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Why Excommunicate?

June 27, 2024 4 min read

A few weeks ago, a group of Spanish nuns announced their separation from the Catholic Church by claiming to fall under the jurisdiction of an excommunicated, self-proclaimed bishop, rather than their appointed territorial bishop. Their decision was grave enough for excommunication proceedings to be invoked against them, and, with the nuns failing to retract their statement, the Catholic Church in Spain decreed their excommunication and expulsion from consecrated life a few days ago.

It's a decree that perhaps invites some questions. Excommunication can seem like a mean-spirited thing to do – as though the Church is some sort of exclusive club that only some get access to. Of course that’s not the motive – the National Catholic Register notes that excommunication is considered by the Church a “medicinal measure.” But it’s worth trying to understand how so.

Here’s one analogy: the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA is constantly monitoring for potentially dangerous or useless drugs entering the market – drugs that are being falsely promoted as helpful when in fact they have no effect, or maybe even bad effects. Their response is to announce that the drug is not a real one, that it’s dangerous, or that it may even do harm.

We don’t tend to have as intuitive an understanding that, like the drugs that can save the health of our physical bodies, there’s such a thing as saving doctrine, too – beliefs that, if we hold them, will bring our souls safely home. The other side of the coin goes with that: just as there are useless or bad drugs, there are also beliefs that, if we hold them, can do us serious harm.

The Church initiates excommunication proceedings when clarity about saving doctrine is at stake – instances where articulating and encouraging belief in what is true, and discouraging belief in what is not true, are matters of the life and death of souls, whether the souls under the penalty of excommunication or those who might follow them. The charge of excommunication is actually meant as an act of great charity, in the hope of inspiring repentance and a return to the truths that will save our lives. It’s how the Church operates as the “good minister” Saint Paul writes of: “If you put these instructions before the brethren, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the good doctrine which you have followed ... Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:6, 16).

So the Church isn’t just closed-minded to voices it doesn’t like, nor a bully of people it deems nasty or immoral. The Church is the keeper of the doctrine that will bring us to our salvation, a task grave enough to require the most intent measures feasible to bring those who may be lost back to the fold. With the Church, then, we pray for the former Poor Clares of Burgos, Spain, and perhaps we let this “medicinal measure” be medicine for us, too, as we thank God for clarity around those truths that will lead us home, and for the Church that keeps them.

Yesterday was the feast of St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei. His constant message to Christian disciples was that we are each called to be holy in ordinary life: “God doesn’t pull you out of your environment, he doesn’t remove you from the world, nor from your state in life, nor from your noble human ambitions, nor from your professional work... but, there, he wants you to be holy!” Learn more about his life and vocation here.

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