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This subject will be treated under the following heads:

I. General Notions and Historical Summary;
II. Kinds of Excommunication;
III. Who Can Excommunicate?
IV. Who Can Be Excommunicated?
V. Effects of Excommunication;
VI. Absolution from Excommunication;
VII. Excommunications Latæ Sententiæ Now in Force.


Excommunication ( Latin ex , out of, and communio or communicatio , communion -- exclusion from the communion), the principal and severest censure, is a medicinal, spiritual penalty that deprives the guilty Christian of all participation in the common blessings of ecclesiastical society. Being a penalty, it supposes guilt; and being the most serious penalty that the Church can inflict, it naturally supposes a very grave offence. It is also a medicinal rather than a vindictive penalty, being intended, not so much to punish the culprit, as to correct him and bring him back to the path of righteousness. It necessarily, therefore, contemplates the future, either to prevent the recurrence of certain culpable acts that have grievous external consequences, or, more especially, to induce the delinquent to satisfy the obligations incurred by his offence. Its object and its effect are loss of communion, i.e. of the spiritual benefits shared by all the members of Christian society ; hence, it can affect only those who by baptism have been admitted to that society. Undoubtedly there can and do exist other penal measures which entail the loss of certain fixed rights ; among them are other censures, e.g. suspension for clerics, interdict for clerics and laymen, irregularity ex delicto , etc. Excommunication, however, is clearly distinguished from these penalties in that it is the privation of all rights resulting from the social status of the Christian as such. The excommunicated person, it is true, does not cease to be a Christian, since his baptism can never be effaced; he can, however, be considered as an exile from Christian society and as non-existent, for a time at least, in the sight of ecclesiastical authority. But such exile can have an end (and the Church desires it), as soon as the offender has given suitable satisfaction. Meanwhile, his status before the Church is that of a stranger. He may not participate in public worship nor receive the Body of Christ or any of the sacraments. Moreover, if he be a cleric, he is forbidden to administer a sacred rite or to exercise an act of spiritual authority.

Right of the Church to Excommunicate

The right to excommunicate is an immediate and necessary consequence of the fact that the Church is a society. Every society has the right to exclude and deprive of their rights and social advantages its unworthy or grievously culpable members, either temporarily or permanently. This right is necessary to every society in order that it may be well administered and survive. The fundamental proof, therefore, of the Church's right to excommunicate is based on her status as a spiritual society, whose members, governed by legitimate authority, seek one and the same end through suitable means. Members who, by their obstinate disobedience, reject the means of attaining this common end deserve to be removed from such a society. This rational argument is confirmed by texts of the New Testament, the example of the Apostles, and the practice of the Church from the first ages down to the present. Among the Jews, exclusion from the synagogue was a real excommunication ( Ezra 10:8 ). This was the exclusion feared by the parents of the man born blind ( John 9:21 sq. ; cf. 12:42 ; 16:2 ); the same likewise that Christ foretold to His disciples ( Luke 6:22 ). It is also the exclusion which in due time the Christian Church should exercise: "And if he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican " ( Matthew 18:17 ). In the celebrated text: "Whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven ; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven " ( Matthew 18:18 ; cf. 16:19 ), it is not only the remission of sins that is referred to, but likewise all spiritual jurisdiction , including judicial and penal sanctions. Such, moreover, was the jurisdiction conferred on St. Peter by the words: "Feed my lambs"; "feed my sheep" ( John 21:15, 16, 17 ). St. Paul excommunicated regularly the incest Corinthians ( 1 Corinthians 5:5 ) and the incorrigible blasphemers whom he delivered over to Satan ( 1 Timothy 1:20 ). Faithful to the Apostolic teaching and example, the Church, from the very earliest ages, was wont to excommunicate heretics and contumacious persons ; since the fourth century numerous conciliary canons pronounce excommunication against those who are guilty of certain offences. Of the facts there can be no doubt (Seitz, Die Heilsnotwendigkeit der Kirche, Freiburg, 1903).

