Martin Luther burning the papal bull that excommunicated him from the Roman Catholic Church in 1520, with other scenes from Luther's life and portraits of other Reformation figures, lithograph by H. Breul, c. 1874. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (digital file no. 00297u)

What Is Excommunication? And Why Is It So Serious?

Excommunication is defined as:

“An ecclesiastical censure by which one is more or less excluded from communion with the faithful. It is also called anathema, especially if it is inflicted with formal solemnities on persons notoriously obstinate to reconciliation. Two basic forms of excommunication are legislated by the Code of Canon Law, namely inflicted penalties (ferendae sententiae) and automatic penalties (latae sententiae). In the first type, a penalty does not bind until after it has been imposed on the guilty party. In the second type, the excommunication is incurred by the very commission of the offense, if the law or precept expressly determines this (Canon 1314). Most excommunications are of the second type.”[1]

Through excommunication, the most serious of all penalties, the excommunicated person is forbidden to “…have any ministerial participation in celebrating the Eucharistic Sacrifice or in any other ceremonies whatsoever of public worship, to celebrate the sacraments and sacramentals and to receive the sacraments, to discharge any ecclesiastical offices, ministries or functions whatsoever, or to place acts of governance (Canon 1331).”


Some have accused the Church of “inventing” the punishment of excommunication in order to advance its own ‘political’ control over people. While some historical excommunications might have been issued unjustly, it is an utterly false claim that at some point the Church “invented” this. Rather, this practice goes all the way back to Jesus Christ and the Apostles.

As mentioned in the 18th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Our Lord Himself – dealing with ecclesial matters – gave this admonition (verses 15-18):

“But if thy brother shall offend against thee, go, and rebuke him between thee and him alone. If he shall hear thee, thou shalt gain thy brother. And if he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more: that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may stand. And if he will not hear them: tell the church. And if he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican. Amen I say to you, 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.”

In Our Lord’s time, the Jews were accustomed to shunning heathens and publicans. They would not have them as friends, invite them into their homes, or eat with them. Very often they would not even speak to them, unless some necessity required it. In this passage, Our Lord is explaining that if someone remains obstinate in sin, and the Church authority deems this as sufficiently grave, then the legitimate ecclesial authority has the power to excommunicate the offender.

Lest someone think this is an erroneous interpretation, we also have the teaching and practice of St. Paul (cf. 1 Cor 5).[2] He was very upset that the Corinthians had allowed one who was living in adultery – with his own mother no less – to continue practicing the normal Catholic sacramental life. They should have censured that person and shunned him as Our Lord commanded in the passage above.

Since they had not done so, St. Paul does it himself through this letter, stating: “To deliver such a one to satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 5) and also “put away the evil one from among yourselves” (v. 13). These are strong words, and not even ecclesial excommunications usually carry such forceful language.

However, we should all know that an excommunication is issued for the salvation of souls! Note that St. Paul does so with a purpose: even though the man will suffer in this world (destruction of the flesh), the hope is that his “spirit may be saved” at the Judgment. This is excommunication’s end, which many people forget. Instead, it is only viewed negatively and as merely punitive. How warped is this view, for Holy Mother Church is always seeking the good of her children and of all mankind!

In objective reality, the excommunicated sinner is already under the power of satan on account of his grave sin. The excommunication is merely a legal declaration publicly revealing the truth of this situation. The purpose is two-fold. First, it prevents scandal. It provides an object lesson for all Christians of the horror of this sin and how it must be avoided at all costs. This helps others to not commit this heinous sin themselves. This is true charity – doing those things which are difficult because one is seeking the salvation of another.

Second, it is meant to bring the sinner to repentance. If he is ‘shunned’ from the community, there is a greater hope that he will open himself to the grace of God and convert. This will be further aided if the faithful pray for the sinner. Much like the Prodigal Son, the excommunication is meant to help the sinner realize his abject condition (destruction of the flesh) and return to the bosom of Holy Mother Church and the only Ark of Salvation. Again, this is true charity because the salvation of the soul is being sought, even though excommunication is the only means still available.

