COLUMBIA — When broken down into its Latin roots, the word excommunication means exclusion from communion.
In practice, excommunication is the expulsion of an individual from a religious community.
Although many different faith traditions currently perform, or historically inflicted, this type of punishment, excommunication is often associated with the Roman Catholic Church.
In March, then-St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke excommunicated three female members of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement. The justification behind the excommunication was the women’s participation in female ordination, according to a Catholic News Service story.
The article quoted Vatican official Monsignor Angelo Amato as saying, “The Church does not feel authorized to change the will of its founder Jesus Christ.”
The Vatican supported the excommunication and declared that women seeking ordination as Roman Catholic priests, in violation of established church doctrine, will face this most severe punishment.
In the early days of Christianity, excommunication was frequently threatened or imposed to enforce such things as the observance of fasts and feasts, tithing and obedience.
Before the 16th century, excommunication evolved into a form of interrogation, compelling individuals to reveal desired information.
These abuses of excommunication were addressed at the Council of Trent, which met in the mid-16th century. The council determined that this form of retribution could no longer be inflicted as “a means of coercion,” according to New Advent, the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Excommunication is the most severe punishment the Roman Catholic Church can inflict because it prohibits individuals from receiving the sacraments, as well as participating in communal worship.
Offenses worthy of excommunication are external and performed by rational individuals with moral freedom and knowledge of the law.
Internal doubts of doctrine, for example, are not deserving of excommunication. However, a conscious decision, made by a reasonable person, to overtly disobey church law may be deemed punishable by excommunication.
Despite its severity, the purpose of excommunication is not to punish, but to help reform. Supposing that an excommunicated individual is genuinely penitent, absolution from excommunication may be granted. The individual must be willing to abide by the rules that were originally offended and may have to agree to supplemental conditions of the absolution.
In this manner, the practice of excommunication serves as a deterrent to defying the teachings and rituals of the Catholic church.
Source: The Catholic News Service, New Advent