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Excommunication! | An interview with canon lawyer Dr. Edward Peters | by Carl E. Olson
EDITOR'S NOTE (May 16, 2007): This interview was originally published on IgnatiusInsight.com on November 6, 2006. In light of
recent statements by Pope Benedict XVI about pro-abortion politicians and excommunication (in the context of a trip to Mexico and South America), as well as
remarks by other Church leaders and by
certain American politicians, I'm posting it again for readers of this site.
Dr. Edward Peters has doctoral degrees in canon and civil law,
and operates the Canon Law Info website and the "In The
Light of the Law" web log. He has
authored or edited several books, including Annulments and the Catholic Church
(Ascension Press), and is the translator of the English edition
of The 1917 Pio Benedictine Code of Canon Law, published by Ignatius Press. His most recent book is
Excommunication and the Catholic Church,
published by Ascension Press. IgnatiusInsight.com editor Carl E. Olson, who had the pleasure of studying
canon law under Dr. Peters, recently interviewed the canon lawyer about
excommunication and his new book.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Do you have a simple definition of "excommunication"?
Peters: Yes. Excommunication is the most serious censure the
Catholic Church imposes on her members. Excommunication has roots deep in
ecclesiastical history, and it is still applied, in fact increasingly applied,
today. But it's more than a penalty for past actions; it's really an urgent
call to reform one's conduct in the future. Excommunication is classified as a
"medicinal penalty" by the Church precisely because its main purpose is to
bring about reform in the individual. Having certain actions punished by
excommunication demonstrates that certain actions are gravely wrong in
themselves and cause deep harm both to their perpetrators and to others.
Is it correct, in your opinion, to say that
the topic of excommunication is the most misunderstood and misrepresented topic
that canon lawyers have to deal with? Or do annulments give excommunication a
run for the money?
Peters: Annulment questions are posed more frequently than
anything else, but that's because so many more people are directly involved in
marriage nullity cases. But in terms of how widespread confusion can be, or as
a measure of genuine interest in what's happening in the wider Church today,
excommunication issues are quite common. That's in part why I wrote the book.
I've been saying for some time, excommunication issues are going to increase,
and the recent trends back me up. You can see those trends set out on my Excommunication Blotter.
would you say are the most common misconceptions about excommunication? Why are
they so prevalent, even among Catholics?
Peters: Let's start with your second question. There are two
factors behind the prevalence of the misconceptions about excommunication:
first is the complexity of the subject matter itself, of course, and the second
is the lower average level of catechesis that today's Catholics bring to the
dicussion. It is harder for people to understand the notion of excommunication
if they have insufficient appreciation of the underlying concept of sin, or of
what membership in the Church implies, or what kind of authority the Church has
from Christ, and so on. Again, all factors leading me to write the book.
the most common misperceptions?
Peters: I'd say there are two, maybe three.
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
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
The third misconception is
sort of complicated. Still want it?
IgnatiusInsight.com: I am
going to post this interview on InsightInsight.com, and as you know, our
readers are among the brightest people on earth. So...
Peters: Okay, let's go. Basically, 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
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. I treat all these issues in the book.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In an amazingly brief 65 clear and
Peters: An even briefer sixty-four, actually. And a couple of
those pages are indexes, so they don't really count.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You are far too modest. Have there
been false or mistaken excommunications?
Peters: Undoubtedly. St. Joan of Arc comes to mind. Any time
human judges make decisions about behavior, there is the possibility of
mistake, excess, or flat-out dishonesty. An erroneous or contrived
excommunication, however, does not bind God, as we mentioned before. He is the
ultimate judge of hearts.
On the other hand, the
failure to impose an excommunication can be a mistake, too. Remember,
excommunication is a medicinal penalty that serves the common good of the
Church. If it is deserved in a specific case, but not imposed, the goods that
excommunication can serve might be left unprotected in that case. I said a
minute ago that I think automatic excommunication ought to be dropped, but I
also think that formal excommunication ought to be applied more frequently.
Those are not inconsistent positions.
mainstream media usually presents excommunication in terms of ideological or
political differences. Why do you think that is the case?
Peters: I never read the mainstream media on religion anymore
(or, come to think of it, on science, politics, modern literature, the Middle
East, or anything else that is not the weather) but it sounds like the kind of
mistake they would make. Excommunication is not about politics or ideology; at
root, it's about sin. The mainstream media doesn't understand what sin is, so
they surely aren't going to understand what's behind excommunication. Now,
there are lots of examples of sinful behavior out there, but only some of them,
in general the worst ones, are also crimes under canon law. Those are the kind
of things that are the subject of excommunication.
Catholics wish that Catholic politicians who support abortion would be
excommunicated immediately. Other Catholics think that excommunication of such
politicians would be an attack on their individual consciences. Can you shed some
light on the matter?