This is, in fact, what happened in the case of St. Paul and the adulterous man (see 2 Cor 2:1-11).[3] In his next letter to the Corinthians, we learn that the excommunicated sinner did indeed repent (what joy!) and was brought back into the Catholic fold:

“To him who is such a one [the repentant excommunicant], this rebuke is sufficient, which is given by many: So that on the contrary, you should rather forgive him and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. Wherefore, I beseech you, that you would confirm your charity towards him. For to this end also did I write, that I may know the experiment of you, whether you be obedient in all things. And to whom you have pardoned anything, I also. For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned any thing, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ. That we be not overreached by Satan. For we are not ignorant of his devices. (verses 6-11)”

There are also other passages in which we read about excommunication-type acts, such as 1 Timothy 1:20, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, and Titus 3:10-11. Thus, we can clearly see that the practice of excommunication is part of Divine Revelation.


Excommunication applies to priests who reveal the sins of penitents (Canon 1388); people who throw away the consecrated bread or wine or keep them for sacrilegious purposes (Canon 1367); and to heretics, apostates, and schismatics (Canon 1364). Those who perform, assist in, or receive an abortion are also excommunicated (Canon 1398), as well as those who are members of the Freemasons (cf. Canon 1374).[4]

While any bishop may perform an exorcism, the Rituale Romanum provided the details for how a Pope may impose a solemn anathema. The grave nature of the ceremony, along with its prayers, indicated the severity. For instance, the Sovereign Pontiff would be vested with a purple cope and, while holding a lighted candle, he would be surrounded by twelve priests, also holding lighted candles. The Vicar of Christ would then pronounce the anathema with a formula that concluded with the following statement:

“Wherefore in the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, of Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive {Insert Name} himself and all his accomplices and all his abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, we separate him from the society of all Christians, we exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church; we deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgment.”

At this point, the twelve priests would respond: “Fiat, fiat, fiat” (Let it be done), and all, including the Pope, would cast their lighted candles to the ground, to symbolize how the soul of the one who is anathematized has been snuffed out.

Although the one who is anathematized has been delivered to satan and his angels, he can still – and is bound to – repent and receive the Sacrament of Confession. The Pontifical gives the form for absolving him and reconciling him with the Church.

In a time when so many have incurred automatic excommunication for their involvement in the horrible sin of abortion – amongst others – let us offer our prayers today that all who are separated from God and in the power of satan will be delivered from his snares and reunited to Holy Mother Church and restored to the life of grace.

[1] Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., Modern Catholic Dictionary.

[2] Consulting the Haydock Bible’s commentary is helpful in understanding this passage. It states: “This seems to have been the crime of incest, that he took the wife of his father yet living. [Some Church Fathers] think that this incestuous person was one of the chiefs of the schism which then reigned at Corinth. This man, say they, was a great orator, with whose eloquence the Corinthians were enchanted, and therefore dissembled a knowledge of his crime, public as it was. The Apostle having proved to them the vanity of all human learning, in the preceding chapter, now attacks the incestuous man, and exposes to their view the enormity of his crime.”

[3] Again, we turn to Fr. Haydock for clarity on this passage. He comments: “[St. Paul] speaks of the Corinthian guilty of incest, whom he brought to sorrow and repentance, by excommunicating him in his former epistle, and now St. Paul rejoiceth at his conversion … When last I wrote to you I was in great anguish on account of the crime of the incestuous man; but my grief was moderated by the consideration of the behavior of the rest of the Church of Corinth, which had remained steadfast in faith and virtue.”

[4] The Papal Bull issued by Pope Clement XII (“On Freemasonry”) in 1738 stated in part: “with the plenitude of the Apostolic power do hereby determine and have decreed that these same Societies, Companies, Assemblies, Meetings, Congregations, or Conventicles of Liberi Muratori or Francs Massons, or whatever other name they may go by, are to be condemned and prohibited, and by Our present Constitution, valid for ever, We do condemn and prohibit them.” The Holy Father continued later on by stating clearly: “…[Catholics] must stay completely clear of such Societies, Companies, Assemblies, Meetings, Congregations or Conventicles, under pain of excommunication for all the above mentioned people, which is incurred by the very deed without any declaration being required, and from which no one can obtain the benefit of absolution, other than at the hour of death, except through Ourselves or the Roman Pontiff of the time.”