Excommunication not only External

In the first Christian centuries it is not always easy to distinguish between excommunication and penitential exclusion; to differentiate them satisfactorily we must await the decline of the institution of public penance and the well-defined separation between those things appertaining to the forum internum , or tribunal of conscience and the forum externum , or public ecclesiastical tribunal; nevertheless, the admission of a sinner to the performance of public penance was consequent on a previous genuine excommunication. On the other hand, formal exclusion from reception of the Eucharist and the other sacraments was only mitigated excommunication and identical with minor excommunication (see below). At any rate, in the first centuries excommunication is not regarded as a simple external measure; it reaches the soul and the conscience. It is not merely the severing of the outward bond which holds the individual to his place in the Church ; it severs also the internal bond, and the sentence pronounced on earth is ratified in heaven. It is the spiritual sword, the heaviest penalty that the Church can inflict (see the patristic texts quoted in the Decree of Gratian, cc. xxxi, xxxii, xxxiii, C. xi, q. iii). Hence in the Bull "Exsurge Domine" (16 May, 1520) Leo X justly condemned Luther's twenty-third proposition according to which "excommunications are merely external punishments, nor do they deprive a man of the common spiritual prayers of the Church ". Pius VI also condemned (Auctorem Fidei, 28 Aug., 1794) the forty-sixth proposition of the Pseudo-Synod of Pistoia, which maintained that the effect of excommunication is only exterior because of its own nature it excludes only from exterior communion with the Church, as if, said the pope, excommunication were not a spiritual penalty binding in heaven and affecting souls. The aforesaid proposition was therefore condemned as false, pernicious, already reprobated in the twenty-third proposition of Luther, and, to say the least, erroneous. Undoubtedly the Church cannot (nor does it wish to) oppose any obstacle to the internal relations of the soul with God ; she even implores God to give the grace of repentance to the excommunicated. The rites of the Church, nevertheless, are always the providential and regular channel through which Divine grace is conveyed to Christians ; exclusion from such rites, especially from the sacraments, entails therefore regularly the privation of this grace, to whose sources the excommunicated person has no longer access.

History of Excommunication

While excommunication ranks first among ecclesiastical censures, it existed long before any such classification arose. From the earliest days of the Christian society it was the chief (if not the only) ecclesiastical penalty for laymen ; for guilty clerics the first punishment was deposition from their office, i.e. reduction to the ranks of the laity. Subsequently, when ecclesiastical discipline allowed clerics more easily to resume their ministry, the ancient deposition became suspension ; thenceforth even clerics were subject to excommunication, by which they lost at once their rights as Christians and as clerics. Both laymen and clerics were henceforth threatened or punished with excommunication for offences that became daily more definite and numerous, particularly for refusing obedience either to special ecclesiastical precepts or the general laws of the Church. Once the forum externum , or public ecclesiastical tribunal, was distinctly separated from the forum sacramentale , or tribunal of sacramental penance, say from the ninth century on, excommunication became gradually an ever more powerful means of spiritual government, a sort of coercive measure ensuring the exact accomplishment of the laws of the Church and the precepts of her prelates. Excommunication was either threatened or inflicted in order to secure the observance of fasts and feasts, the payment of tithes, the obedience of inferiors, the denunciation of the guilty, also to compel the faithful to make known to ecclesiastical authority matrimonial impediments and other information.


