QUESTION 21: OF THE DEFINITION, CONGRUITY AND CAUSE OF EXCOMMUNICATION
We must now treat of excommunication: we shall consider: (1) the
definition, congruity and cause of excommunication; (2) who has the power
to excommunicate; (3) communication with excommunicated persons; (4)
absolution from excommunication.
Under the first head there are four points of inquiry:
(1) Whether excommunication is suitably defined?
(2) Whether the Church should excommunicate anyone?
(3) Whether anyone should be excommunicated for inflicting temporal harm?
(4) Whether an excommunication unjustly pronounced has any effect?
Article 1: Whether excommunication is suitably defined as separation from the communion of the Church, etc?
Objection 1: It would seem that excommunication is unsuitably defined by some
thus: "Excommunication is separation from the communion of the Church, as
to fruit and general suffrages." For the suffrages of the Church avail
for those for whom they are offered. But the Church prays for those who
are outside the Church, as, for instance, for heretics and pagans.
Therefore she prays also for the excommunicated, since they are outside
the Church, and so the suffrages of the Church avail for them.
Objection 2: Further, no one loses the suffrages of the Church except by his
own fault. Now excommunication is not a fault, but a punishment.
Therefore excommunication does not deprive a man of the general suffrages
of the Church.
Objection 3: Further, the fruit of the Church seems to be the same as the
Church's suffrages, for it cannot mean the fruit of temporal goods, since
excommunication does not deprive a man of these. Therefore there is no
reason for mentioning both.
Objection 4: Further, there is a kind of excommunication called minor*, by
which man is not deprived of the suffrages of the Church. [*Minor
excommunication is no longer recognized by Canon Law.] Therefore this
definition is unsuitable.
I answer that, When a man enters the Church by Baptism, he is admitted
to two things, viz. the body of the faithful and the participation of the
sacraments: and this latter presupposes the former, since the faithful
are united together in the participation of the sacraments. Consequently
a person may be expelled from the Church in two ways. First, by being
deprived merely of the participation of the sacraments, and this is the
minor excommunication. Secondly, by being deprived of both, and this is
the major excommunication, of which the above is the definition. Nor can
there be a third, consisting in the privation of communion with the
faithful, but not of the participation of the sacraments, for the reason
already given, because, to wit, the faithful communicate together in the
sacraments. Now communion with the faithful is twofold. One consists in
spiritual things, such as their praying for one another, and meeting
together for the reception of sacred things; while another consists in
certain legitimate bodily actions. These different manners of communion
are signified in the verse which declares that those who are
excommunicate are deprived of---
"os, orare, vale, communio, mensa."
"Os," i.e. we must not give them tokens of goodwill; "orare," i.e. we
must not pray with them; "vale," we must not give them marks of respect;
"communio," i.e. we must not communicate with them in the sacraments;
"mensa," i.e. we must not take meals with them. Accordingly the above
definition includes privation of the sacraments in the words "as to the
fruit," and from partaking together with the faithful in spiritual
things, in the words, "and the general prayers of the Church."
Another definition is given which expresses the privation of both kinds
of acts, and is as follows: "Excommunication is the privation of all
lawful communion with the faithful."
Reply to Objection 1: Prayers are said for unbelievers, but they do not receive
the fruit of those prayers unless they be converted to the faith. In like
manner prayers may be offered up for those who are excommunicated, but
not among the prayers that are said for the members of the Church. Yet
they do not receive the fruit so long as they remain under the
excommunication, but prayers are said for them that they may receive the
spirit of repentance, so that they may be loosed from excommunication.
Reply to Objection 2: One man's prayers profit another in so far as they can
reach to him. Now the action of one man may reach to another in two ways.
First, by virtue of charity which unites all the faithful, making them
one in God, according to Ps. 118:63: "I am a partaker with all them that
fear Thee." Now excommunication does not interrupt this union, since no
man can be justly excommunicated except for a mortal sin, whereby a man
is already separated from charity, even without being excommunicated. An
unjust excommunication cannot deprive a man of charity, since this is one
of the greatest of all goods, of which a man cannot be deprived against
his will. Secondly, through the intention of the one who prays, which
intention is directed to the person he prays for, and this union is
interrupted by excommunication, because by passing sentence of
excommunication, the Church severs a man from the whole body of the
faithful, for whom she prays. Hence those prayers of the Church which are
offered up for the whole Church, do not profit those who are
excommunicated. Nor can prayers be said for them among the members of
the Church as speaking in the Church's name, although a private
individual may say a prayer with the intention of offering it for their
Reply to Objection 3: The spiritual fruit of the Church is derived not only from
her prayers, but also from the sacraments received and from the faithful
Reply to Objection 4: The minor excommunication does not fulfill all the
conditions of excommunication but only a part of them, hence the
definition of excommunication need not apply to it in every respect, but
only in some.
