The Impact of Excommunication in the 21st Century (Part I) – Spiritual Redemption or Hegemonic Power by Michele Stopera Freyhauf


The Lord loves everyone and died for everyone, and He wants all to be saved…the best lesson that can be learned from everything that has happened is that one finds happiness, joy and satisfaction in obedience to the Church.”Bishop Bruskewitz

One of the most misunderstood concepts in the Catholic Church is excommunication.  Many believe that excommunication is a complete termination or separation from the Catholic Church.  To say this another way, if excommunicated, you are no longer Catholic or part (a member) of the Catholic Church.  None of these statements are true.  By baptism, you are a member of the Catholic Church and no one can take that away.

Much of the misunderstanding stems from the way excommunication was used in the Middle Ages; a means of coercion to control kings and other high ranking officials.  Obedience to the Church meant that you will spend eternal life in heaven.  Disobedience to the Church meant a complete separation from the Church; a ban against  receiving Eucharist, a banishment of your soul to the eternal flames of hell.  Excommunication was the highest form of punishment and the most meaningful (and effective) tools of control.  When a person was excommunicated, there was even a public ceremony –  a bell tolled for the excommunicant, as a bell that would chime for the dead, the Gospels were closed, and a (baptismal) candle would be extinguished.  This ceremony signified eternal darkness and death.

We live in very different times, but the stigma and fear of punishment still exists – or does it?  To answer that question, I will first explore excommunication at the most basic level.  In part one of this essay, I will explore three different cases of excommunication and the response as well as the effectiveness of excommunication.  Is excommunication being used properly or is it  hegemonic control and an abuse of power over members of the Catholic Church like they did in the Middle Ages?

Understanding the Purpose and Intent of Excommunication

First, to know if excommunication is used properly, the definition and intent must be defined and understood.  Excommunication is a separation meant to move a person to a true and full repentance so they can return to the Church in full communion – an act meant to be reversible and not a permanent separation.  According to James Martin, S.J., excommunication, as defined in modern canon law,  means that a person is prohibited from receiving the sacraments, holding an office in the church, or being buried in consecrated land. In no way does such a penalty “excommunicate the person from the Catholic church.”

For the ordained, excommunication also strips one of all ecclesiastical authority and responsibility.  The “offender” can be absolved by a priest or, in some restricted cases, a bishop or the pope.  Whether ordained or not, in order to seek full communion with the church, the excommunicant must  confess and do  penance for the sin that distanced him or her from the Church.  The process was to be a restoration NOT a condemnation – excommunication is a medicinal penalty.

Excommunication was supposed to “shock the sinner into recognition, bring about repentance, and foster reconciliation.”

Two types of excommunication exist: ferendae sententiae (formally imposed) or latae sententiae (automatic).  Currently there are ten actions that can cause someone to be excommunicated from the Church:

  • Apostasy, heresy, schism  – obstinate denial or doubt, repudiation of the Christian faith, and/or refusal to submit to the Roman Pontiff or refusing to be communion with members of the Church who are in communion with him.
  • Violating the sacred species – throwing away or improperly disposing the consecrated species of Christ’s body or blood or retaining them for sacrilegious purpose.
  • Physically attacking the Pope.
  • Sacramentally absolving an accomplice in a sexual sin.
  • Consecrating a Bishop without authorization from the Vatican.
  • Directly violating the seal of confession (only if someone finds out about the disclosure).
  • Abortion – applies to women who had the abortion and anyone who “commit(s) this crime with knowledge and penalty;” where if they withheld help, the abortion would not have taken place.
  • Ordination of Women to the priesthood[i].

Canon law 1323 sets out the exceptions for excommunication:

  • If one is under 17.
  • If one is ignorant of the penalty for one’s deed.
  • If one acts out of fear or coercion.
  • If one believes one’s action is moral.

Many canon lawyers noted that it is unlikely that any woman who has an abortion does not meet one of those exculpatory conditions. Even economic stress could be considered to be coercive.

Today, the threat of excommunication is being wielded with blunt force – so biased and extreme – that the hierarchy is beginning to lose creditability among many Catholics.

Case #1:  Excommunication and Abortion in the Case of Incest and Rape

The first example is the excommunication is from Brazil.  In 2009, a 9 year old girl, pregnant with twins as a result of being raped by her step-father, underwent an abortion to save her life.  The Catholic Church excommunicated the distraught girl’s mother and the doctor who performed the abortion.

The young girl was abused since she was six-years-old, along with her handicapped sister.  Stringent rules exist that allow abortion, specifically rape and the jeopardy of the mother’s health.  This situation met both conditions.  The girl was not excommunicated because she was a minor. The rapist, her stepfather, was NOT excommunicated. The rationale, according to Archbishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, was that the stepfather “allegedly” committed “a heinous crime,” but the Church views that abortion “was more serious.”

