Latin: ex, out of; communicatio, communion
A spiritual censure by which one is excluded from the communion of the faithful and suffers consequences inseparably attached by canon law to such exclusion. It is also called anathema, especially when inflicted with solemnities described in the Roman Ritual. While not vindictive, excommunication is the Church‘s most serious penalty, its chief purpose being the correction of the guilty. This correction takes the form of exclusion from the spiritual benefits of the Church as a society and Mystical Body of Christ. Excommunication directly affects only the individual, who does not cease thereby to be a Christian, owing to the indelible character of Baptism. A secondary purpose of excommunication may be said to be the spiritual protection of the faithful. This is evidenced in the classification of the excommunicated as the vitandi (vitare, to avoid) and the tolerati (tolerare, to tolerate). Both these classes are equally cut off from the faithful as regards religious communication; but, in addition, the former are to be carefully shunned even in profane as well as religious matters. The vitandus on account of the notorious nature of his fault is one stigmatized by name, publicly, and through judicial sentence. Opposed to these classes, the earlier and classic division of excommunication was: major excommunication, effective complete exclusion from the community of the faithful; minor excommunication, a deprivation of certain of the Church‘s benefits, e.g., reception of the Sacraments and public prayer. The rational rights of the Church as an autonomous society to excommunicate from membership is as evident as her right to admit to same. The examples of the Old and New Testament, and the practise of the Apostles furnish proof of this. In the Old Testament we have exclusion from the Synagogue (1 Esdras 10). In the New Testament the Apostle delivers “such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Corinthians 5). The “power of the keys” embraces not only power to remit sin, but all penal and coercive power necessary to the end of the Church (Matthew 18:16).
The adequate and general effect of excommunication is sufficiently evident thus far, from the explanation of the definition. In particular, the definitely classified canonical effects follow: exclusion from divine services of the Church, deprivation of the Sacraments (and sometimes sacramentals); exclusion from the public prayers of the Church, either by way of satisfaction or impetration; loss of the right to participate in legal acts of the Church; loss of income from ecclesiastical office; and loss of right to social intercourse in case of vitandus. Canon law distinguishes two fora or courts: the sacramental, or the tribunal of Penance, and the non-sacramental, either public or private. When the penitent appears in the sacramental forum, the Roman Ritual prescribes the same formula for absolution from excommunication as that used for remission of sin. In the non-sacramental forum, since absolution is a jurisdictional act, any formula expressing the effect intended may be employed. Following the general law of jurisdiction as it applies to censures, excommunication may be taken away by the one who had inflicted it, his superior, delegate, or successor.