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Understanding Schism and Excommunication in the Catholic Church

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Recently, a community of Poor Clare nuns in Spain announced their decision to leave the Catholic Church, committing the canonical crime of schism and incurring excommunication. Additionally, Italian Archbishop Carlo MarĂ­a Vigano is undergoing a Vatican extrajudicial process for schism. This raises the question: what exactly are schism and excommunication in the Catholic Church? Here's an explanation.


By Catholic Online (California Network)
6/25/2024 (3 weeks ago)

Published in Living Faith

Keywords: Catholic Church, schism, excommunication, Canon Law, ecclesiastical penalties, spiritual discipline


Schism, as defined by the Catholic Encyclopedia, is "the rupture of ecclesiastical union and unity." This means either the act of severing ties with the social organization of the Church, thereby separating oneself from the mystical body of Christ, or the resulting state of dissociation.

According to Canon 751 of the Code of Canon Law, schism is "the refusal of submission to the supreme pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him." Canon 1364 stipulates that the penalty for this crime is excommunication "latae sententiae," which means automatically upon the commission of the offense.


Excommunication is defined as the most severe penalty a baptized person can incur in the Catholic Church. It involves being placed outside the communion of the faithful and being denied access to the sacraments. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes it as "a medicinal, spiritual penalty that deprives the guilty Christian of all participation in the common blessings of ecclesiastical society."

As a penalty, excommunication presupposes guilt and is considered the most serious penalty the Church can impose, implying a very grave offense. It is intended not merely to punish but to correct the individual and guide them back to the path of righteousness.

The Purpose of Excommunication

Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, major penitentiary emeritus of the Church, explained in 2015 that the purpose of excommunication is to lead "the guilty to repentance and conversion." He noted that the Church, through this penalty, does not seek to restrict mercy but to highlight the seriousness of the offense.

Excommunication extends beyond restricting access to Holy Communion. According to Canon 1339 Sec. 2, in cases of behavior causing scandal or serious public disturbance, the ordinary can also correct the person in a manner appropriate to their situation and actions.

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