Canonist Ed Peters on Excommunication

Most Catholics know that excommunication has played an important role in ecclesiastical life since ancient times. Many also assume that this controversial procedure was relegated to the history books after the Second Vatican Council. But this assumption is wrong.

Excommunication remains an important part of canon law. In fact, there are signs that in the years to come it will play a larger role in Church life than we’ve been accustomed to seeing. To understand why, let’s look at three key questions frequently raised about excommunication.

  • Is excommunication the most severe penalty that the Church can apply, or is it a medicinal remedy intended to bring about personal repentance and conversion?
  • Is excommunication imposed in response to certain serious violations of canon law, or is it a consequence of mortal sins as determined by moral theology?
  • Is there a master list of actions for which one can be excommunicated, or is each bishop or priest allowed to formulate his own?

The answers to these three questions can help us understand better what excommunication means today and what it might mean tomorrow. Let’s see how.

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