How to Get Excommunicated

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DALLAS — Usually, your sins are your own business.  But in some cases the Catholic Church needs to let the world know all about it, says Kevin Orlin Johnson, Ph.D., author of Why Do Catholics Do That? and other books about the Church’s practices.  “That is, the Church may have to declare that you’ve excommunicated yourself.”


Excommunication isn’t something that the Church does to you, Johnson says.  “You excommunicate yourself.  Committing a serious sin means that you’ve taken yourself out of communion with the Church — excommunicated yourself, automatically.”  That’s why the Church requires that a sinner go through the sacrament of Reconciliation — Confession, it used to be called — before receiving Communion or any of the other sacraments again. 

“To receive the Body and Blood of Christ while in a state of mortal sin represents a contradiction,” as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said in their 2021 document, Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church.  “The person who, by his or her own action, has broken communion with Christ and his Church but receives the Blessed Sacrament, acts incoherently, both claiming and rejecting communion at the same time.  It is thus a counter sign, a lie — it expresses a communion that in fact has been broken.”  

Normally nobody makes any public declarations about people’s sins, Johnson says.  But when politicians such as Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi, members of Congress or a state legislature present themselves as Catholics but publicly advocate acts that the Church understands to be gravely sinful, such as abortion, the Church needs to clarify that this automatically separates the person from the Church, that those people do not speak for the Church or represent the Church.   “Serious public sin sets them in opposition to the Church, in fact, by teaching things destructive of the Church’s teachings.”

Just as the rules about excommunication are the same for everybody, famous or not, the procedure for returning to communion has always been the same, too.  When a public figure publicly renounces sinful policies and receives Reconciliation, another decree makes that clear, too.  And the Church always stands ready to reconcile.  In the thirteenth century the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II von Hohenstaufen had to be declared an excommunicate three times during his reign, which seems to be a record.  

Not all wayward monarchs enjoy being excommunicates as much as Frederick, who took the decree as a license to plunder papal possessions “on the basis of what the heck, apparently,” Johnson says.  But each time he did reconcile with the Church eventually. 

“But the Church never throws anybody out,” Johnson says, and bishops make these proclamations only very seldom, only in the face of serious harm to the Faithful, always reluctantly and always with that call for reconciliation.  In 1533 when Pope Clement VII de’ Medici declared that Henry VIII of England was an excommunicate, he made the decree conditional upon the king’s repudiation of his putative marriage to Ann Boleyn and his return to his wife, Catherine of Aragon.  

Henry didn’t conform, so two years later Clement’s successor Paul III Farnese issued another conditional decree — another warning, really — still calling for reconciliation.  Finally in 1538, with Henry still persisting, the pope had to declare that Henry VIII was definitively separated from the Catholic Church.   

That made a big difference in those days.  “If the ruler excommunicated himself,” Johnson says, “he’d be shunned, just like anybody else.  Citizens and officials weren’t obligated to honor their oaths or obey his commands.”  On the other hand, those who follow an excommunicate ruler also excommunicate themselves, simply by endorsing and encouraging the same sins.  “The rules are the same for everybody,” Johnson says. 

Naturally, considering possible disruptions in the political system, bishops have always been especially careful about de-legitimizing wayward rulers.  In 1570, Pope St. Pius V Ghislieri expressed his deep regret at having to announce that Elizabeth I of England and her followers had cut themselves off from the unity of the Body of Christ and refused to reconcile.  But like his predecessors and successors, Johnson says, “he didn’t throw her out:  he only confirmed that she had thrown herself out, and taken her followers with her.” 

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Photo:  Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury, Galileo Before the Holy Office, 1847 (detail).  Public domain.


One-run serial rights are granted provided that the publication carry the credit line:  The twenty-fifth anniversary expanded edition of Why Do Catholics Do That? is available at bookstores nationwide and at whydocathlicsdothat.org.