QUESTION 22: OF THOSE WHO CAN EXCOMMUNICATE OR BE EXCOMMUNICATED
We must now consider those who can excommunicate or be excommunicated.
Under this head there are six points of inquiry:
(1) Whether every priest can excommunicate?
(2) Whether one who is not a priest can excommunicate?
(3) Whether one who is excommunicated or suspended, can excommunicate?
(4) Whether anyone can excommunicate himself, or an equal, or a superior?
(5) Whether a multitude can be excommunicated?
(6) Whether one who is already excommunicated can be excommunicated
Article 1: Whether every priest can excommunicate?
Objection 1: It would seem that every priest can excommunicate. For
excommunication is an act of the keys. But every priest has the keys.
Therefore every priest can excommunicate.
Objection 2: Further, it is a greater thing to loose and bind in the tribunal
of penance than in the tribunal of judgment. But every priest can loose
and bind his subjects in the tribunal of Penance. Therefore every priest
can excommunicate his subjects.
On the contrary, Matters fraught with danger should be left to the
decision of superiors. Now the punishment of excommunication is fraught
with many dangers, unless it be inflicted with moderation. Therefore it
should not be entrusted to every priest.
I answer that, In the tribunal of conscience the plea is between man and
God, whereas in the outward tribunal it is between man and man. Wherefore
the loosing or binding of one man in relation to God alone, belongs to
the tribunal of Penance, whereas the binding or loosing of a man in
relation to other men, belongs to the public tribunal of external
judgment. And since excommunication severs a man from the communion of
the faithful, it belongs to the external tribunal. Consequently those
alone can excommunicate who have jurisdiction in the judicial tribunal.
Hence, of their own authority, only bishops and higher prelates,
according to the more common opinion can excommunicate, whereas parish
priests can do so only by commission or in certain cases, as those of
theft, rapine and the like, in which the law allows them to
excommunicate. Others, however, have maintained that even parish priests
can excommunicate: but the former opinion is more reasonable.
Reply to Objection 1: Excommunication is an act of the keys not directly, but
with respect to the external judgment. The sentence of excommunication,
however, though it is promulgated by an external verdict, still, as it
belongs somewhat to the entrance to the kingdom, in so far as the Church
Militant is the way to the Church Triumphant, this jurisdiction whereby a
man is competent to excommunicate, can be called a key. It is in this
sense that some distinguish between the key of orders, which all priests
have, and the key of jurisdiction in the tribunal of judgment, which none
have but the judges of the external tribunal. Nevertheless God bestowed
both on Peter (Mt. 16:19), from whom they are derived by others,
whichever of them they have.
Reply to Objection 2: Parish priests have jurisdiction indeed over their
subjects, in the tribunal of conscience, but not in the judicial
tribunal, for they cannot summons them in contentious cases. Hence they
cannot excommunicate, but they can absolve them in the tribunal of
Penance. And though the tribunal of Penance is higher, yet more solemnity
is requisite in the judicial tribunal, because therein it is necessary to
make satisfaction not only to God but also to man.
Article 2: Whether those who are not priests can excommunicate?
Objection 1: It would seem that those who are not priests cannot
excommunicate. Because excommunication is an act of the keys, as stated
in Sent. iv, D, 18. But those who are not priests have not the keys.
Therefore they cannot excommunicate.
Objection 2: Further, more is required for excommunication than for absolution
in the tribunal of Penance. But one who is not a priest cannot absolve in
the tribunal of Penance. Neither therefore can he excommunicate.
On the contrary, Archdeacons, legates and bishops-elect excommunicate,
and yet sometimes they are not priests. Therefore not only priests can
I answer that, Priests alone are competent to dispense the sacraments
wherein grace is given: wherefore they alone can loose and bind in the
tribunal of Penance. On the other hand excommunication regards grace, not
directly but consequently, in so far as it deprives a man of the Church's
prayers, by which he is disposed for grace or preserved therein.
Consequently even those who are not priests, provided they have
jurisdiction in a contentious court, can excommunicate.
Reply to Objection 1: Though they have not the key of orders, they have the key
Reply to Objection 2: These two are related to one another as something exceeding
and something exceeded [*Cf. Article , a; Question , Article , ad 1], and
consequently one of them may be within the competency of someone while
the other is not.
Article 3: Whether a man who is excommunicated or suspended can excommunicate another?
Objection 1: It would seem that one who is excommunicated or suspended can
excommunicate another. For such a one has lost neither orders nor
jurisdiction, since neither is he ordained anew when he is absolved, nor
is his jurisdiction renewed. But excommunication requires nothing more
than orders or jurisdiction. Therefore even one who is excommunicated or
suspended can excommunicate.
Objection 2: Further. it is a greater thing to consecrate the body of Christ
than to excommunicate. But such persons can consecrate. Therefore they
On the contrary, one whose body is bound cannot bind another. But
spiritual gyves are stronger than bodily fetters. Therefore one who is
excommunicated cannot excommunicate another, since excommunication is a
I answer that, Jurisdiction can only be used in relation to another
man. Consequently, since every excommunicated person is severed from the
communion of the faithful, he is deprived of the use of jurisdiction. And
as excommunication requires jurisdiction, an excommunicated person cannot
excommunicate, and the same reason applies to one who is suspended from
jurisdiction. For if he be suspended from orders only, then he cannot
exercise his order, but he can use his jurisdiction, while, on the other
hand, if he be suspended from jurisdiction and not from orders. he cannot
use his jurisdiction, though he can exercise his order: and if he be
suspended from both, he can exercise neither.
Reply to Objection 1: Although an excommunicated or suspended person does not
lose his jurisdiction, yet he does lose its use.
