St John's Q&A

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"If a priest is excommunicated..."

I have asked Anthony, our current seminarian all-star who will be completing his assignment here next week, to respond to the following questions from an anonymous blogger:

1) If one is excommunicated, they are barred from receiving communion, right? But how exactly is that different from any other who is not in a state of grace? 2) Also, if a priest is excommunicated, what exactly does that mean? A priest is a priest for life, so excommunication wouldn't change that. I would assume they are prohibited from participating in things of the church. So, if an excommunicated member of the clergy did say Mass and offer the sacraments, would they be valid?

1) First, it is helpful to recall what the Church means by communion. As Vatican II taught in Lumen Gentium (# 14),

“They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion.”

So, there are invisible and visible bonds that are express one’s communion with the Church. The invisible bond is to have the grace and the charity of the Holy Spirit. The visible bonds are the profession of faith, the sacraments, and to be in communion with the Pope and one’s bishop. These visible and invisible bonds cannot be considered separately – the visible bonds of communion are a manifestation and a verification of the invisible communion of grace one has with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

If one commits a mortal sin, one loses the grace and charity of the Holy Spirit, and one loses full communion with God and the Church. Therefore, the person loses the right to receive the visible expression of communion, the Eucharist. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance requires that a person recognize this break in communion and be sorry for his or her sin and resolve to not commit this sin again.

A person’s sin is between him or her and God – this is also why the priest cannot reveal anything that happens in the sacrament of Penance. However, when a person’s mortal sin is public, the Church pays special attention because this public mortal sin may cause scandal to the faithful. As a shepherd, the pope or local bishop must guard the flock from error and falling out of communion. So, they may impose a penalty (such as excommunication) on the person in rare circumstances to protect the flock. But the penalty is also to call the sinner back into communion. The person may not fully appreciate the consequences of breaking communion with God and the Church, and the Church, through a public penalty, is seeking to inform this person’s conscience to this fact.

Thus, a penalty such as excommunication does not cause the excommunication. Rather, it is merely visibly expressing the excommunication that the person has already made public by their sin. But this excommunication is imposed by the Church only in extreme cases. In fact, from Canon Law (# 1341) a bishop “is to take care to initiate a judicial or administrative process to impose or declare penalties only after he has ascertained that fraternal correction or rebuke or other means of pastoral solicitude cannot sufficiently repair the scandal, restore justice, reform the offender.” In other words, a bishop is only to impose the penalty of excommunication as a last resort, to prevent scandal, to restore justice, and most importantly, to call the offender to repentance and back to full communion with the Church. This decision is made carefully, but it is always to promote both the common good and the good of the person. This excommunication can apply to all the sacraments (except in cases of death) and to even the holding of any office in the Church.

However, in the special case of the Eucharist, the priest or bishop may deny a person the sacrament without imposing a formal excommunication. This is when a person is “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin.” (Canon Law, #915). Again, this person is already out of communion with the Church due to a mortal sin, but this denial of the Eucharist is done in the extreme case when a person has made a mortal sin public and who remains in this sin even after being counseled or warned by the Church. The Church in this case is again protecting the flock and calling the person to conversion.

So, to sum up, when someone commits a mortal sin, they are out of communion with the Church, even if they continue in visible communion. Again from Vatican II (Lumen Gentium, # 14) “He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a ‘bodily’ manner and not ‘in his heart.’” However, when a person’s mortal sin is public, and it continues even after being corrected, and it is causing scandal, the Church responds by also acting publicly, whether by denying the Eucharist or by imposing the penalty of excommunication.

b) In the second question about the excommunicated priest, you are correct in saying that the priest is a priest for life. The priest when he is ordained is permanently configured to Jesus Christ. Thus he participates in the one ministry of Christ through the functions of sanctification (through the sacraments), teaching, and governance. A priest (or bishop) because he has been permanently ordained, never looses the function or power of sanctification. However, the Church can regulate this power for the common good, and she does so by giving additional permission called a faculty or authority to a priest to validly celebrate certain sacraments.

A regular priest, for example, needs a special faculty to absolve sins (Canon Law #966) and to confirm (#882), and he needs special authority to witness marriages (#1109). If he does not have this faculty or authority, the sacrament is not valid, even if he is not excommunicated. He does not need this special faculty or authority to validly Baptize (#861), to validly celebrate Mass (#900), or for a bishop, to validly ordain a priest (#1012).

So, if a priest is excommunicated, he cannot legally (or licitly) celebrate any sacrament (except in danger of death), and he also loses these faculties or authority to validly celebrate the sacraments that need them. What this means is that if a priest is excommunicated, the only sacraments he celebrates validly are Baptism and the Eucharist (Holy Mass); they would be valid but illicit (illegal). If he is a bishop who is excommunicated, he would still validly ordain (other priests), but to do so would be gravely sinful. Finally, in danger of death, an excommunicated priest can validly (and licitly) absolve sins (#976), confirm (#883), and anoint the sick (#1003).


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