This extension of the use of excommunication led to abuses. The infliction of so grave a penalty for offences of a less grievous kind and most frequently impossible to verify before the public ecclesiastical authority, begot eventually a contempt for excommunication. Consequently the Council of Trent was forced to recommend to all bishops and prelates more moderation in the use of censures (Sess. XXV, c. iii, De ref.). The passage is too significant to be here omitted: "Although the sword of excommunication is the very sinews of ecclesiastical discipline, and very salutary for keeping the people to the observance of their duty, yet it is to be used with sobriety and great circumspection; seeing that experience teaches that if it be wielded rashly or for slight causes, it is more despised than feared, and works more evil than good. Wherefore, such excommunications which are wont to be issued for the purpose of provoking a revelation, or on account of things lost or stolen, shall be issued by no one whomsoever but the bishop ; and not then, except on account of some uncommon circumstance which moves the bishop thereunto, and after the matter has been by him diligently and very maturely weighed." Then follow equally explicit measures for the use of censures in judicial matters. This recommendation of the Council of Trent has been duly heeded, and the use of censures as a means of coercion has grown constantly rarer, the more so as it is hardly ever, possible for the Church to obtain from the civil power the execution of such penalties.

Excessive Number of Excommunications

In the course of time, also, the number of canonical excommunications was excessively multiplied, which fact, coupled with their frequent desuetude, made it difficult to know whether many among them were always in force. The difficulty was greater as a large number of these excommunications were reserved, for which reason theologians with much ingenuity construed favourably said reservation and permitted the majority of the faithful to obtain absolution without presenting themselves in Rome, or indeed even writing thither. In recent times the number of excommunications in force has been greatly diminished, and a new method of absolving from them has been inaugurated; it will doubtless find a place in the new codificacation of the canon law that is being prepared. Thus, without change of nature, excommunication in foro externo has become an exceptional penalty, reserved for very grievous offences detrimental to Christian society ; in foro interno it has been diminished and mitigated, at least in regard to the conditions for absolution from it. However, as can readily be seen from a perusal of the excommunications actually in force, it still remains true that what the Church aims at is not so much the crime as the satisfaction to be obtained from the culprit in consequence of his offence.

Refusal of Ecclesiastical Communion

Finally, real excommunication must not be confounded with a measure formerly quite frequent, and sometimes even known as excommunication, but which was rather a refusal of episcopal communion. It was the refusal by a bishop to communicate in sacris with another bishop and his church, in consideration of an act deemed reprehensible and worthy of chastisement. It was undoubtedly with this withdrawal of communion that Pope Victor threatened (or actually punished) the bishops of Asia in the paschal controversy ( Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., V, xxiv); it was certainly the measure to which St. Martin of Tours had recourse when he refused to communicate with the Spanish bishops who caused Emperor Maximinus to condemn to death the heretic Priscillian with some of his adherents (Sulpicius Severus, Dial., iii, 15). Moreover, a similar privation of communion was in early Christian times imposed by councils as a regular penalty for bishops found guilty of certain minor faults; the most frequent example is that of bishops who, without good reason, neglected to attend the provincial council (so the Councils of Carthage, 401, can. xi; Agde, 506, can. xxxv; Tarragona, 516, can. vi; II Mâcon, 585, can. xx; etc.). These bishops were evidently not excommunicated, properly speaking; they continued to govern their dioceses and publicly to hold ecclesiastical services; they were simply deprived, as the aforesaid texts say, of the consolation of communion with their episcopal brethren.


(1) Major and Minor

Until recently excommunication was of two kinds, major and minor.

