Excommunication, ecclesiastical censure whereby a member of a church is deprived of the benefits and privileges of membership. Excommunication is the most serious ecclesiastical censure; it is intended, however, as a corrective rather than a vindictive form of punishment.
In the time of Christ
In the time of Christ, excommunication was a recognized penalty among the Jews. A distinction is drawn in the Mishnah, the compilation of Jewish scriptural law, between two degrees of excommunication; of these the milder ( "niddui") involved exclusion from community life for 7 to 30 days, with the performance of penance and the wearing of mourning. Twenty-four offenses leading to this penalty were enumerated, most of them of a civil nature. The heavier sentence ( "cherem") was more formal, involving a ritual of solemn curses and lasting an indefinite time.
A similar power of excommunication was
A similar power of excommunication was recognized from the inception of the Christian church. Two degrees of excommunication, major and minor, were defined early in church history. Minor excommunication involved exclusion from the sacrament of the Eucharist and from the full privileges of the church. Major excommunication was pronounced upon obstinate sinners, relapsed apostates, and heretics; its form was more solemn, and it was less easily revoked. The duration of the excommunication was decided by the bishop. In Africa and Spain the absolution of lapsed individuals (those who in times of persecution had fallen away from their Christian profession by actual sacrifice to idols) was for the most part forbidden except at death.
In the early church no civil disabilities
In the early church no civil disabilities were connected with excommunication, but as governments became Christian, major excommunication was followed by loss of political rights and exclusion from public office. The 8th-century capitularies, or ordinances, of Pepin the Short, king of the Franks, ordained that major excommunication should be followed by banishment. Other national laws further extended the scope of the ecclesiastical censure. Excommunication directed against rulers deprived them of their rights to govern and, therefore, absolved their subjects of allegiance to them; the church thus became an important temporal power.
The leaders of the Reformation also claimed
The leaders of the Reformation also claimed the power of excommunication. Martin Luther insisted on the inherent right of church ministers to perform excommunication. The French reformer John Calvin asserted that excommunication is of the very essence of the ministry. Civil disabilities followed excommunication in communities permeated by the Reformation, but this practice eventually ceased to be the rule. Nevertheless, in England until 1813, persons excommunicated were barred from bringing legal actions into civil court, from serving on juries, from appearing as witnesses in any legal proceeding, and from practicing as attorneys in any court of the realm. All these disabilities were removed by statute, and excommunicated persons were declared exempt from penalty, except such imprisonment, not exceeding six months, as the court pronouncing or declaring such person excommunicate shall direct. This penalty however, is never invoked. By U.S. laws, excommunication cannot involve the loss of civil rights, and the civil courts cannot be used to enforce the restoration of church membership.
In the Roman Catholic church the power
In the Roman Catholic church the power of excommunication belongs to those prelates who possess ordinary or delegated jurisdiction in the "forum externum" (the court dealing with matters relating to the corporate life of the church). Parish priests, who have jurisdiction only in the "forum internum" (in matters of conscience), cannot excommunicate. The power of excommunication can never be delegated to the laity. Excommunication may also be incurred, without the necessity of a formal sentence, by violation of a law that carries the penalty of excommunication ipso facto. Absolution from certain cases of excommunication is reserved to the bishop having jurisdiction over the offender; absolution from a more limited number of graver cases is reserved to the pope. Anathema, the severest form of excommunication, differs from other disciplinary procedures in that it includes certain characteristic formal ceremonies.