Article 2: Whether the Church should excommunicate anyone?
Objection 1: It would seem that the Church ought not to excommunicate anyone,
because excommunication is a kind of curse, and we are forbidden to curse
(Rm. 12:14). Therefore the Church should not excommunicate.
Objection 2: Further, the Church Militant should imitate the Church
Triumphant. Now we read in the epistle of Jude (verse 9) that "when
Michael the Archangel disputing with the devil contended about the body
of Moses, he durst not bring against him the judgment of railing speech,
but said: The Lord command thee." Therefore the Church Militant ought not
to judge any man by cursing or excommunicating him.
Objection 3: Further, no man should be given into the hands of his enemies,
unless there be no hope for him. Now by excommunication a man is given
into the hands of Satan, as is clear from 1 Cor. 5:5. Since then we
should never give up hope about anyone in this life, the Church should
not excommunicate anyone.
On the contrary, The Apostle (1 Cor. 5:5) ordered a man to be
Further, it is written (Mt. 18:17) about the man who refuses to hear the
Church: "Let him be to thee as the heathen or publican." But heathens are
outside the Church. Therefore they also who refuse to hear the Church,
should be banished from the Church by excommunication.
I answer that, The judgment of the Church should be conformed to the
judgment of God. Now God punishes the sinner in many ways, in order to
draw him to good, either by chastising him with stripes, or by leaving
him to himself so that being deprived of those helps whereby he was kept
out of evil, he may acknowledge his weakness, and humbly return to God
Whom he had abandoned in his pride. In both these respects the Church by
passing sentence of excommunication imitates the judgment of God. For by
severing a man from the communion of the faithful that he may blush with
shame, she imitates the judgment whereby God chastises man with stripes;
and by depriving him of prayers and other spiritual things, she imitates
the judgment of God in leaving man to himself, in order that by humility
he may learn to know himself and return to God.
Reply to Objection 1: A curse may be pronounced in two ways: first, so that the
intention of the one who curses is fixed on the evil which he invokes or
pronounces, and cursing in this sense is altogether forbidden. Secondly,
so that the evil which a man invokes in cursing is intended for the good
of the one who is cursed, and thus cursing is sometimes lawful and
salutary: thus a physician makes a sick man undergo pain, by cutting him,
for instance, in order to deliver him from his sickness.
Reply to Objection 2: The devil cannot be brought to repentance, wherefore the
pain of excommunication cannot do him any good.
Reply to Objection 3: From the very fact that a man is deprived of the prayers of
the Church, he incurs a triple loss, corresponding to the three things
which a man acquires through the Church's prayers. For they bring an
increase of grace to those who have it, or merit grace for those who have
it not; and in this respect the Master of the Sentences says (Sent. iv,
D, 18): "The grace of God is taken away by excommunication." They also
prove a safeguard of virtue; and in this respect he says that "protection
is taken away," not that the excommunicated person is withdrawn
altogether from God's providence, but that he is excluded from that
protection with which He watches over the children of the Church in a
more special way. Moreover, they are useful as a defense against the
enemy, and in this respect he says that "the devil receives greater power
of assaulting the excommunicated person, both spiritually and
corporally." Hence in the early Church, when men had to be enticed to the
faith by means of outward signs (thus the gift of the Holy Ghost was
shown openly by a visible sign), so too excommunication was evidenced by
a person being troubled in his body by the devil. Nor is it unreasonable
that one, for whom there is still hope, be given over to the enemy, for
he is surrendered, not unto damnation, but unto correction, since the
Church has the power to rescue him from the hands of the enemy, whenever
he is willing.
Article 3: Whether anyone should be excommunicated for inflicting temporal harm?
