The Vatican plans to excommunicate the Rev. Roy Bourgeois next week for ordaining a woman as a priest. Excommunicated priests must stop performing their clerical duties and can no longer take communion (although they can still attend Mass). But does the Catholic Church have any way of enforcing this punishment?
Yes. Those who refuse to comply with their sentence can be “dismissed from the clerical state,” also known as being “defrocked.” As a result, they lose their benefits provided by the church, which usually include housing, health insurance, and a small salary. (Canon law states that “provision must always be made so that [a priest] does not lack those things necessary for his decent support.” If you’re excommunicated, you can still get these perks, but not if you’re defrocked.) If the priest still refuses to leave, the church can summon the police and have him thrown out for trespassing on private property.
Usually, defrocking isn’t necessary. The purpose of excommunication is not to drive priests away but to make them repent. Once they do, they are usually welcomed back into “full communion.” (The civil law equivalent of excommunication would be “contempt of court”: A judge can throw you in jail for refusing to testify, but the moment you agree to cooperate, you’re free.) Even when defrocking is called for, the church is often hesitant to go that far. One famous example is Emmanuel Milingo, an archbishop from Zambia who was excommunicated for getting married—to a woman in Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, no less—and for ordaining four married men as bishops. Milingo received a personal plea from the pope that he end his marriage—a request he first obeyed, then disobeyed. But he was not defrocked.
There are really two types of excommunication: automatic and imposed. When a priest commits a flagrant violation of canon law—declaring he’s Jewish, say, or beating up the pope—he’s subject to automatic excommunication, also known as latae sententiae. Imposed excommunication, or ferendae sententiae, occurs when the offense is less clear-cut—a priest writes a book supporting abortion, for example—and only after deliberation by either a diocesan tribunal or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees church doctrine and punishes those who violate it. (The CDF has gone through many incarnations over the centuries, including the Holy Office of the Inquisition.) Bishops can excommunicate priests, too, as long as the priest falls within the bishop’s jurisdiction.
There are also many punishments less harsh than excommunication—a bishop could reduce a priest’s salary, for example, or prohibit him from conducting Mass. Catholic laypeople can be excommunicated, too, but it’s harder to enforce—it’s not like there’s a national No Fly List for taking communion.
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Explainer thanks Ladislas Orsy of Georgetown University and Edward Peters of Sacred Heart Major Seminary.