“Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and
whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 18:18)
Excommunication or proclaiming someone "anathema" is the Church's legal means by which a person is excluded from unity with the Church. Jesus gave the Apostles the authority to excommunicate members of the Church who, for whatever reason, rebel against legitimate authority, deny any dogma(s) of the faith or who give scandal by immoral conduct (Matt 16:18; 18:18 and John 20:23). One can be excommunicated automatically or formally. St. Paul was the first Apostle to use excommunication in order to correct an errant member of the Corinthian Catholic community who gave scandal (1 Corinthians 5:1-13). This same man was re-communicated to the Church after he repented of his sin.
There are two ways that the faithful are required to react to a "excommunicate." The Church can ask the faithful to "avoid" an excommunicated person altogether, sometimes called "Shunning". The Latin term is "vitandi" i.e. to be avoided. Or the faithful can continue to communicate with the excommunicated person, the Latin term for this is "tolerati" i.e. tolerated.
During the greatest part of the last 2000 years excommunication has been used by ecclesiastical authority, from local bishops to the Pope, to reign in those clerics and Catholic laymen who rebell against legitimate Church authority, the dogmas of the faith or who gave public scandal. During the Age of Faith from approximately A.D.800-1400 excommunication was an effective and often used tool having influence over everyone including Kings.
Many of you may have read about the excommunication of Lord Gilbert during the reign of Henry II of England. This excommunication ultimately lead to the assassination of St. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Lord Gilbert had killed a priest usurping the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts and taking the law into his own hand. To physically harm or to kill any cleric has always been an "excommunicatable" offense. He, therefore, was formally (i.e., publicly) excommunicated by Becket. This judgment by St. Thomas upon Lord Gilbert separated him from all communion with the faithful not only on earth but in purgatory and heaven as well (Matt. 18:18). Becket did what he had to do and he gave his life for it.
What are the immediate effects of excommunication. The following Latin phrase contains those effects:
"Res sacrae, ritus, communio, crypta, potestas, praedia sacra, forum, civilia jura vetantur,..."
i.e. loss of the sacraments, denial of attending Holy Mass and public prayers of the Church, no ecclesiastical burial, loss of canonical jurisdiction, benefices, canonical rights and prohibition of social intercourse with the faithful.
When men had faith and the entire society was immersed in the Faith to be excommunicated was considered the absolute worst thing that could ever happen to someone. It was better to be put to death while still in the graces of the Church than to be excommunicated. It also had terrible social and political effects. The subjects of a King, for instance, were released from their obedience and loyalty to him if he were excommunicated. Laymen living in ordinary life are effected by excommunication as well. To live in such a state is to be separated from the very source of comfort in an otherwise hard and difficult life. The excommunicate cannot receive the sacraments (Res Sacrae), nor participate in the Holy Mass (Ritus) or public prayers of the Church (communio). The excommunicate is even deprived of a Catholic funeral or burial in consecrated ground. For the excommunicated cleric the se verity of excommunication is even worse. They loose the ability to celebrate the sacraments legitimately except in certain circumstances when the needs of the many outweigh the crime of the one. An excommunicated priest can validly administer the sacraments in times of necessity for the sake of the faithful and they can receive the sacraments licitly from such clerics if this is the only means by which the sacraments can be received. This administration of the sacraments is only licit if the excommunicated cleric is "tolerati" and not "vitandi". However, no excommunicated cleric can licitly or validly hear confessions and give absolution nor can they validly witness marriage vows even if the couple are Catholics in good standing. A bishop's powers of jurisdiction are nullified and revoked. They are without jurisdiction in their diocese and must relinquish their seat of power to another bishop assigned by the Pope (Potestas).
There are two types of excommunication Formal (ab homine), i.e. imposed publicly upon a person by legitimate authority; and Informal (a jure), i.e. imposed by the laws of the Church automatically once the law has been violated. A good example of formal excommunication can be found in the above case of Lord Gilbert by St. Thomas Becket. But there are many violations of ecclesiastical law which impose excommunication as an automatic consequence (latae sententiae). The list is as follows found in the Code of Canon Law 1983:
1. Apostasy from the faith.
4. The deliberate desecration of the Blessed Sacrament, throwing away the Host or Precious Blood, or the stealing of the Blessed Sacrament to be used in a sacrilegious manner.
5. One who uses physical force against the Roman Pontiff or Bishop.
6. A priest who attempts to absolve his accomplice in a sin against the 6th Commandment.
7. Anyone who is not validly ordained attempting to celebrate Mass.
8. Any priest or layman who hears a sacramental confession but has not been given the faculty to give valid absolution by the local ordinary.
9. A bishop who consecrates someone a bishop and the person who receives the consecration from a bishop without a direct mandate from the Pope.
10. A validly ordained priest who violates the seal of sacramental confession.
11. One who falsely accuses a confessor before an ecclesiastical superior.
12. A cleric who attempts to get married.
13. A person who has taken perpetual vows and attempts marriage.
14. A person who procures a successful abortion.
It is important to note that when you apply any of these above offenses to the present clergy in the American Church it's reasonable to assume that 70%of them are latae sententiae ecommunicated.
It is also important to note that any ecclesiastical judge may impose excommunication or interdict if they deem necessary on any crime or scandal that warrants a more severe response. Canon 1326.
It is important to note that the only cases where formal excommunication has been used in recent history are by those bishops who have had the courage to stand up and do something to stop the confusion in the Church at least within their own diocese.
I believe that it is time for a wider and more generous application of this tool. We, as faithful Roman Catholics have the right to really know the enemies of our souls especially when those enemies are within our midst. Thank God for a bishop like his Excellency Fabian Bruskewitz. We need more bishops like him. Pray that God may send such men to aid His People.