[The following is an excerpt from an interview between Dr. Peters and Carl E. Olson.]
Q. What would you say are the most common misconceptions about excommunication?
A. First, there is the idea that excommunication kicks one out of the Church. That is not right. There are ways to cancel one’s Church membership, but excommunication isn’t one of them. The analogy I use to explain it is that of a felon serving a long prison term; he’s in prison, but he remains a citizen bound by the laws of his country. If he, say, owns property upon which he incurs taxes while in prison, he still owns the property and is still liable for the tax from prison; if he commits a crime in prison, he can be prosecuted for it, and so on. A felon loses certain important rights, obviously, like freedom of movement and the right to vote, but he is still a citizen. Similarly, an excommunicated person is still a member of the Church, but he or she has lost certain key rights attached to Church membership and is cut off from many of the activities and benefits of the Church.
The second misconception is that people who die excommunicated go to hell. Maybe they do, and maybe they don’t, but we don’t know with certainty either way. In any case, the Church does not claim to exercise jurisdiction over the dead, and one’s final fate is determined by God based on the life one leads. Of course, appearing before God for judgment in the state of excommunication from His Church on earth is not a good thing.
The third misconception . . . is this: many people think that, because a given Catholic committed an action for which automatic excommunication is the penalty (for example, heresy, schism, abortion), the penalty was actually incurred in that case. That’s not necessarily true, but the reasons behind my claim require us getting into Canons 18, 1323, and 1324, among others, canons that contain a startling list of factors that mitigate or even remove liability for canonical crimes. Now taken individually, these exceptions to penal liability make sense, but when read as a whole, as we have to do, they make it much more difficult to determine whether an automatic excommunication was actually incurred in a specific case.
So what happens in cases where canon law seems to impose automatic excommunication? Invariably, the discussion in such cases turns to the technicalities of canon law, instead of staying focused on the offensive behavior that gave rise to the discussion. Many canonists believe that the automatic aspect of excommunicable offenses is actually hindering the effectiveness of the law today, and they would prefer to see the automatic aspect of the penalty shelved. They note that no modern legal system has what amounts to an “automatic conviction” upon the commission of a crime, that the long list of exceptions to automatic penalties substantially lessens the chances that such penalties are really incurred in most cases, and that the Eastern Code of Canon Law (which came out a few years after the 1983 Code for the Roman Church) has dropped automatic penalties entirely.
For all that, though, the 1983 Code says what it says. Our task is to apply the law as it is written as faithfully as we can.