Excommunication, Controversy, and the Development of Doctrine



Historically, theological controversy has led to the development of doctrine. This is quite apparent in the record of the ecumenical councils of the Catholic Church, but it also occurs with less celebrated questions and in modern times.

Both St. Augustine and St. Anselm are quoted for their individual phrasing that belief in revelation leads to understanding. This understanding is the development of doctrine, rendering explicit that which was previously only implicit in revelation.

If the mode of human knowledge were intuition, rather than reason, we would understand things immediately and integrally. There would be no need for a development of doctrine. However, our mode of understanding is that of reason, a process of step by step. We concentrate on one aspect of truth, then another. Our understanding through reasoning can also employ the format of questioning.

A Current Question of Controversy

We should not be alarmed when this process of development toward a more explicit expression of the Faith is public when bishops express different, perhaps incompatible, views. We should look at this more as a process than as a controversy. The current public questioning centers on excommunication as it impinges upon the internal forum of the Sacrament of Penance and upon its external forum. The current public discussion of the discipline of the Sacraments should lead to our greater understanding of the Faith, to the development of doctrine. Similarly, questions regarding the discipline of the sacraments led to the development of doctrine in the early Church.

One Ancient Question of Controversy

One ancient questioning was with regard to the validity of a procedure of lifting the ban of excommunication under unusual circumstances, i.e. regarding the validity of absolution in the Sacrament of Penance. Normally, a period of public penance ended with the public readmission of the penitent by the bishop to the liturgy of the Eucharist culminating in the reception of Holy Communion of the Lamb, sacrificed for sin. Eusebius relates the unusual circumstances of Sacramental Absolution in the words of the third-century bishop, Dionysius of Alexandria,

I will give you this one example, which occurred among us. There was with us a certain Serapion, an aged believer who had lived for a long time blamelessly, but had fallen in the trial. He besought often, but no one gave heed to him, because he had sacrificed. But he became sick, and for three successive days continued speechless and senseless. Having recovered somewhat on the fourth day he sent for his daughter’s son, and said, “How long do you detain me, my child? I beseech you, make haste, and absolve me speedily. Call one of the presbyters to me.” And when he had said this, he became again speechless. The boy ran to the presbyter. But it was night and the presbyter was sick, and therefore unable to come. But as I had commanded that persons at the point of death, if they requested it, and especially if they had asked for it previously, should receive remission, that they might depart with a good hope; he gave the boy a small portion of the Eucharist, telling him to soak it and let the drops fall into the old man’s mouth. The boy returned with it, and as he drew near, before he entered, Serapion again arousing, said, “You have come, my child, and the presbyter could not come; but do quickly what he directed, and let me depart.” Then the boy soaked it and dropped it into his mouth. And when he had swallowed a little, immediately he gave up the ghost. Is it not evident that he was preserved and his life continued till he was absolved, and, his sin having been blotted out, he could be acknowledged for the many good deeds, which he had done?

Today, we affirm this same belief in the Eucharistic Sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin, when we say the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. We preface each decade of pleas for mercy, by uniting our pleas with the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord being offered, somewhere around the globe, “in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.” Each of the ten repetitions is for mercy through the Sacrifice of the Mass, the passion of Jesus.

Another Ancient Question of Controversy

At the beginning of the fifth century, in his letter to Letter to Januarius, Chap. 3, St. Augustine broached the question of the relationship of Holy Communion and excommunication, albeit more obliquely than the form of that question today.

Some one may say, “The Eucharist ought not to be taken every day.” You ask, “On what grounds?” He answers, “Because, in order that a man may approach worthily to so great a sacrament, he ought to choose those days upon which he lives in more special purity and self-restraint; for whosoever eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks judgment to himself” [cf. 1 Corinthians 11:29]. Another answers, “Certainly; if the wound inflicted by sin and the violence of the soul’s distemper be such that the use of these remedies must be put off for a time, every man in this case should be, by the authority of the bishop, forbidden to approach the altar, and appointed to do penance, and should be afterwards restored to privileges by the same authority; for this would be partaking unworthily, if one should partake of it at a time when he ought to be doing penance, and it is not a matter to be left to one’s own judgment to withdraw himself from the communion of the Church, or restore himself, as he pleases. If, however, his sins are not so great as to bring him justly under sentence of excommunication, he ought not to withdraw himself from the daily use of the Lord’s body for the healing of his soul.”

