When the Catholic Church excommunicates a member because of his or her different theological conviction, as in the case of a bishop who defied Church authority to ordain a woman to the priesthood, does God deny both the bishop and the woman salvation? Or, is excommunication simply a disciplinary tool of the Catholic Church to exercise her authority over disobedient members?
I will try to give you an overall picture of this issue without, however, giving all the nuances. Some of these are used less today than they were centuries ago.
Excommunication is not a sending-to-hell of anyone. Only God can determine an individual's eternal status based upon that person's acceptance or refusal to allow God into her/his life. Excommunication is the Church's method of excluding an individual who is dissenting on a serious faith or moral issue in order to bring that individual to a change of heart.
The Church bases its actions on the authority given to it in Scripture "Whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18.18).
There are two forms of excommunication; the first is informal. When certain Church laws are broken, one automatically excommunicates oneself.
Several circumstances for this are given in the 1983 Code of Canon Law such as a total rejection of the faith, a denial of an essential element of the faith, the rejection of the authority of the pope as the head of the Church or a deliberate desecration of the Blessed Sacrament.
Other circumstances include using physical force against the pope or a bishop, attempting to celebrate Mass by one who is not validly ordained, and a cleric hearing sacramental Confession without having the faculty to do so.
The second form of excommunication is formal, that is, a public declaration that one is excommunicated and separated from the Church community as well as who is to be avoided or tolerated, that is, allowed continued communication.
St. Paul used this method to correct a member of the community who gave scandal (1 Corinthians 5.1-13). He later reinstated the repentant individual.
Generally, the effects of excommunication for the individual are loss of the sacraments except penance, as well as the prohibition against attending Mass and public prayers of the Church, Church burial and other Church benefits.
When a priest is excommunicated, he is deprived of the faculties associated with the priesthood, and he is allowed to administer the sacraments only in times of necessity. The local bishop or priest can usually remove the excommunication, except in the most serious cases when only the pope or his delegate can remove them.
Other forms of penalties are given in canon law. One is suspension when the priest, deacon or bishop is forbidden to exercise his ordained ministry but is allowed to receive the sacraments himself.
Another is an interdict when a person or even a whole town or area is
deprived of the sacraments but is not excommunicated.
One example of this was when St. Hildegard and her whole community were put under interdict. It could not have Mass nor sing the Divine Office because Hildegard had disobeyed Church authority and allowed a repentant sinner to be buried in sacred ground.
In connection with these problems, we hear of the obligation to follow one's conscience. Conscience is a guiding principle by which one evaluates the morality of one's own actions.
St. Paul took the word from the Greek and made it a central part of the Christian moral message saying that we are obliged to follow our conscience which is "inscribed in our hearts" (Romans 2.14-15). Conscience is an intuitive faculty, a moral sense of right and wrong. The Old Testament calls this inner voice the "heart" or "loins."
The Church teaches that it is essential that we have a properly informed conscience in order to follow it. One must make a thorough study of the matter at hand from the view of the Church and of the sciences, as well as of our humanity.
The Church has centuries of experience in dealing with issues of faith and morality, so it is wise to consider its experience. The Church never intends to condemn the person but rather helps the person attain salvation in the light of Christ and the Gospels.
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