To hell with the excommunicated?
Does the Church damn those who are excommunicated. The answer may surprise you . . .
Not necessarily. Only God can condemn anyone to hell. It’s not within the Church’s power to do so. The Church’s role is to help people to heaven by teaching and sanctifying. Of course, people can ignore the teaching and reject the grace. If they do and end up in hell, they go there by their own choice.
Excommunication is a Church penalty which excludes a notorious sinner — or someone grossly disobedient to Church teaching — from the communion of the faithful. It doesn’t mean the person ceases to be a Christian. Its purpose is to warn the individual that he risks losing his soul unless he repents.
We’ve seen examples of excommunication in our own time. In 1953, some bishops in China ordained new bishops without the approval of Pope Pius XII. The ordaining bishops and those they ordained were excommunicated under a provision of canon law which stated that episcopal ordinations may be performed only with the pope’s approval. These new bishops had been ordained for the Chinese Patriotic Church, a government-controlled off shoot of the Catholic Church. Other Chinese bishops remained loyal to Rome and found themselves imprisoned — the penalty for loyalty to Church authority.
In 1988, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre ordained new bishops to oversee the religious society he had founded. The ordinations were done against the wishes of Pope John Paul II. Archbishop Lefebvre, another ordaining bishop, and the three new bishops were excommunicated automatically. In this case and the Chinese case, people were excommunicated not for teaching heresy, but for gross disobedience.
Excommunication is rarely used nowadays. At one time, it’s true, it was used too frequently, and the Council of Trent warned bishops to be more careful in its application. The Council said excommunication must be used sparingly. Its purpose is to bring the wayward back to the practice of the faith and to obedience. If excommunication is wielded crudely, it will lose its effectiveness and may do more harm than good.
Now to a corollary. When Paul said that anyone preaching a heretical gospel would be anathema (Gal 1:8), he didn’t condemn the person to hell. He labeled that individual a false teacher. When the Church, in an official decree at a council, accompanies its decisions with anathemas, it’s merely doing the same thing as Paul. It’s saying, “And anyone who teaches otherwise is a false teacher.” It is not condemning anyone to hell.
Karl Keating is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith,” pages 17-19 (Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1995).