(a) Minor excommunication is uniformly defined by canonists and by Gregory IX (cap. lix, De sent. exc., lib. V, tit. xxxix) as prohibition from receiving the sacraments, what theologians call the passive use of the sacraments. In order to receive the Eucharist and the other sacraments, those who had incurred this penalty had to be absolved therefrom; as it was not reserved, this could be done by any confessor. Indirectly, however, it entailed other consequences. The canon law (cap. x, De cler. excomm. ministrante, lib. V, tit. xxvii) taught that the priest who celebrates Mass while under the ban of minor excommunication sins grievously; also that he sins similarly in administering the sacraments ; and finally, that while he can vote for others, he himself is ineligible to a canonical office. This is readily understood when we remember that the cleric thus excommunicated was presumed to be in the state of grievous sin, and that such a state is an obstacle to the lawful celebration of Mass and the administration of the sacraments. Minor excommunication was really identical with the state of the penitent of olden times who, prior to his reconciliation, was admitted to public penance. Minor excommunication was incurred by unlawful intercourse with the excommunicated, and in the beginning no exception was made of any class of excommunicated persons. Owing, however, to many inconveniences arising from this condition of things, especially after excommunications had become so numerous, Martin V, by the Constitution "Ad evitanda scandala" (1418), restricted the aforesaid unlawful intercourse to that held with those who were formally named as persons to be shunned and who were therefore known as vitandi ( Latin vitare , to avoid), also with those who were notoriously guilty of striking a cleric. But as this twofold category was in modern times greatly reduced, but little attention was paid to minor excommunication, and eventually it ceased to exist after the publication of the Constitution "Apostolicæ Sedis" . The latter declared that all excommunications latæ sententiæ that it did not mention were abolished, and as it was silent concerning minor excommunication (by its nature an excommunication latæ sententiæ of a special kind), canonists concluded that minor excommunication no longer existed. This conclusion was formally ratified by the Holy Office (6 Jan., 1884, ad 4).
(b) Major excommunication, which remains now the only kind in force, is therefore the kind of which we treat below, and to which our definition fully applies. Anathema is a sort of aggravated excommunication, from which, however, it does not differ essentially, but simply in the matter of special solemnities and outward display.

(2) A jure and ab homine

Excommunication is either a jure (by law ) or ab homine (by judicial act of man, i.e. by a judge). The first is provided by the law itself, which declares that whosoever shall have been guilty of a definite crime will incur the penalty of excommunication. The second is inflicted by an ecclesiastical prelate, either when he issues a serious order under pain of excommunication or imposes this penalty by judicial sentence and after a criminal trial.

(3) Latæ and Ferendæ Sententiæ

Excommunication, especially a jure , is either latæ or ferendæ sententiæ . The first is incurred as soon as the offence is committed and by reason of the offence itself ( eo ipso ) without intervention of any ecclesiastical judge ; it is recognized in the terms used by the legislator, for instance: "the culprit will be excommunicated at once, by the fact itself [ statim, ipso facto ]". The second is indeed foreseen by the law as a penalty, but is inflicted on the culprit only by a judicial sentence ; in other words, the delinquent is rather threatened than visited with the penalty, and incurs it only when the judge has summoned him before his tribunal, declared him guilty, and punished him according to the terms of the law. It is recognized when the law contains these or similar words: "under pain of excommunication"; "the culprit will be excommunicated".

(4) Public and Occult

Excommunication ferendæ sententiæ can be public only, as it must be the object of a declaratory sentence pronounced by a judge; but excommunication latæ sententiæ may be either public or occult. It is public through the publicity of the law when it is imposed and published by ecclesiastical authority; it is public through notoriety of fact when the offence that has incurred it is known to the majority in the locality, as in the case of those who have publicly done violence to clerics, or of the purchasers of church property. On the contrary, excommunication is occult when the offence entailing it is known to no one or almost no one. The first is valid in the forum externum and consequently in the forum internum; the second is valid in the forum internum only. The practical difference is very important. He who has incurred occult excommunication should treat himself as excommunicated and be absolved as soon as possible, submitting to whatever conditions will be imposed upon him, but this only in the tribunal of conscience ; he is not obliged to denounce himself to a judge nor to abstain from external acts connected with the exercise of jurisdiction, and he may ask absolution without making himself known either in confession or to the Sacred Penitentiaria. According to the teaching of Benedict XIV (De synodo, X, i, 5), "a sentence declaratory of the offence is always necessary in the forum externum, since in this tribunal no one is presumed to be excommunicated unless convicted of a crime that entails such a penalty". Public excommunication, on the other hand, is removed only by a public absolution ; when it is question of simple publicity of fact (see above), the absolution, while not judicial, is nevertheless public, inasmuch as it is given to a known person and appears as an act of the forum externum.