Beatriz Galli, the policy associate for Ipas Brasil:

“the Church takes these positions that are so rigid that it ends up weakened. It is very intolerant, and that intolerance is going to scare off more and more followers.”

In a Time Magazine article, Archbishop Cardoso Sobrinho stated, “the Vatican rejects believers who pick and choose their issues. Rome “is not going to open the door to anyone just to get more members,” he said after comparing abortion to the Holocaust. “We know that people have other ideas, but if they do, then they are not Catholics. We want people who adhere to God’s laws.”  The focus then becomes on a smaller, more faithful Church and what does that say about religion and faith?

The reaction, as you can imagine, was one of  outrage.   Many Catholics felt that this decision was wrong – According to President Louis Inacio Lula de Silva “As a Christian and a Catholic, I find it deeply lamentable that a bishop in the Catholic Church has such a conservative attitude.”

Has this penalty become a deterrent?  No, stated one of doctor(s) who stated that he will stll attending mass:

“the fact that I was excommunicated will not keep me from going to Mass, praying, conversing with God, and asking him to illuminate me and my colleagues in our medical team to help us take care of people in similar cases.”

One final and interesting to note –  Brazilian membership in the Catholic Church is in decline and has been for the last several years.

Case #2:  Excommunication and Abortion – in the case of saving the Mother’s Life

In 2010, Sr. Margaret McBride, administrator at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona,  incurred automatic excommunication when giving approval for an abortion to a 27 year old who was 11 weeks pregnant and suffered from pulmonary hypertension that put her “near death.”[ii]

“’There are some situations where the mother may in fact die along with her child. But – and this is the Catholic perspective – you can’t do evil to bring about good. The end does not justify the means,’ said Rev. John Ehrich, the medical ethics director for the Diocese of Phoenix.”

David Taffet points out “while Sister McBride’s excommunication was instantaneous, the Vatican waited 10 years to defrock one Phoenix pedophile priest…..defrocked, BUT never excommunicated.”  In the New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristof stated:

“We finally have a case where the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy is responding forcefully and speedily to allegations of wrongdoing.  But the target isn’t a pedophile priest. Rather, it’s a nun who helped save a woman’s life. Doctors describe her as saintly.  The excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride in Phoenix underscores all that to me feels morally obtuse about the church hierarchy. I hope that a public outcry can rectify this travesty.”

Kristof spoke to a doctor who talked about Sr. McBride’s soft-spoken, humble, caring nature:

“True Christians, like Sister Margaret, understand that real life is full of difficult moral decisions and pray that they make the right decision in the context of Christ’s teachings. Only a group of detached, pampered men in gilded robes on a balcony high above the rest of us could deny these dilemmas.”

The actions of Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted caused outrage and left quite an impression.  To look at the impact of the actions of the Church in this case – Kristof sums it up well –

Sister Margaret looks much more like Jesus’s than the bishop’s does… When a hierarchy of mostly aging men pounce on and excommunicate a revered nun who was merely trying to save a mother’s life, the church seems to me almost as out of touch as it was in the cruel and debauched days of the Borgias in the Renaissance.”

Bishop Thomas J.Olmsted, who was responsible for Sr. Margaret’s excommunication has refused to give communion to an autistic child and excommunicated three gay priests – priests that have not been accused of any improprieties – just being homosexual.

Case #3 – Excommunication and Pedophilia

It is important to point out that to date and to my knowledge, no pedophile priests have been excommunicated.  Kristof further pointed out  “Let us just note that the Roman Catholic hierarchy suspended priests who abused children and in some cases defrocked them but did not normally excommunicate them, so they remained able to take the sacrament.”

So the question must be asked, what about someone who reports abuse of minor – even as far back as 1871?  In this case, excommunication was retaliation against a Catholic Sister.  Sister Mary MacKillop was only a nun for about four years before  she  was excommunicated for exposing a pedophile priest in south Australia.  She was kicked out of her order and died in 1909 homeless and penniless.  On her deathbed, the same Bishop that excommunicated her, absolved and restored her back into communion with the Catholic Church (October 17, 2010, she became Australia’s first Roman Catholic saint and called Saint Mary of the Cross).

Is Excommunication Effective?

Frances Kissling stated that excommunication in the 21st century is essentially ineffective because “there is no way the church could effectively police the excommunication.”  Moreover Kissling further stated, according to one canon lawyer, “the church has only the power we give it. No more burning at the stake, no loss of one’s job, no Vatican prisons – what are they going to do?”

We live in a society where we demand accountability and do not blindly obey.  The fear of excommunication can be effective to control some Catholics, but there are more and more that research, read, and understand the teachings in the Gospel.  Interpretations are being made that allow one to follow conscience and respectfully dissent from what one group of peoplein the hierarchy has  interpreted.

