Excommunication literally means “out of the community” and signifies the practice of someone moving outside the religious group. Groups ranging from Orthodox Jews to Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons have used the tradition of excommunication, including practices such as social shunning.
In Catholic and many other circles, excommunication is “medicinal,” or similar to “being sent to your room without supper,” with the hope that the punished person would repent of error and return to the fold, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter and author of books about the Catholic hierarchy.
It’s not a permanent punishment akin to a spiritual “capital punishment,” he said.
In Catholic history, the list of those who have been considered excommunicated has amounted to a who's who — from the ancient Arius and Nestorius, whose teachings were condemned, to a medieval Orthodox patriarch during the definitive 11th century split between Eastern and Western churches to Protestant Reformation figures such as Jan Hus, Martin Luther and Henry VIII.
The common use and sometimes abuse of this authority has led to church legal reforms that have limited its application in modern times.
Still, the practice continues. In the 1980s, for example, the Vatican has said clerics led by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who rejected the edicts of the Second Vatican Council, had excommunicated themselves, although some were later restored.
The Vatican told the American activist priest Roy Bourgeois, who participated in a Kentucky ordination ceremony for a woman, that if he didn’t repent, his actions would automatically incur excommunication.
The eternal salvation or damnation of an excommunicated person who dies without being reconciled is considered “up to God,” Father Reese said.