, but it would be unjust for theft of a bicycle. Similarly, consecrating bishops without papal mandate is a much more serious offense under canon law than the theft of a candle from the sacristy.

Excommunicable offenses begin with canon 1364. Those who embrace schism, heresy, or apostasy incur automatic excommunication. Schism, heresy, and apostasy are offenses against the Catholic faith and the unity of the Church. The schismatic refuses subjection to the Roman Pontiff, or to maintain communion with those subject to the Holy Father; the heretic, despite having been baptized into the faith, obstinately denies a well-defined Christian truth; and the apostate totally renounces Christ and the Christian faith. The canon permits the competent ecclesiastical authority to add other penalties, including dismissal from the clerical state, when the offense is committed by a deacon, priest, or bishop.

A more serious excommunication arises automatically when an individual commits a sacrilege against the Blessed Sacrament—either by throwing away the Sacred Species, or by desecrating them. This automatic excommunication is reserved to the Holy See, meaning that only the Holy See can remove it (canon 1367). The canon allows for additional penalties, including reduction to the lay state, when the offender is a cleric.

Canon 1370 imposes an automatic excommunication upon any individual who physically attacks the Holy Father. Other penalties may be added if the offender is a cleric. If the victim is a bishop, then the canon imposes an automatic interdict, as well as a suspension if the offender is another cleric. Of course, there’s an unwritten exception to this law when bishops, priests, and seminarians square off in a game of football.

Canon 1378 automatically excommunicates a priest who absolves, through the sacrament of confession, his partner in a sexual sin. This excommunication is also reserved to the Holy See. The purpose of this canon is clear: It helps prevent a priest from abusing his priesthood by immediately absolving his partner after engaging in illicit sexual relations. This is among the more serious crimes a priest can commit, and it is taken most seriously when the priest also uses the confessional to lure his partner into illicit sexual relations (canon 1387). In fact, the Code of Canon Law demands dismissal from the clerical state in the most serious cases.

One of the most serious crimes, as we have seen already, is the consecration of a bishop without a papal mandate. This is because bishops enjoy the fullness of the priesthood, which allows them to ordain and consecrate more clergy. Thus an illicitly ordained bishop can easily consecrate more illicit bishops, who in turn can do the same ad infinitum. Thus canon 1382 automatically excommunicates both the bishop who presides over the unlawful consecration and the bishop who receives unlawful consecration. Because of the gravity of the offense, this latae sententiae excommunication can only be lifted by the Holy See. The most recent example of its being lifted is in the Diocese of Campos, Brazil, where SSPX-consecrated Bishop Licinio Rangel reconciled with the Holy See and became head of the Apostolic Administration of St. John Marie Vianney.

Canon 1388 severely punishes a priest who violates the seal of confession. If the violation is direct—that is, the priest reveals to a third party the contents of a penitent’s confession—then the penalty is automatic excommunication reserved to the Holy See. The canon also punishes interpreters and translators who violate the seal of confession. Christ’s faithful approach the sacrament of confession to share their sins and to receive Christ’s forgiveness. Their confidence in the secrecy of this sacrament must be absolute. Finally, as already noted, canon 1398 imposes an automatic excommunication upon those who successfully procure an abortion, provided no diminishing causes are present. This should not surprise any Catholic: Abortion is one of the most serious offenses against human life. The act is intrinsically evil and the child in the womb is among the most defenseless of human life.

Excommunication is a word that is often bandied about by Catholics, non-Catholics, and the media. However, when properly understood within the context of canon law, it is a penalty that the Church only applies in the rarest of cases, as a last resort, and for the purpose of helping to bring about the offender’s repentance.


Pete Vere is a husband, father, canon lawyer and Catholic journalist. He and his wife Sonya live in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada with their three young children. He obtained his licentiate in canon law from Saint Paul University, a pontifical university in Ottawa, Canada. He is...

This article appeared in Volume 18 Number 9.