What Is Excommunication in the Catholic Church?

And What Are Its Effects?

Henry IV Doing Penance at Canossa, 1882
Henry IV Doing Penance at Canossa for His Excommunication. Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images

For many people, the word excommunication conjures up images of the Spanish Inquisition, complete with rack and rope and possibly even burning at the stake. While excommunication is a serious matter, the Catholic Church does not regard excommunication as a punishment, strictly speaking, but as a corrective measure. Just as a parent might give a child a "time out" or "ground" him to help him think about what he has done, the point of excommunication is to call the excommunicated person to repentance, and to return that person to full communion with the Catholic Church through the Sacrament of Confession.

But what, exactly, is excommunication?

Excommunication in a Sentence

Excommunication, writes Fr. John Hardon, S.J., in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, is "An ecclesiastical censure by which one is more or less excluded from communion with the faithful."

In other words, excommunication is the way in which the Catholic Church expresses severe disapproval of an action taken by a baptized Catholic that is either gravely immoral or in some way calls into question or undermines publicly the truth of the Catholic Faith. Excommunication is the gravest penalty that the Church can impose on a baptized Catholic, but it is imposed out of love for both the person and the Church. The point of excommunication is to convince the person that his or her action was wrong, so that he or she may feel sorry for the action and be reconciled to the Church, and, in the case of actions that cause a public scandal, to make others aware that the person's action is not considered acceptable by the Catholic Church.

What Does It Mean to Be Excommunicated From the Catholic Church?

The effects of excommunication are laid out in the Code of Canon Law, the rules by which the Catholic Church is governed. Canon 1331 declares that "An excommunicated person is forbidden"

  1. to have any ministerial participation in celebrating the sacrifice of the Eucharist or any other ceremonies of worship whatsoever;
  1. to celebrate the sacraments or sacramentals and to receive the sacraments;
  2. to exercise any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, or functions whatsoever or to place acts of governance.

The Effects of Excommunication

The first effect applies to clergy—bishops, priests, and deacons. For instance, a bishop who has been excommunicated cannot confer the Sacrament of Confirmation or take part in the ordination of another bishop, priest, or deacon; an excommunicated priest cannot celebrate the Mass; and an excommunicated deacon cannot preside at the Sacrament of Marriage or take part in a public celebration of the Sacrament of Baptism. (There is one important exception to this effect, noted in Canon 1335: "the prohibition is suspended whenever it is necessary to care for the faithful in danger of death." So, for instance, an excommunicated priest may offer Last Rites and hear the final Confession of a dying Catholic.)

The second effect applies to both clergy and laymen, who cannot receive any of the sacraments while they are excommunicated (with the exception of the Sacrament of Confession, in those cases in which Confession suffices to remove the penalty of excommunication).

The third effect applies primarily to clergy (for instance, a bishop who has been excommunicated cannot exercise his normal authority in his diocese), but also to laymen who perform public functions on behalf of the Catholic Church (say, a teacher at a Catholic school).

What Excommunication Is Not

The point of excommunication is often misunderstood. Many people think that, when a person is excommunicated, he or she is "no longer a Catholic." But just as the Church can excommunicate someone only if he is a baptized Catholic, the excommunicated person remains a Catholic after his excommunication—unless, of course, he specifically apostatizes (that is, completely renounces the Catholic Faith). In the case of apostasy, however, it is not the excommunication that made him no longer a Catholic; it was his conscious choice to leave the Catholic Church.

The Church's goal in every excommunication is to convince the excommunicated person to return to full communion with the Catholic Church before he or she dies.

The Two Types of Excommunication

There are types of excommunication, known by their Latin names.

ferendae sententiae excommunication is one that is imposed on a person by a Church authority (usually his bishop). This type of excommunication tends to be fairly rare.

The more common type of excommunication is called latae sententiae. This type is also known in English as an "automatic" excommunication. An automatic excommunication occurs when a Catholic takes part in certain actions that are considered so gravely immoral or contrary to the truth of the Catholic Faith that the very action itself show that he has cut himself off from full communion with the Catholic Church.

How Does One Incur Automatic Excommunication?

Canon law lists several such actions that result in automatic excommunication. For instance, apostatizing from the Catholic Faith, publicly promoting heresy, or engaging in schism—that is, rejecting the proper authority of the Catholic Church (Canon 1364); throwing away the consecrated species of the Eucharist (the host or the wine after they have become the Body and Blood of Christ) or "retain[ing] them for sacrilegious purposes" (Canon 1367); physically assaulting the pope (Canon 1370); and undergoing an abortion (in the case of the mother) or paying for an abortion (Canon 1398). In addition, clergy can receive an automatic excommunication by, for instance, revealing sins that were confessed to him in the Sacrament of Confession (Canon 1388) or participating in the consecration of a bishop without the approval of the pope (Canon 1382).

Can an Excommunication Be Lifted?

Since the whole point of an excommunication is to try to convince the excommunicated person to repent of his action (so that his soul is no longer in danger), the hope of the Catholic Church is that every excommunication will eventually be lifted, and sooner rather than later.

In some cases, such as the automatic excommunication for procuring an abortion or apostasy, heresy, or schism, the excommunication can be lifted through a sincere, complete, and contrite Confession. In others, such as those incurred for sacrilege against the Eucharist or violating the seal of the confessional, the excommunication can only be lifted by the pope (or his delegate).

A person who is aware that he has incurred excommunication and wishes to have the excommunication lifted should first approach his parish priest and discuss the particular circumstances. The priest will advise him on what steps would be necessary to lift the excommunication.

Am I in Danger of Being Excommunicated?

The average Catholic is unlikely ever to find himself or herself in danger of excommunication. For instance, private doubts about the doctrines of the Catholic Church, if they are not publicly expressed or taught as true, are not the same as heresy, much less apostasy.

However, the increasing practice of abortion among Catholics, and the conversion of Catholics to non-Christian religions, do incur automatic excommunications. In order to be returned to full communion with the Catholic Church so that one can receive the sacraments, one would have to have such excommunications lifted.

Famous Excommunications

Many of the famous excommunications of history, of course, are those associated with the various Protestant leaders, such as Martin Luther in 1521, Henry VIII in 1533, and Elizabeth I in 1570. Perhaps the most gripping story of excommunication is that of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, who was excommunicated three times by Pope Gregory VII.

Repenting of his excommunication, Henry made a pilgrimage to the Pope in January 1077, and stood in the snow outside of the Castle of Canossa for three days, barefooted, fasting, and wearing a hairshirt, until Gregory agreed to lift the excommunication.

The most famous excommunications in recent years occurred when Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, an advocate of the Traditional Latin Mass and the founder of the Society of Saint Pius X, consecrated four bishops without the approval of Pope John Paul II in 1988. Archbishop Lefebvre and the four newly consecrated bishops all incurred automatic excommunications, which were lifted by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.

In December 2016, the pop singer Madonna, in a "Carpool Karaoke" segment on The Late Late Show With James Corden, claimed to have been excommunicated three times by the Catholic Church. While Madonna, who was baptized and raised a Catholic, has frequently been criticized by Catholic priests and bishops for sacrilegious songs and performances in her concerts, she has never formally been excommunicated. It is possible that Madonna has incurred an automatic excommunication for certain actions, but if so, that excommunication has never been publicly declared by the Catholic Church.