Excommunication and the Efficacy of Ecclesiastical Sanctions

by Peter Kwasniewski

When I was in my twenties and thirties and becoming more of a traditionalist by the year, one of the most frequent refrains I heard from my friends and acquaintances had to be: “It’s a scandal how few bishops excommunicate the heretics [insert specification: abortionists, Democrats, modernists, proponents of women’s ordination, etc.] in their dioceses. If only they would flex their episcopal muscles and do something about the problems, our troubles would eventually go away.”

Through my involvement with a papal institute in Austria, I got to know several bishops and cardinals and even had the opportunity to talk at some length with a high-ranking member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. These and other experiences prompted me to think about how much more is required to keep the Church on course than anathematizing heretical propositions and excommunicating heretics, and, in particular, how feeble such penalties are in isolation from a larger Catholic culture and from those profound Catholic instincts and intuitions that give penalties their meaning.

The very notions of law, discipline, and duty no longer have much presence or significance among churchmen and laity. Cardinal Burke has spoken of the crisis of antinomianism that prevents Canon Law from being studied, followed, and implemented. Today, when the CDF sanctions theologians or bishops, the response is often complete contempt. What does one do then? Excommunicate more and more vehemently, in broad swathes? But how will that solve any problem? Authority and obedience are correlative. If you don’t have obedience, authority means nothing; it cannot function in a vacuum.

The problem in the Church is not a failure of papal commands but a failure of Catholics to obey clear instructions already given, clear duties established by Scripture and Tradition. In the solemn language of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, to take one vivid example, John Paul II reaffirmed the constant teaching of the Church that women cannot be ordained priests, and excommunicated several women who went through with an “ordination” ceremony. Will this kind of action get to the roots of the problem? All that the pope can do is to make the Church’s teaching clear, and then to follow through with the appropriate canonical sanctions.[i] Christ and His Church speak above all to consciences. If people (including priests) do not want to obey, the Church cannot make them obey, nor will any amount of disciplining, as such, improve the situation. What is necessary is conversion of heart and of culture, and this is what we should spend our time praying for, exemplifying, and promoting as best we can.

I can make my point with an analogy: why did Paul VI get rid of the Index of Forbidden Books? Most certainly not because he thought no books were bad and there could no longer be any danger of reading harmful literature in this enlightened age. It was because the Index was out of date the moment it hit the press. In fact, for hundreds of years it had sorely lagged behind the spread of evil literature. A truly accurate and reliable Index would have to be twenty or thirty volumes of tiny print, like the Oxford English Dictionary.

Let us pleasantly imagine the Vatican producing such a comprehensive Index, and then condemning everyone who, without explicit permission, reads any book listed in it. What would happen? Would the world become more Catholic, or would the Vatican look like a bunch of raving lunatics? The Index, like the Inquisition, functioned well in a different cultural setting, but it would not work today. The Church is a free society, free with the gifts of grace, and it invites men and women freely to listen to Christ, the one true teacher and ruler of mankind. One might welcome the shift that has occurred in this regard, or one might (with equal or better reason) lament that certain truly intolerable abuses, such as the flagrant disobedience of bishops in matters liturgical, continue to be tolerated by the Vatican. In any case, one must recognize the practical and theoretical conditions necessary for the very concepts of law, discipline, and duty to be intelligible and efficacious.

It may be that someday the culture of a given country will shift so decisively back towards Catholicism that things like an Index, bookburning, excommunications, and even corporal punishments, frequently recommended by popes of ages past, will all find their rightful places once again. The Lord in heaven knows how desperately we need them all. For now, however, it seems we must be content with moral suasion and the slow work of rebuilding a coherent culture of faith, worship, and life.


[i] Certainly some hierarches have been deficient in doing the latter, which cannot be omitted, but its effectiveness (both short-term and long-term) presupposes a consistency, clarity, and boldness of teaching and preaching, and a receptive and supportive Catholic culture, that are often woefully absent.