You can go your own way

EXCOMMUNICATION AND THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, Straight Answers to Tough Questions, by Edward N. Peters (Ascension Press, W5180 Jefferson Street, Necedah, WI 54646, 2006) 100 pp., PB $7.95

Excommunication is always a hot topic. It frequently arouses considerable interest as well as emotional investment when brought up. In some circles, people lament that excommunication is not utilized frequently enough, and see in it a clear solution to the miasma of dissent that has infected a number of Catholic institutions. In other circles, excommunication is seen as a sad and embarrassing shadow of the past and has no place in the Church of Jesus Christ, who was a really, really nice guy. Seldom is excommunication approached calmly, soberly and clearly.

Dr. Edward Peters, the eminent canonist and holder of the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit offers one such clear treatment of the subject in his new book, Excommunication and the Catholic Church. In doing so, he has provided a great service to those of us who work in the canonical field and anyone else who is regularly called on to answer questions about excommunication. Dr. Peters’ book is easily approachable without being simplistic and gives solid but brief answers to many of the questions that are asked time and again, such as: “What are some of the things people can be excommunicated for?” “Isn’t excommunication a sin against charity? Doesn’t Jesus preach love and forgiveness?” “Can an excommunicated person enter a church?”

Disarming those who would maintain that excommunication is a relic of an authoritarian past that should quickly be allowed to molder, Dr. Peters points out that “grave sin still exists and some grave sins are also canonical crimes that can result in excommunication.” (p. 7) To those who argue that punishments like excommunication are too harsh and are contrary to the precept to love one another, he writes, “the Church’s primary focus is always on an individual’s welfare, on helping him to accept responsibility for his actions and repent of wrongdoing.” (p. 9)

Certain theologians and canonists would have people believe that the Church’s teaching on issues surrounding abortion, politicians and Catholic identity are murky and it’s best to avoid even bringing up the topic. Here again Dr. Peters cuts through the mire and offers a refreshing dose of clarity. He points out the difference between those who actually procure abortion and are therefore subject to the automatic excommunication of canon 1398 and those who advocate for abortion rights and are not currently subject to automatic excommunication. Still, he argues, there are legitimate reasons for invoking penal sanctions under canon 1369 on those who use their public role to advocate for anti-life measures. In addition, canon 915 can justly be invoked to deny certain individuals the right to the reception of communion. While the somewhat convoluted realm of penal law has led some to believe that the Church is powerless to deal with recalcitrant public figures, Peters demonstrates how clergy and laity can work together to hold these politicians to account, to strengthen the Church’s public stand in defense of the unborn and to urge repentance on those who have strayed in their dissent.

Ecclesiastical penal law can appear mysterious to those untrained in canon law (and even to those with a solid grasp of other portions of the Code), but in the end, is a relatively straightforward thing. It has as it’s inspiration, the Lord’s words to Ezechiel, “I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way, and live.” (Ez 33:11). The impatience that some have with the Church’s implementation of penal sanctions is warranted in certain cases where a swift judgment would have been more helpful than a slow, plodding process – or no process at all. Yet the patience of the Church is animated by the same Spirit of justice that seeks, through the application of the penal process, conversion and reconciliation before resorting to punishment. As Dr. Peters’ concludes, “Excommunication often has the effect of making people decide, in quite stark terms, which way they want to go – the Church’s way, or theirs. Finally, if the offender repents of his actions, his reconciliation is itself a powerful testimony to those who might have been misled by the earlier poor example.”

For those who wish that the Church would utilize the corrective tool of excommunication with greater liberality, Peters’ new book provides a sober analysis of the reasons for the Church’s penal law. Peters reminds those who believe excommunication to be cruel or outdated of the restorative value of just and equitable punishment. To all who find themselves intrigued by inflammatory news stories about excommunication, Peters offers a handy reference, replete with a glossary of the technical terms.

Timothy T. Ferguson, JCL
St. Clair Shores, MI

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