(5) Vitandi and Tolerati

Public excommunication in foro externo has two degrees according as it has or has not been formally published, or, in other words, according as excommunicated persons are to be shunned ( vitandi ) or tolerated ( tolerati ). A formally published or nominative excommunication occurs when the sentence has been brought to the knowledge of the public by a notification from the judge, indicating by name the person thus punished. No special method is required for this publication; according to the Council of Constance (1414-18), it suffices that "the sentence have been published or made known by the judge in a special and express manner". Persons thus excommunicated are to be shunned ( vitandi ), i.e. the faithful must have no intercourse with them either in regard to sacred things or (to a certain extent) profane matters, as we shall see farther on. All other excommunicated persons, even though known, are tolerati , i.e. the law no longer obliges the faithful to abstain from intercourse with them, even in religious matters. This distinction dates from the aforesaid Constitution "Ad evitanda scandala", published by Martin V at the Council of Constance in 1418; until then one had to avoid communion with all the excommunicated, once they were known as such. "To avoid scandal and numerous dangers", says Martin V, "and to relieve timorous consciences, we hereby mercifully grant to all the faithful that henceforth no one need refrain from communicating with another in the reception or administration of the sacraments, or in other matters Divine or profane, under pretext of any ecclesiastical sentence or censure, whether promulgated in general form by law or by a judge, nor avoid anyone whomsoever, nor observe an ecclesiastical interdict, except when this sentence or censure shall have been published or made known by the judge in special and express form, against some certain, specified person, college, university, church, community, or place." But while notoriously excommunicated persons are no longer vitandi, the pope makes an exception of those who have "incurred the penalty of excommunication by reason of sacrilegious violence against a cleric, and so notoriously that the fact can in no way be dissimulated or excused". He declares, moreover, that he has not made this concession in favour of the excommunicated, whose condition remains unchanged, but solely for the benefit of the faithful. Hence, in virtue of ecclesiastical law, the latter need no longer deprive themselves of intercourse with those of the excommunicated who are "tolerated". As to the vitandi, now reduced to the two aforementioned categories, they must be shunned by the faithful as formerly. It is to be noted now that the minor excommunication incurred formerly by these forbidden relations has been suppressed; also, that of the major excommunications inflicted on certain definite acts of communion with the vitandi, only two are retained in the Constitution "Apostolicæ Sedis" (II, 16, 17): that inflicted on any of the faithful for participation in a crime that has merited nominative excommunication by the pope, and that pronounced against clerics alone for spontaneous and conscious communion in sacris with persons whom the pope has excommunicated by name. Moreover, those whom bishops excommunicate by name are as much vitandi as are those similarly excommunicated by the pope.

(6) Reserved and Non-Reserved

Finally, excommunication is either reserved or non-reserved. This division affects the absolution from censure. In the forum internum any confessor can absolve from non reserved excommunications; but those that are reserved can only be remitted, except through indult or delegation, by those to whom the law reserves the absolution. There is a distinction between excommunications reserved to the pope (these being divided into two classes, according to which they are either specially or simply reserved to him) and those reserved to bishops or ordinaries. As to excommunications ab homine, absolution from them is reserved by law to the judge who has inflicted them. In a certain sense excommunications may also be reserved in view of the persons who incur them; thus absolution from excommunications in foro externo incurred by bishops is reserved to the pope ; again, custom reserves to him the excommunication of sovereigns.


Excommunication is an act of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, the rules of which it follows. Hence the general principle: whoever has jurisdiction in the forum externum, properly so called, can excommunicate, but only his own subjects. Therefore, whether excommunications be a jure (by the law ) or ab homine (under form of sentence or precept), they may come from the pope alone or a general council for the entire Church ; from the provincial council for an ecclesiastical province ; from the bishop for his diocese ; from the prelate nullius for quasi-diocesan territories; and from regular prelates for religious orders. Moreover, anyone can excommunicate who, by virtue of his office, even when delegated, has contentious jurisdiction in the forum externum; for instance, papal legates , vicars capitular, and vicars-general. But a parish priest cannot inflict this penalty nor even declare that it is incurred, i.e. he cannot do so in an official and judicial manner. The subjects of these various authorities are those who come under their jurisdiction chiefly on account of domicile or quasi-domicile in their territory; then by reason of the offence committed while on such territory; and finally by reason of personal right, as in the case of regulars.