I would like to conclude with the first stanza of a poem called To Have Power Over Others by Francis Duggan:

To have power over others is something one does not need

For tis only by good example that one can ever lead

And many with power over others their power they do abuse

And for those who abuse others there cannot be an excuse.


[i] Recently the ordination of women results in an immediate excommunication.  While this particular issue was not addressed in part one of this article, it is still an important point of discussion, especially in light of Fr. Roy’s recent excommunication, and will be addressed in part two of this article.

[ii] One news agency reported that Sr. McBride’s excommunication was lifted December 2011, however the statement was released by St. Joseph’s Hospital NOT the Bishop’s Office and NOT by Sr. McBride or her order.  It is not known concretely if she was restored to full communion with the Church.  America Magazine reported that the Hospital was no longer a Catholic identified healthcare institution and prohibits Mass from being celebrated at the hospital’s chapel.

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.   She has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll University in Theology and Religious Studies, performed post-graduate work in History focusing on Gender, Religion, and Sexuality at the University of Akron, and is an Adjunct Instructor in the Religious Studies Department at Ursuline College.  Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at http://durham.academia.edu/MSFreyhauf.  Michele can be followed on twitter at @MSFreyhauf.

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Categories: Abuse of Power, Activism, Catholic Church, Catholicism, Childbirth, Church Doctrine, Ethics, Gender and Power, General, Hierarchy, Human Rights, Justice, power, Power relations, Rape, Rape Culture, Sex Abuse Crisis, Sexual Ethics, Sexual Violence, Social Gospel, Social Justice, Thealogy, Theology, U. S. Catholic Sisters, Women and Community, Women and Ministry, Women in the Church, Women Religious, Women's Agency, Women's Rights, Women's Suffering

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8 replies

  1. The hierarchy has used excommunication as a tool of blunt force and intimidation for a very long time. It wasn’t just kings that they did this too, but ordinary people too, with a great deal of pressure on the community to disassociate from them and thus bring them into line with doctrine as laid out by an all-male power structure. The basic premise of men being able to pass judgement on believers, condemning them to hell and social isolation (and economic hardship), is not only deeply flawed, but utterly corrupt, and in fact blasphemous. The formulas pronounced are, if you read them, in fact curses.

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  2. Curious, as well as profoundly unjust, isn’t it, that women are so specifically the target of excommunication (in the case of abortion and of woman priests) and yet, as women, have absolutely no say whatsoever (how can they, they cannot be priests, let alone bishops) in how these rules are decided.

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  3. My aunt was excommunicated by her priest in the 1960s when she told him she was using birth control after her husband’s doctor told her he would die if he had another heart attack.

    You are right that there are many Catholics today who do not accept the stigma of excommunciation, but I don’t think you should discount the power of the church to keep many in line by a few actions of excommunication. I don’t see Catholics as a group lining up behind Ray Bourgeois and saying: take us too. Many will instead keep silence.

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    • I do agree that for some it is still scary and an effective tool, but what I wonder and think is, for many, they are beginning to take risks and a make a very public stand even in the face of excommunication. For example the over 150 or so ordained catholic women and the people that stand in support of them and their mission. Even outside the threat of excommunication, people are no longer blindly obedient. A telling sign is the past election where Obama carried the catholic vote.

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  4. I was ex-communicated from the Episcopal church after accusing a Priest of abusing his authority. His actions were supported by a very naive, new Bishop. I was even threatened with arrest. People in authority will do anything to protect thier perception of power. I honestly think that our Church has become the very thing Christ came to fight against. Those were my words as I was being served my notice.

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  5. Very interesting. I’ve read a lot of medieval history. Some things–like in the RC Church–never seem to change. Boy, am I glad I’m not a member of that church. I’d have been excommunicated a long time ago! Catholic women–stand up to those patriarchs!

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  6. Yes, risks are being taken and I see people around me and even myself becoming braver and braver to voice my conscience. For standing up for what I beleive is right I’ve excommunicated myself latae sententiae, yet I practice faithfully and always ask–where are the Vatican police anyway? I think it worth mentioning prophetic disobedience and in the case of ordaining women, that is what they are doing and those of us who support them.
    It is obvious that credibility has been lost to the extreme and that the judgment of those in the Vatican is distorted in many ways, but since women were written out of the picture 1500 years ago; they deem more offensive to have a woman celebrating Mass and homilizing than children being abused because at this point that almost seems to be part of the secret tradition
    The womenpriests are highly articulate and highly educated theologians; these women are serious about who and what they are and know pastorally how to serve. They will not go away, nor will they be silenced because they are doing God’s work, the Spirit’s work and Christ’s work.
    They deserve facetime with the Vatican, who only believe that intellectuals are of the male gender–so sad!!
    Waiting for Part II!

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  1. The Impact of Excommunication in the 21st Century (Part I) – Spiritual Redemption or Hegemonic Power by Michele Stopera Freyhauf « Anti-Pope Joan

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