Reply to Objection 2: The power of consecration results from the power of the
character which is indelible, wherefore, from the very fact that a man
has the character of order, he can always consecrate, though not always
lawfully. It is different with the power of excommunication which results
from jurisdiction, for this can be taken away and bound.
Article 4: Whether a man can excommunicate himself, his equal, or his superior?
Objection 1: It would seem that a man can excommunicate himself, his equal, or
his superior. For an angel of God was greater than Paul, according to Mt.
11:11: "He that is lesser in the kingdom of heaven is greater then he, a
greater" than whom "hath not risen among men that are born of women." Now
Paul excommunicated an angel from heaven (Gal. 1:8). Therefore a man can
excommunicate his superior.
Objection 2: Further, sometimes a priest pronounces a general excommunication
for theft or the like. But it might happen that he, or his equal, or a
superior has done such things. Therefore a man can excommunicate himself,
his equal, or a superior.
Objection 3: Further, a man can absolve his superior or his equal in the
tribunal of Penance, as when a bishop confesses to his subject, or one
priest confesses venial sins to another. Therefore it seems that a man
may also excommunicate his superior, or his equal.
On the contrary, Excommunication is an act of jurisdiction. But no man
has jurisdiction over himself (since one cannot be both judge and
defendant in the same trial), or over his superior, or over an equal.
Therefore a man cannot excommunicate his superior, or his equal, or
I answer that, Since, by jurisdiction, a man is placed above those over
whom he has jurisdiction, through being their judge, it follows that no
man has jurisdiction over himself, his superior, or his equal, and that,
consequently, no one can excommunicate either himself, or his superior,
or his equal.
Reply to Objection 1: The Apostle is speaking hypothetically, i.e. supposing an
angel were to sin, for in that case he would not be higher than the
Apostle, but lower. Nor is it absurd that, if the antecedent of a
conditional sentence be impossible, the consequence be impossible also.
Reply to Objection 2: In that case no one would be excommunicated, since no man
has power over his peer.
Reply to Objection 3: Loosing and binding in the tribunal of confession affects
our relation to God only, in Whose sight a man from being above another
sinks below him through sin; while on the other hand excommunication is
the affair of an external tribunal in which a man does not forfeit his
superiority on account of sin. Hence there is no comparison between the
two tribunals. Nevertheless, even in the tribunal of confession, a man
cannot absolve himself, or his superior, or his equal, unless the power
to do so be committed to him. This does not apply to venial sins, because
they can be remitted through any sacraments which confer grace, hence
remission of venial sins follows the power of orders.
Article 5: Whether a sentence of excommunication can be passed on a body of men?
Objection 1: It would seem that sentence of excommunication can be passed on a
body of men. Because it is possible for a number of people to be united
together in wickedness. Now when a man is obstinate in his wickedness he
should be excommunicated. Therefore a body of men can be excommunicated.
Objection 2: Further, the most grievous effect of an excommunication is
privation of the sacraments of the Church. But sometimes a whole country
is laid under an interdict. Therefore a body of people can be
On the contrary, A gloss of Augustine [*Cf. Ep. ccl] on Mt. 12 asserts
that the sovereign and a body of people cannot be excommunicated.
I answer that, No man should be excommunicated except for a mortal sin.
Now sin consists in an act: and acts do not belong to communities, but,
generally speaking, to individuals. Wherefore individual members of a
community can be excommunicated, but not the community itself. And
although sometimes an act belongs to a whole multitude, as when many draw
a boat, which none of them could draw by himself, yet it is not probable
that a community would so wholly consent to evil that there would be no
dissentients. Now God, Who judges all the earth, does not condemn the
just with the wicked (Gn. 18:25). Therefore the Church, who should
imitate the judgments of God, prudently decided that a community should
not be excommunicated, lest the wheat be uprooted together with the tares
The Reply to the First Objection is evident from what has been said.
Reply to Objection 2: Suspension is not so great a punishment as excommunication,
since those who are suspended are not deprived of the prayers of the
Church, as the excommunicated are. Wherefore a man can be suspended
without having committed a sin himself, just as a whole kingdom is laid
under an interdict on account of the king's crime. Hence there is no
comparison between excommunication and suspension.
Article 6: Whether a man can be excommunicated who is already under sentence of excommunication?
Objection 1: It would seem that a man who is already under sentence of
excommunication cannot be excommunicated any further. For the Apostle
says (1 Cor. 5:12): "What have I to do to judge them that are without?"
Now those who are excommunicated are already outside the Church.
Therefore the Church cannot exercise any further judgment on them, so as
to excommunicate them again.
Objection 2: Further, excommunication is privation of divine things and of the
communion of the faithful. But when a man has been deprived of a thing,
he cannot be deprived of it again. Therefore one who is excommunicated
cannot be excommunicated again
On the contrary, Excommunication is a punishment and a healing medicine.
Now punishments and medicines are repeated when necessary. Therefore
excommunication can be repeated.
I answer that, A man who is under sentence of one excommunication, can
be excommunicated again, either by a repetition of the same
excommunication, for his greater confusion, so that he may renounce sin,
or for some other cause. And then there are as many principal
excommunications, as there are causes for his being excommunicated.
Reply to Objection 1: The Apostle is speaking of heathens and of other
unbelievers who have no (sacramental) character, whereby they are
numbered among the people of God. But since the baptismal character
whereby a man is numbered among God's people, is indelible, one who is
baptized always belongs to the Church in some way, so that the Church is
always competent to sit in judgment on him.
Reply to Objection 2: Although privation does not receive more or less in itself,
yet it can, as regards its cause. In this way an excommunication can be
repeated, and a man who has been excommunicated several times is further
from the Church's prayers than one who has been excommunicated only once.