Since excommunication is the forfeiture of the spiritual privileges of ecclesiastical society, all those, but those only, can be excommunicated who, by any right whatsoever, belong to this society. Consequently excommunication can be inflicted only on baptized and living persons. Although the Church recites against the devil exorcisms in which the word anathema occurs, he cannot be excommunicated, for he in no way belongs to the Church. Among living persons, those who have not been baptized have never been members of the Christian society and therefore cannot be deprived of spiritual benefits to which they have never had a right ; in this way, infidels, pagans, Mohammedans, and Jews, though outside of the Church, are not excommunicated. As the baptized cease, at death, to belong to the Church Militant, the dead cannot be excommunicated. Of course, strictly speaking, after the demise of a Christian person, it may be officially declared that such person incurred excommunication during his lifetime. Quite in the same sense he may be absolved after his death; indeed, the Roman Ritual contains the rite for absolving an excommunicated person already dead (Tit. III, cap. iv: Ritus absolvendi excommunicatum jam mortuum). However, these sentences or absolutions concern only the effects of excommunication, notably ecclesiastical burial. With the foregoing exceptions, all who have been baptized are liable to excommunication, even those who have never belonged to the true Church, since by their baptism they are really her subjects, though of course rebellious ones. Moreover, the Church excommunicates not only those who abandon the true faith to embrace schism or heresy, but likewise the members of heretical and schismatic communities who have been born therein. As to the latter, however, it is not question of personal excommunication; the censure overtakes them in their corporate capacity, as members of a community in revolt against the true Church of Jesus Christ .

Catholics, on the contrary, cannot be excommunicated unless for some personal, grievously offensive act. Here, therefore, it is necessary to state with precision the conditions under which this penalty is incurred. Just as exile presupposes a crime, excommunication presupposes a grievous external fault. Not only would it be wrong for a Christian to be punished without having committed a punishable act, but justice demands a proportion between the offence and the penalty; hence the most serious of spiritual chastisements, i.e. forfeiture of all the privileges common to Christians, is inconceivable unless for a grave fault. Moreover, in order to fall within the jurisdiction of the forum externum, which alone can inflict excommunication, this fault must be external. Internal failings, e.g. doubts entertained against the Catholic Faith, cannot incur excommunication. Note, however, that by external fault is not necessarily meant a public one; an occult external fault calls forth occult excommunication, but in foro interno, as already seen. Most authors add that the offence must be consummated, i.e. complete and perfected in its kind ( in genere suo ), unless the legislator have ordained otherwise. This, however, is a rule of interpretation rather than a real condition for the incurring of censure, and is tantamount to saying that attempt at a crime does not entail the penalty meted out to the crime itself, but that if the legislator declares that he wishes to punish even the attempt, excommunication is incurred (cf. Const. "Apost. Sedis", III, 1, for attempt at marriage on part of clerics in major orders).

Considered from a moral and juridical standpoint, the guilt requisite for the incurring of excommunication implies, first, the full use of reason ; second sufficient moral liberty; finally, a knowledge of the law and even of the penalty. Where such knowledge is lacking, there is no contumacy, i.e. no contempt of ecclesiastical law, the essence of which consists in performing an action known to be forbidden, and forbidden under a certain penalty. The prohibition and the penalty are known either through the text of the law itself, which is equivalent to a juridical warning, or through admonitions or proclamations issued expressly by the ecclesiastical judge. Hence arise various extenuating reasons ( causæ excusantes ), based on lack of guilt, which prevent the incurring of excommunication:

(1) Lack of the full use of reason. This excuses children, also those who have not attained the age of puberty, and, a fortiori, the demented. Inadvertence, however, is not presumed; while it may affect moral responsibility and excommunication in foro externo, it is no obstacle to juridical guilt.
(2) Lack of liberty resulting from grave fear. Such fear impairs the freedom of the will, and while it exists contumacy or rebellion against the laws of the Church cannot be presumed. Evidently, a proper estimation of this extenuating reason depends on the circumstances of each particular case and will be more readily accepted as an excuse for violating a positive law than in palliation of an offence against the natural or Divine law .
(3) Ignorance. The general principle is, that whosoever is ignorant of the law is not responsible for transgressing it; and whosoever is ignorant of the penalty does not incur it. But the application of this principle is often complicated and delicate. The following considerations, generally admitted, may serve as a guide:

(a) All ignorance, both of law and of fact, is excusatory.
(b) The ignorance known as "invincible" always excuses; it may also be called inculpable or probable ignorance.
(c) There are two kinds of culpable ignorance, one known as crassa or supina, i.e. gross, improbable ignorance, and supposing a grievously guilty neglect in regard to knowledge of the law ; the other is affected ignorance, really a deliberate ignorance of the law through fear of incurring its penalty.
(d) Ordinarily, gross ignorance does not excuse from punishment. But it does so only when thelaw formally exacts a positiveknowledge of the prohibition. Thelaws that inflict excommunication contain as a rule two kinds of expressions. Sometimes the offence only is mentioned, e.g. "all apostates, heretics's, etc., or "those whoabsolve theiraccomplices in asin against chastity " (Const. "Apost. Sedis", I, 1, 10). Sometimes causes are inserted that exact, as a necessary condition, the knowledge or effrontery of the culprit, e.g., "those who knowingly read books" condemned under pain of excommunication, "regulars who have the audacity to administer theViaticum without permission of theparish priest " (Const. "Apost. Sedis", I, 2; II, 14). Gross ignorance excuses in the second case but not in the first.
(e) For many authors, affected ignorance is equivalent to a knowledge of the law, since by it some avoid enlightening themselves concerning a dreaded penalty; these authors conclude that such ignorance never excuses. Other canonists consider that this penal law is to be strictly interpreted; when, therefore, it positively exacts knowledge on the part of the culprit, he is excused even by affected ignorance. As, in practice, it is not always easy to establish the shades of difference, it will suffice to remark that in a case ofoccult excommunication the culprit has the right to judge himself and to be judged by his confessor according to the exacttruth, whereas, in the forum externum the judge decides according to presumptions and proofs. Consequently, in the tribunal ofconscience he who is reasonably persuaded of his innocence cannot be compelled to treat himself as excommunicated and to seek absolution ; this conviction, however, must be prudently established.


If we consider only its nature, excommunication has no degrees: it simply deprives clerics and laymen of all their rights in Christian society, which total effect takes on a visible shape in details proportionate in number to the rights or advantages of which the excommunicated cleric or layman has been deprived. The effects of excommunication must, however, be considered in relation also to the rest of the faithful. From this point of view arise certain differences according to the various classes of excommunicated persons. These differences were not introduced out of regard for the excommunicated, rather for the sake of the faithful. The latter would suffer serious inconveniences if the nullity of all acts performed by excommunicated clerics were rigidly maintained. They would also be exposed to grievous perplexities of conscience if they were strictly obliged to avoid all intercourse, even profane, with the excommunicated. Hence the practical rule for interpreting the effects of excommunication: severity as regards the excommunicated, but mildness for the faithful. We may now proceed to enumerate the immediate effects of excommunication. They are summed up in the two well known verses:

Res sacræ, ritus, communio, crypta, potestas,
prædia sacra, forum, civilia jura vetantur,

i.e. loss of the sacraments, public services and prayers of the Church, ecclesiastical burial, jurisdiction, benefices, canonical rights, and social intercourse.