Peters: To those wanting the immediate excommunication of
pro-abortion politicians, I have to say that canon law simply does not read
that way. To make a long story short, an excommunication for abortion has to be
linked to a specific abortion and, given the structure of American government
and medical institutions, one simply can't link a given legislator's vote with
a specific abortion within the limits of causality recognized by canon law.
Now, I like to think that the words of law generally mean what they say. If we
distort the words of penal canon law to the degree necessary to make
legislators fall within the present terms of the abortion canon, we would do
violence to the text of the law, and that's always bad; distortions in law tend
to come back and haunt us in other contexts.
Of course, maybe it's time
to redraft the canon law in this area, precisely to help the Church deal more
directly with the grave scandal and harm being caused by pro-abortion Catholic
politicians; but the law itself would need to be changed. I'm certainly open to
that, but as I've said, the rule of law means that such changes must come about
in accord with the law.
In the meantime, though, as
I have also pointed out many times, there are most certainly immediate actions
that the Church can take against pro-abortion politicians, and I'm happy to say
that some bishops are doing that. I have in mind here, for example, the
withholding of the Eucharist under Canon 915 from those whose conduct in
government office is objectively gravely evil. Elsewhere, I have argued that
Canon 1369 gives us canonical leverage against those who use their public
office to spread contempt for the gift of life. I look at several of these
options in the book, and people can also go my website, www.canonlaw.info.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Do Catholics have an obligation to know their rights and duties under canon law?
Peters: Yes, and you could say that's what my wider work is all about. Knowing
the law, knowing one's rights and duties, is not sufficient for leading an
honorable life, of course; but knowing the law makes leading the upright life
easier. One knows what's expected. For too long, canon law, even though it is
an incredibly important source for knowing one's rights and duties as a
Catholic, was neglected. Today we are, I think, paying the price for that
widespread disregard of Church law right and left. But things are slowly
changing. The value of stability, the wisdom of experience, the basic
commitment to dignity, all of these are waiting for us in canon law. The more
people learn about it, the more they see how valuable it is, and the more they
want to learn.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What attracted you to canon law?
Peters: Growing up in the '60s and '70s, canon law was not something pew
Catholics talked much about. I think I had heard the term "canon law" maybe
once in my life through the whole time I was in college, and that was in
Catholic schools the whole time. Earlier generations in my family went into
medicine and science, or into engineering-related fields, and I considered
those. But my interest in the Faith was taking hold in college, and when folks
told me I had a legal turn of mind, I decided on civil law school with the idea
of maybe becoming a diocesan attorney or perhaps doing political advocacy work
in pro-life or related fields.
It was in law school at a
secular university that I discovered canon law, quite by accident, in the
course of doing legal history research on what turned out to be medieval canon
law cases on contracts. I was amazed at the existence of this complete
religious legal system and I asked my professor something like, Does the
Catholic Church still do this? He
answered Yes, and I immediately
started looking into the field.
are some of the important differences between civil law and canon law?
Peters: Your question is a bit ironic because, in fact, I was so taken with
canon law that I almost quit law school. Fortunately, my dad talked me out of
that, and I'm very glad he did, because I see now how the discipline of
completing law school and passing a bar exam gave me some powerful analytical
tools for later approaching canonical questions. The two fields are quite distinct,
of course, but good law is good law, and canon law and common law have learned,
and can continue to learn, much from each other. I have joked that my first
year of canon law school was spent unlearning many things I learned in civil
law school, but it's only a joke. I am blessed to have been able to study both.
If I had to pick one key
difference between canon law and common law, first I'd try to get out of having
to pick only one, but if I couldn't get out of it, I'd probably highlight the
difference between a system that accords primacy to the legislator (as does
canon law) and one that accords it to the judiciary (as common law basically
does). But that's for another interview.
what projects are you working on now?
Peters: Mainly I'm trying to save my soul.
Peters: The jury is still out, which I think is a good sign.
But beyond that, my main
responsibilities are teaching at Sacred
Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. It's an amazing place. A talented
faculty, more seminarians, and increasing numbers of lay students. If you meant
what are my current research areas, just now they would include a forthcoming
book on indulgences, articles on euthansia and canon law, and a study of the
canonical thought of John Paul II. I also think good scholars should always
have a translation project on their to-do list, and I'm looking at a couple of
ideas there. And I get requests for canonical analysis articles from Catholic
World Report, Our Sunday Visitor, The Catholic Answer, and so on. One especially interesting project
involves my service on a committee tasked with developing an American Sign Language
translation of the Mass directly from the Latin, instead of relying on the
English as we currently do; it's a fascinating and important project.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Like to stay busy?
Peters: As Hilaire Belloc once said: I would prefer to retire and read, but my
children keep screaming for caviar and diamonds.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com pages:
Question: Who Is Married? | Edward Peters
Entering Marriage with Eyes Wide Open | Edward Peters
Denying Holy Communion: A Case Study | The Most Reverend Rene
Henry Gracida, DD
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