Perhaps a third party interposes with a more just decision of the question, reminding them that the principal thing is to remain united in the peace of Christ, and that each should be free to do what, according to his belief, he conscientiously regards as his duty. For neither of them lightly esteems the body and blood of the Lord; on the contrary, both are contending who shall most highly honor the sacrament fraught with blessing. There was no controversy between those two mentioned in the Gospel, Zacchaeus and the Centurion; nor did either of them think himself better than the other, though, whereas the former received the Lord joyfully into his house, the latter said, “I am not worthy that You should come under my roof”, both honoring the Savior, though in ways diverse and, as it were, mutually opposed; both miserable through sin, and both obtaining the mercy they required.

We may further borrow an illustration here, from the fact that the manna given to the ancient people of God tasted in each man’s mouth as he desired that it might. It is the same with this world-subduing sacrament in the heart of each Christian. For he that dares not take it every day, and he who dares not omit it any day, are both alike moved by a desire to do it honor. That sacred food will not submit to be despised, as the manna could not be loathed with impunity. Hence the apostle says that it was unworthily partaken of by those who did not distinguish between this and all other meats, by yielding to it the special veneration which was due; for to the words quoted already, eats and drinks judgment to himself, he has added these, not discerning the Lord’s body; and this is apparent from the whole of that passage in the first Epistle to the Corinthians, if it be carefully studied.

Saint Augustine rejects the argument of the second speaker, that the individual’s temporary refraining from the reception of Holy Communion is excommunication followed by his self-restoration.  However, he does not reject but implicitly affirms the concept, proposed by the second speaker, that excommunication and restoration of the individual to the Mass is solely the function of the bishop and not a matter to be left to the individual’s private judgment. St. Augustine implicitly accepts the concept that “these remedies”, i.e. Mass and Holy Communion, are adequate to heal the wounds inflicted by sin if one is not under explicit excommunication by one’s bishop. Of course, that has changed with the current discipline.

Contrast of the Old and the New Disciplines

The current discipline, now being labeled the internal forum, was initially an act of personal piety, practiced only by monks. However, through the work of Irish missionaries in Europe in the seventh century, it was introduced to the faithful at large and adopted by the bishops as the ordinary discipline of the Sacrament of Penance. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1447)

In the old discipline, it was obvious that the forgiveness of sins, sacramentally administered by the successors of the apostles, was derived directly from the Sacrifice of the Cross in its un-bloody form in the Mass. The penitent sinner was forgiven by being permitted once again to be present at the Sacrifice and consummate it in Holy Communion with the Lamb, sacrificed for our sins. The new discipline divorces the forgiveness of sins by place and time from the Sacrifice for sin. However, this is only a superficial, not a true emptying of the Sacrifice of its power. The grace of all of the sacraments derives from the Eucharistic Sacrifice. (CCC 1324)

What the new discipline did was shift the responsibility to exercise moral judgment regarding the state of grace (CCC 2005) from the bishop to the individual layman. This abdication of responsibility by the bishops has become nearly total with the introduction of the concept of automatic excommunication. The individual layperson must now essentially excommunicate himself. This has come to a head in the current controversy pitting the external forum against the internal forum.


What is our role, that of the laity, in this apparent controversy? It is (1) to pray for the bishops involved in resolving it, and (2) to trust that the resolution will be a stage in the development of doctrine, yielding a greater understanding of and a greater gratitude for the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacraments, each of which is an ecclesial and public action (CCC 1482).

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest

4 thoughts on “Excommunication, Controversy, and the Development of Doctrine”

  1. this made zero sense in my opinion you should make things more understandable and make the text larger, I’m just trying to work on a poster for my class and this wasted my time!

  2. Interesting how a simple, yet profound, sacrament as the Eucharist, instituted by Christ and commented on by St. Paul, has given rise to such a complex matrix of regulation and rules.

  3. If I understand this article correctly, he is saying that under the old discipline it was the bishop’s job to determine who was able to receive communion or not and so everyone is welcome except those explicitly stated by the bishop to be excommunicated.
    Of course the new discipline is much better because it also includes private and secret sins that a bishop could never know about. Each person must examine his conscience and identify sin, repent and then receive.
    It seems obvious to me this development of the understanding and discipline is much better.

  4. Pingback: TVESDAY CATHOLICA EDITION | Big Pulpit

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: