The Biblical Definition of Excommunication
In my previous post, I considered the Catholic definition of excommunication. I pronounced it unbiblical, but I never looked at a single Bible verse that discussed the concept of excommunication. And that, of course, was a mistake. I had actually meant to do that, but somehow forgot. Ooops.
I should mention that I don’t have a problem with the definition of excommunication as pronounced in the Code of Canon Law per se, it’s the method of execution that I take exception to. To refresh, the Catholic definition of excommunication is:
Exclusion from the communion, the principal and severest censure, is a medicinal, spiritual penalty that deprives the guilty Christian of all participation in the common blessings of ecclesiastical society.
That means no participation in sacraments, church life, or social intercourse with members in good standing. Excommunicants who die unrepentant are refused burial rites. Clerics who are so excommunicated are stripped of all their rights, responsibilities, and ecclesiastical authority. Again, I have no problem with the definition of excommunication per se.
The execution of excommunication, however, I do have a problem with. In certain cases, such as the case with Sr. McBride that I’ve discussed, the excommunication is automatic–with no investigation or trial. This isn’t biblical. Although there are a few passages that deal with excommunication in the New Testament, the primary one that also discusses the pattern of discipline leading to an excommunication is Matthew 18:15-17. It reads:
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
So, if someone sins against his brother, the brother is to confront him. If the sinner won’t listen, then the brother is to take two or three witnesses with him. If the sinner still won’t listen, the matter goes before the church. If that doesn’t work, then excommunication is the answer. Note that the sinner is to be given several chances, and there is no mention of incurring an automatic excommunication.
Jesus goes on in the next section to make it clear that excommunication is permanent only if the sinner is unrepentant. He tells Peter to forgive a brother “seventy times seven times,” which is a first century Hebrew euphemism used like we would use “as many times as it takes,” or “an infinite number of times,” or similar modern expressions.
Fortunately, the Code of Canon Law takes that into consideration by stating that excommunication is meant to be medicinal. In that spirit, I agree with Catholic excommunication. However, automatic excommunication is a bit severe. As this blog points out, automatic excommunication often targets the wrong person:
“It is a sad case but the real problem is that the twins conceived were two innocent persons, who had the right to live and could not be eliminated,” said Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re to a local daily. Re—who is the head of the Roman Catholic Church’s Congregation for Bishops—acknowledged that “life must always be protected” yet did not say anything over the girl’s life being in danger by her pregnancy.
Aside from excommunicating the girl’s mother, Sobrinho also had the gall to disparage the raped child:
The stepfather was not excommunicated because the church said that his action, although deplorable, was not as bad as ending the life of an unborn child.
“It is clear that he committed a very serious sin, but worse than this is the abortion,” Sobrinho said.
Perhaps the “Wondering Rose” said it the best:
What view of morality or justice sees shades of gray in the decision that was left to Sister Margaret McBride? How can religious doctrine deem the unborn child’s life worth more than that of a 27-year-old woman, and mother of four? In what code of ethics is it right to leave four children motherless, when her life could be saved by forfeiting the life of an 11-week old fetus? Who is served by excommunicating Sister McBride, a nun who has given decades of her life to her order, the Sisters of Mercy, in service to the church, to the communion of believers and to society? How do we view her banishment in comparison to the pedophile priests, none of whom have been excommunicated but who were allowed to continue their heinous ways under the protection of the Bishops? (emphasis in original)