Explaining Excommunication

Get Religion

November 17, 2008

A few days ago we looked at some decent media coverage of a Roman Catholic Womenpriests story. A few more stories worth looking at have been filed or discovered.

The Associated Press ran a particularly bad story about the Roman Catholic priest who faces excommunication for participating in a Roman Catholic Womenpriests ceremony. Here’s how it begins:

A Roman Catholic priest faces excommunication for attending a ceremony to ordain a woman in the United States, a Vatican official said Friday.

It wasn’t attendance at the ceremony that got the Rev. Roy Bourgeois in trouble. He officiated at the ceremony in some capacity, delivering the homily and laying hands on Janice Sevre-Duszynska at the service at a Kentucky Unitarian Universalist church. The homily, incidentally, denounced Roman Catholic teaching on the male-only priesthood. This isn’t news. It was reported by the Boston Globe’s religion reporter in August.

Here’s the AP report explaining the penalty:

Recent popes have said the Roman Catholic Church cannot ordain women because Christ chose only males as apostles. Excommunication is the most severe penalty under church law, cutting off a Catholic from receiving or administering sacraments.

The ordained woman, Sevre-Duszynska, also faces excommunication.

A reporter who had done his research might note that women who go through such an ordination ceremony are automatically excommunicated by the church. They don’t face excommunication — they are already excommunicated. Other than these mistakes, the article also fails to explain anything about Sevre-Duszynska or Bourgeois’ history of activism or anything about the Maryknoll order. The “recent popes” line is also somewhat silly — as if only recent popes have supported a male-only priesthood.

One of my favorite pieces about the excommunication was on Slate and written for its “Explainer” column. The question answered this past week was “Can the Catholic Church enforce excommunication?” It explains that excommunicated priests may no longer perform clerical duties or receive communion, although they may still attend Mass. But do they have any way of enforcing this punishment?:

Yes. Those who refuse to comply with their sentence can be “dismissed from the clerical state,” also known as being “defrocked.” As a result, they lose their benefits provided by the church, which usually include housing, health insurance, and a small salary. (Canon law states that “provision must always be made so that [a priest] does not lack those things necessary for his decent support.” If you’re excommunicated, you can still get these perks, but not if you’re defrocked.) If the priest still refuses to leave, the church can summon the police and have him thrown out for trespassing on private property.

Usually, defrocking isn’t necessary. The purpose of excommunication is not to drive priests away but to make them repent. Once they do, they are usually welcomed back into “full communion.” (The civil law equivalent of excommunication would be “contempt of court”: A judge can throw you in jail for refusing to testify, but the moment you agree to cooperate, you’re free.)

Isn’t that helpful? Also, it makes me wonder why so many of the stories about Bourgeois played up his fragile financial situation if he only faces that in case of defrocking

For instance, the New York Times story that broke the news of the looming excommunication did a great job of getting many of the facts straight. But note this paragraph:

On a practical level, Father Bourgeois also faces the loss of his benefits and the $1,000 he receives monthly for living expenses. But, he said, “if I am without health care, I will be joining millions of people in the U.S. who don’t have health care.”

If Bourgeois only faces the loss of his benefits if he defies his excommunication, that’s different than losing his benefits because of his excommunication. This is an important distinction that wasn’t made in many of the stories about Bourgeois.

Anyway, the Slate piece also explains the difference between automatic and imposed excommunication in nice detail. It also explains the difference between disciplines imposed by the Vatican and a local bishop. Finally, the story explains that there are other punishments less severe than excommunication. For a brief article, it was terribly informative. I also appreciate that the reporter solicited help from professors at Georgetown and Sacred Heart Major Seminary.


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