The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

Excommunication: 'Being set apart'

Published: October 6, 2007   

Excommunication is a familiar term to many Catholics, but most don't know what it means, how it is applied and what sins someone could commit to incur the penalty.

Excommunication is the most serious "censure" the Church can impose on members. Canon law doesn't define excommunication, but lists the reasons it would be used and its ramifications.

"It's a medicinal remedy to bring people back into full communion with the Church," said Deacon Bo McAllister, a canon lawyer and chancellor for canonical affairs.

Excommunication means the person is no longer in total union with the Church.

"You are being set apart," he said.

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  • Among the reasons someone could be excommunicated include heresy, schism or apostasy. The sisters in Hot Springs were excommunicated for heresy for "stubbornly refusing to accept a doctrine of the Church, McAllister said.

    According to canon law, schism is the "refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him." Apostasy is "the total repudiation of the Christian faith," according to Church law.

    McAllister said most Catholics incorrectly believe "excommunication means a person is kicked out of the Church."

    Even if a person is removed from full communion with the Church, the person is still Catholic, said Msgr. J. Gaston Hebert, diocesan administrator.

    "Once a Catholic, you are always a Catholic," by virtue of his or her baptism, he said.

    Someone who is excommunicated:

  • Can still attend Mass and participate in parish activities.

  • Cannot celebrate the sacraments or receive Communion and other sacraments. An excommunicated person can receive sacraments if they are "in danger of death."

  • Cannot "participate in the liturgy in a ministerial capacity," such as lector, or teach religious education.

    "For Catholics, Communion is a public witness to a shared unity," said Father Erik Pohlmeier of Hot Springs. "When you receive Communion it is a sign that I am in union with the believers."

    He said, therefore, is would not be correct for the Hot Springs nuns to receive the Eucharist anymore, but he hopes they will attend Mass.

    He said the parishes are in contact with people who are in "partial communion" on a regular basis. A Christian seeking to join the Catholic Church can attend Mass and participate in church activities, but until they make a profession of faith they cannot receive the Eucharist.

    To return to full communion with the Church, an excommunicated person would have to complete the conditions laid down by the one who imposed the censure. It normally would include rejecting the false teachings, making a profession of the Creed and going to confession. A bishop or priest with proper delegation to do so could then lift the excommunication.

    After news broke Sept. 26 of the excommunication in Hot Springs, Arkansas Catholic received more than 20 e-mail messages from Web site visitors, many inquiring about the possible excommunication of priests and legislators who commit serious sins.

    McAllister said some of these people could have been excommunicated, but not in a public declaration like what happened in Hot Springs.

    "But in any case, if the individual is willing to repent and confess their sins, they can be returned to full communion with the Church again," he said.

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