(1) Res Sacr

These are the sacraments ; the excommunicated are forbidden either to receive or administer them. The sacraments are of course validly administered by excommunicated persons, except those (penance and matrimony) for whose administration jurisdiction is necessary ; but the reception of the sacraments by excommunicated persons is always illicit. The licit administration of the sacraments by excommunicated ecclesiastics hinges upon the benefit to be derived by the faithful. Ecclesiastics excommunicated by name are forbidden to administer the sacraments except in cases of extreme necessity ; apart from this necessity penance and matrimony administered by such ecclesiastics are null (Decret. "Ne temere", art. iv). Excommunicated ecclesiastics tolerati, however, may licitly administer the sacraments to the faithful who request them at their hands, and the acts of jurisdiction thus posited are maintained by reason of the benefit accruing to the faithful, most frequently also because of common error ( error communis ), i.e. a general belief in the good standing of such ecclesiastics. The faithful, on their side, may, without sin, ask tolerated excommunicated ecclesiastics to administer sacraments to them; they would, however, sin grievously in making this request of the vitandi, except in case of urgent necessity.

(2) Ritus

Hereby are meant the Mass, the Divine Office, and other sacred ceremonies. An excommunicated person may not and should not assist at these ceremonies. If he be a toleratus, his presence need not be taken into account, and the service can be continued. If he be a vitandus he must be warned to retire, and in case of refusal he must be forcibly compelled to withdraw; but if he still persists in remaining, the service must be discontinued, even the Mass, unless the Canon has been commenced. ( Benedict XIV, De sacr. Miss., sect. ii, n. 117.) Nevertheless, since the condition of an excommunicated person, even a vitandus, is no worse than that of an infidel, he may assist at sermons, instructions, etc., venerate images and relics, take holy water, and use privately other sacramentals. The excommunicated cleric is not released from any of his obligations in regard to the Divine Office and, if bound to it, must recite it, but privately and not in the choir. A toleratus may be admitted to the choir, but a vitandus must be expelled therefrom. All excommunicated clerics are prohibited from celebrating Mass and performing other strictly liturgical functions, under penalty of the irregularity ex delicto for violation of the censure; participation in the liturgical acts performed by an excommunicated cleric is a forbidden communicatio in sacris; however, no censure would result from it except in the case of clerics voluntarily communicating in sacris with those whom the pope had excommunicated by name (Const. "Apost. Sedis", II, 17). In each case the fault should be estimated according to circumstances.

(3) Communio

These are, properly speaking, the public suffrages of the Church, official prayers, Indulgences, etc., in which the excommunicated have no share. But they are not excluded from the private suffrages (i.e. intercessory petitions) of the faithful, who can pray for them.

(4) Crypta

This word signifies ecclesiastical burial, of which the excommunicated are deprived. In chapter xii, de sepulturis (lib. III, tit. xxviii), Innocent III says: "The canons have established that we should not hold communion after their death with those with whom we did not communicate during their lifetime, and that all those should be deprived of ecclesiastical burial who were separated from the unity of the Church, and at the moment of death were not reconciled thereunto." The Ritual (tit. VI, cap. ii, n. 2) renews this prohibition for those publicly excommunicated, and most writers interpret this as meaning those whose excommunication has been publicly proclaimed (Many, De locis sacris, p. 354), so that, under this head, the ancient discipline is no longer applicable, except to the vitandi. However this does not mean that the tolerati can always receive ecclesiastical burial ; they may be deprived of it for other reasons, e.g. as heretics or public sinners. Apropos of this leniency, it must be remembered that it is not the excommunicated the Church wishes to favour, but rather the faithful for whose sake communion with the tolerati is allowed in the matter of burial as well as in other matters. The interment of a toleratus in a consecrated cemetery carries with it no longer the desecration of said cemetery ; this would follow, however, in the case of the vitandi. (See BURIAL.)

(5) Potestas

Potestas signifies ecclesiastical jurisdiction , of which both the passive and the active use, to speak canonically, are forbidden the excommunicated. Jurisdiction is used passively when a person is the object of one of its acts, of a concession. Now, ecclesiastical authority has no official relations with the exile unless, at his request, it negotiates the conditions for his return to

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