Objection 1: It would seem that no man should be excommunicated for inflicting
a temporal harm. For the punishment should not exceed the fault. But the
punishment of excommunication is the privation of a spiritual good, which
surpasses all temporal goods. Therefore no man should be excommunicated
for temporal injuries.
Objection 2: Further, we should render to no man evil for evil, according to
the precept of the Apostle (Rm. 12:17). But this would be rendering evil
for evil, if a man were to be excommunicated for doing such an injury.
Therefore this ought by no means to be done.
On the contrary, Peter sentenced Ananias and Saphira to death for
keeping back the price of their piece of land (Acts 5:1-10). Therefore it
is lawful for the Church to excommunicate for temporal injuries.
I answer that, By excommunication the ecclesiastical judge excludes a
man, in a sense, from the kingdom. Wherefore, since he ought not to
exclude from the kingdom others than the unworthy, as was made clear from
the definition of the keys (Question , Article ), and since no one becomes
unworthy, unless, through committing a mortal sin, he lose charity which
is the way leading to the kingdom, it follows that no man should be
excommunicated except for a mortal sin. And since by injuring a man in
his body or in his temporalities, one may sin mortally and act against
charity, the Church can excommunicate a man for having inflicted temporal
injury on anyone. Yet, as excommunication is the most severe punishment,
and since punishments are intended as remedies, according to the
Philosopher (Ethic. ii), and again since a prudent physician begins with
lighter and less risky remedies, therefore excommunication should not be
inflicted, even for a mortal sin, unless the sinner be obstinate, either
by not coming up for judgment, or by going away before judgment is
pronounced, or by failing to obey the decision of the court. For then,
if, after due warning, he refuse to obey, he is reckoned to be obstinate,
and the judge, not being able to proceed otherwise against him, must
Reply to Objection 1: A fault is not measured by the extent of the damage a man
does, but by the will with which he does it, acting against charity.
Wherefore, though the punishment of excommunication exceeds the harm
done, it does not exceed the measure of the sin.
Reply to Objection 2: When a man is corrected by being punished, evil is not
rendered to him, but good: since punishments are remedies, as stated
Article 4: Whether an excommunication unjustly pronounced has any effect?
Objection 1: It would seem that an excommunication which is pronounced
unjustly has no effect at all. Because excommunication deprives a man of
the protection and grace of God, which cannot be forfeited unjustly.
Therefore excommunication has no effect if it be unjustly pronounced.
Objection 2: Further, Jerome says (on Mt. 16:19: "I will give to thee the
keys"): "It is a pharisaical severity to reckon as really bound or
loosed, that which is bound or loosed unjustly." But that severity was
proud and erroneous. Therefore an unjust excommunication has no effect.
On the contrary, According to Gregory (Hom. xxvi in Evang.), "the
sentence of the pastor is to be feared whether it be just or unjust." Now
there would be no reason to fear an unjust excommunication if it did not
hurt. Therefore, etc.
I answer that, An excommunication may be unjust for two reasons. First,
on the part of its author, as when anyone excommunicates through hatred
or anger, and then, nevertheless, the excommunication takes effect,
though its author sins, because the one who is excommunicated suffers
justly, even if the author act wrongly in excommunicating him. Secondly,
on the part of the excommunication, through there being no proper cause,
or through the sentence being passed without the forms of law being
observed. In this case, if the error, on the part of the sentence, be
such as to render the sentence void, this has no effect, for there is no
excommunication; but if the error does not annul the sentence, this takes
effect, and the person excommunicated should humbly submit (which will be
credited to him as a merit), and either seek absolution from the person
who has excommunicated him, or appeal to a higher judge. If, however, he
were to contemn the sentence, he would "ipso facto" sin mortally.
But sometimes it happens that there is sufficient cause on the part of
the excommunicator, but not on the part of the excommunicated, as when a
man is excommunicated for a crime which he has not committed, but which
has been proved against him: in this case, if he submit humbly, the merit
of his humility will compensate him for the harm of excommunication.
Reply to Objection 1: Although a man cannot lose God's grace unjustly, yet he can
unjustly lose those things which on our part dispose us to receive grace.
for instance, a man may be deprived of the instruction which he ought to
have. It is in this sense that excommunication is said to deprive a man
of God's grace, as was explained above (Article , ad 3).
Reply to Objection 2: Jerome is speaking of sin not of its punishments, which can
be inflicted unjustly by ecclesiastical superiors.