Excommunication is an attempt to bring a presumed sinner back to his senses (from the perspective of the Church, not mine). He is denied communion (hence, he is excommunicated) and other sacraments, so much so that no sacramental ritual (e.g., mass) may take place in his presence.

But he is certainly not "thrown out" of the Church, nor is he told not to come back. Quite the contrary, the expected behavior is for him to rush back to the Church, confess his sins, obtain absolution, and ammend his ways.

This is at least the legal theory within the Catholic Church as codified in Canon Law (in which I have a degree from Gregorian University in Rome).

You are correct in your assessment of it being rare in these days, mostly because it generally does not have the desired effect anymore. A person who would be excommunicated in the days past could most likely care less nowadays, and since it is not likely to bring him back, he/she is not likely to be excommunicated anymore.

P.S. This was originally the second write-up of this node, hence the "you are correct" etc.

Excommunication also exists in Judaism- it's known as cherem, a word which literally meant "destruction". In Europe in the Middle Ages, excummunication could be instituted by any Beis Din, or local tribunal of rabbis, and it was a popular weapon against deviancy. The tribunal would send letters to other Jewish communities informing them of the ban, which forbade exchanging words or doing business with the excommunicated person, who would be unable to even buy food from other Jews. So cut off from Jewish contact, this person would be forced to convert to Christianity or he/she would die.

One typical cherem was the one pronounced on Baruch Spinoza. See The Anathematization of Baruch Spinoza.
There are three types of excommunication pronounced by the Catholic Church - minor excommunication (normally applied to a Catholic who communicates with someone under the ban of excommunication), major excommunication (pronounced as part of a sentence for minor crimes against the church), and anathema. Anathema is pronounced by the Pope for high crimes against the church. The ceremony for pronouncing anathema is what most people picture when they hear about the ceremony of excomminucation. Of note is the fact that this is not a formal sacrament or rite of the Catholic Church.

The ceremony is led by the Pontiff, attired in amice, stole, violet copse, and mitre. Attended by 12 priests bearing lit candles (one of whom also bears a bell), the pope enters bearing the Bible and another lit candle. He then pronounces the following:

Wherefore in the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, of the Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given us in binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive N himself and all his accomplices and all his abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, we separate him from the society of all Christians, we exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, we declare him excommunicated and anathemized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and all his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church; we deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgement.
At this point, the Pontiff slams the Bible closed, the priest rings the bell once in mourning for the damned soul, and the Pontiff and all attending priests turn their candles upside-down and dash them out upon the ground.

The ceremony, despite common interpretation, doesn't actually remove the offender from the Catholic Church. The intention is to bar them from the benefits of Catholicism until they repent. The position of the Catholic Church is once a Catholic, always a Catholic.

There are two types of excommunication. The faithful may help a person excommunicated Vitandus and not incur the excommunication themselves. The excommunicatee may still be helped by the faithful - those in communion with the Church - in the event she or he, say for instance, has a heart attack or is dying of thirst or is on fire; they can put it out without themselves becoming excommunicated. Vitandus is what is called, "reserved to the local Ordinary" or bishop of the diocese in which the offense happens. It often costs nothing other than eating a little crow and doing a little private penance to get off the hook. The local Ordinary may, and in the US often does, delegate his authority to absolve from a Vitandus excommunication to certain select priests. Vitandus excommunication is incurred by having an abortion, two Catholics getting married by the civil authorities, using birth control, striking a priest or religious, not sending your Catholic children to Catholic schools, etc.

Invitandus excommunication, on the other hand, is really serious. The faithful must avoid an Invitandus literally like the plague or they might incur it themselves. Pope Gregory VII excommunicated invitandus the German Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Henry's Imperial power was so threatened by this form of excommunication he crossed the Alps in midwinter to beg Gregory VII to lift it. A person incurs Invitandus excommunication for trying to kill the Pope or a Bishop, for desecration of the Holy Eucharist, or any of the Sacraments, destroying or desecrating a church or a sacred relic, stealing from a church or, if one is a Catholic politician or public figure, publicly saying something which goes against the faith or morals decisions of the Pope or a Council - like that it's OK to practice birth control, use the pill or have pre-marital sex or that Jesus Christ is not physically present under the appearances of bread in the Holy Eucharist or that Mary wasn't a virgin. If you're excommunicated Invitandus and are on fire a faithful Catholic can't piss on you without getting excommunicated himself. Getting off this hook takes a lot of dough and a lot of heavy penances - Henry IV.

It is also worth it to remember that in the Catholic Church not all the excommunications need to be explicitly pronounced by the Church; certain actions produce excommunication latae sententiae, that's to say, automatic. Among these actions are abortion (when it works), joining the freemasons, profanation of the Host, and becoming a heretic.

Only the Vatican can institute an excommunicatio latae sententiae; on the 1st of July 1949 Pope Pius XII excommunicated all the Communists; here it is, in the official Latin (with my translation). The format is question-answer:

Q. 1 - Utrum licitum sit, partibus communistarum nomen dare vel eisdem favorem praestare.
Q. 1 - Whether it is acceptable to enroll in communist parties and to support them.

R. Negative: Communismum enim est materialisticus et antichristianus; communistarum autem duces, etsi verbis quandoque profitentur se religionem non oppugnare, se tamen, sive doctrina sive actione, Deo veraeque religioni et Ecclesia Christi sere infensos esse ostendunt.
A. No: as a matter of fact, Communism is materialistic and antichristian; additionally, the chiefs of the communists even if they claim that they do not oppose religion, clearly show, with actions and words, to be against God, the true religion and the Church of Christ.

...I have omitted question 2, about the press, and point 3, that excludes communists from sacraments...

Q. 4 - Utrum Christifideles, qui communistarum doctrinam materialisticam et anti Christianam profitentur, et in primis, Qui eam defendunt vel propagant, ipso facto, tamquan apostatae a fide catholica, incurrant in excommunicationem speciali modo Sedi Apostolicae reservatam.
Q. 4 - Whether Christians, professing the materialistic and antichristian doctrine of the communists, and first of all those that defend it or diffuse it, because of the action itself, incur in the excommunication that is specifically reserved to the Apostolic Seat.

R. Affirmative
A. Yes.

As you can see, the wording is quite clear: ipso facto, a terse ablative meaning "due to the fact itself". No need to excommunicate all those people one by one; this decree excommunicates all.

Ex`com*mu`ni*ca"tion (?), n. [L. excommunicatio: cf. F. excommunication.]

The act of communicating or ejecting; esp., an ecclesiastical censure whereby the person against whom it is pronounced is, for the time, cast out of the communication of the church; exclusion from fellowship in things spiritual.

⇒ excommunication is of two kinds, the lesser and the greater; the lesser excommunication is a separation or suspension from partaking of the Eucharist; the greater is an absolute execution of the offender from the church and all its rights and advantages, even from social intercourse with the faithful.


© Webster 1913.

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