“Ask a Priest: Can you explain excommunication?”

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Q: I’m having a slight problem understanding why the Church can excommunicate sinners when the sin is grave enough, yet the Church does not condemn Judas who betrayed Jesus. I understand that no one can know the heart of another, except God. I truly believe the same way, and I’m having trouble understanding why we need canon lawyers when only God knows our hearts? -M.O.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It’s good to remember that excommunication is meant to be corrective rather than punitive. That is, it is a penalty that is meant to send a strong signal to someone that he needs to change his ways and repent.

The glossary of the Catechism defines excommunication as: “A severe ecclesiastical penalty, resulting from grave crimes against the Catholic religion, imposed by ecclesiastical authority or incurred as a direct result of the commission of an offense. Excommunication excludes the offender from taking part in the Eucharist or other sacraments and from the exercise of any ecclesiastical office, ministry, or function.”

By the penalty of excommunication, the Church does not condemn anyone. As you mention, God alone knows the heart of each person. What the Church does do, and can do by the authority given it by God, is teach that certain types of objective offenses are so serious that they effectively cut off a person from the sacraments and from the exercise of Church office or ministries, etc. Put another way, excommunication is a kind of teaching tool. The lesson it teaches in this case is a severe one.

Excommunication, then, is not a case of canon lawyers “reading a person’s heart.” That is not the point of the penalty. Moreover, it is not up to canon lawyers to decide what constitutes an excommunicable offense. That is decided by the magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church that comprises the Pope and the bishops. Canon lawyers might help shed light on certain points, but they are ultimately at the service of the Church. And again, the Church gets its authority from God. So it’s a false dilemma to say that somehow canon lawyers have as much say as the Almighty.

In the case of Judas, true, the Church hasn’t ruled on his destiny. God alone knows that. At any rate, excommunication is designed to help the living, who have the chance to repent. It doesn’t apply to the dead, whose days of decision are over. I hope this helps. God bless.

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