Monday, June 23, 2014

The Pope and Excommunication

Late last week, the Pope said the following: "Those who in their lives have taken this evil road, this road of evil, such as the mobsters, they are not in communion with God, they are excommunicated." Many news outlets took that comment and ran with it. Bloggers commented (I'm a little late to the party) and others posted comments on the articles and blogs. I thought I'd make a few observations of my own.

First, the Pope did not actually impose or declare the penalty of excommunication on anyone. That's obvious from the comment itself--he didn't name names and it is impossible to excommunicate people generically or indiscriminately. It is a penalty that is individually incurred and individually applied. (Note: to "impose" the penalty means just that--the proper, ecclesial authority decides that a person deserves to be punished with a penalty and so he imposes it. To "declare" a penalty means that a person has already been punished by means of an "automatic" penalty and the authority is making this fact public through the "declaration.")

Second, and it seems this hasn't been repeated enough since people still confuse the two, the penalty of excommunication (c. 1331) is not the same as the denial of Holy Communion (c. 915). It can so happen that a person who is denied Holy Communion in accord with the terms of canon 915 can also be legitimately denied other Sacraments (for example, c. 1007--Anointing of the Sick). It might be the case that the state of soul of those in both categories is the same (i.e., a state of mortal sin). Similarities aside, there are clear, canonical differences. Most obviously, excommunication is a penalty while the norm of canon 915 is not part of the Church's penal law.

Third, it seems to me that the Pope was speaking more to the effects of mortal sin than to the canonical notion of excommunication. For "the mobsters," their grave sin is apparent and known to the public and so the Pope considered it possible to make his own public statement.

Considering the second and third points, perhaps the Pope's words are more closely related to c. 915 than c. 1331 or anything in Book VI of the Code of Canon Law. If so, priests in that area and wherever "the mobsters" are active should seriously consider denying them Holy Communion. In fact, for anyone who obstinately persists in manifest grave sin, the priest is obliged to deny Communion (cf. here, number 4).

June 24 Update

I was listening to Al Kresta's show yesterday and the first hour news summary included this story about the Pope and the mafia. Unfortunately, the report claimed that the Pope made the "unusual step" of "excommunicating all members of organized crime." I respond that it is so unusual that it still hasn't happened.


  1. I'll try and listen to al kresta sometime. I hadn't heard of him

  2. I don't listen too often (usually walking the dogs or doing something outside) but I've usually found it to be a good show. This time, though, it was a bit off the mark in this news report.


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