Author: Fr. John Hardon

EXCOMMUNICATION. An ecclesiastical censure by which one is more or less excluded from communion with the faithful. It is also called , especially if it is inflicted with formal solemnities on persons notoriously obstinate to reconciliation. Some excommunicated persons are (to be avoided), others (tolerated). No one is unless that person has been publicly excommunicated by name by the Holy See, and it is expressly stated that the person is "to be avoided." Anyone who lays violent hands on the Pope is automatically .

In general, the effects of excommunication affect the person's right to receive the sacraments, or Christian burial, until the individual repents and is reconciled with the Church. In order for an excommunication to take effect, the person must have been objectively guilty of the crime charged. (Etym. Latin , from + , to communicate: , exclusion from a community.)

(Modern Catholic Dictionary by John A. Hardon, S.J., Doubleday & Company, Inc.)


1463 Certain particularly grave sins incur excommunication, the most severe ecclesiastical penalty, which impedes the reception of the sacraments and the exercise of certain ecclesiastical acts, and for which absolution consequently cannot be granted, according to canon law except by the Pope, the bishop of the place or priests authorized by them.68 In danger of death any priest, even if deprived of faculties for hearing confessions, can absolve from every sin and excommunication.69

(Catechism of the Catholic Church) ********************************************************


What can be forgiven: sins and punishment

The power to forgive sins that Christ conferred upon His Church is unlimited in extent, that is, it includes without exception all repented mortal and venial sins committed after Baptism. This power includes not only the remission of sins and of the external punishment due to mortal sins, but also the temporal punishment that remains after the sins have been forgiven.

We know this from our Lord's words to St. Peter. When Christ promised Peter the Power of the Keys, He said: "Whatever thou shalt bind . . . and whatever thou shalt loose," the same shall be ratified in heaven. "Whatever" includes everything and, therefore, must mean the power to forgive, first, the guilt of all sins without exception and, second, the punishment due to sin, because all these are obstacles to heaven- mortal sins, forever, and temporal punishment at least for a time. The Power of the Keys means precisely the locking or unlocking of the gate of heaven to souls.

Who can exercise the Power of the Keys

Power of orders. Only he who possesses the power of orders can forgive sins. Only the ordained bishops and priests of the Church can validly administer the sacrament of Penance. Jesus Christ conferred the power to absolve sins upon Peter and the Apostles, and through them upon their legitimate successors. The power to forgive sins is conferred by ordination to the priesthood. But ordination alone does not enable a priest to absolve validly.

Power of jurisdiction. In addition to the power of orders, a priest must have the power of jurisdiction, that is, he must be assigned subjects within a defined limit of space or time, over whom he can exercise the powers received in ordination. This is what is meant when we say that a priest is "authorized." In a parallel example, a man has been created a judge by the United States government; but he cannot on that account walk into any court room and proceed to hear cases. He must receive a definite assignment, an appointment to a limited sphere, within which he is empowered to exercise jurisdiction.

In the Church, the pope, by virtue of his office as Supreme Head, has ordinary jurisdiction over all the faithful throughout the world; the bishop, over his diocese; and the pastor over his parishioners.

Priests who are called upon to hear confession outside the territory of their ordinary jurisdiction must obtain from the local bishop the authorization, or the "faculties," to hear confession. However, there are certain cases when the Church grants general jurisdiction to any priest. For instance, any priest, even one suspended or excommunicated, may validly absolve a person who is in danger of death, when no other priest can be obtained.

1) Reserved sins and censures. The pope and the bishops have the right to reserve cases to themselves. The ecclesiastical authority that confers jurisdiction may limit it in regard to certain sins, reserving to itself the faculty of forgiving those offenses. Usually these cases are very grave sins, or censures.

The censures may be of three kinds: excommunication, suspension, and interdict. Excommunication is the censure that excludes a person from the communion of the faithful and deprives him of all the spiritual blessings of living membership in the Mystical Body. Certain cases of excommunication are reserved to the Holy See, others to the bishop. Suspension is the censure that deprives an ecclesiastic of the exercise of his office, orders, or jurisdiction. interdict is the censure by which members of the Church, while remaining in the communion of the faithful, are forbidden the reception of the sacraments and participation in certain sacred offices. Only the Holy See can impose an interdict upon a state or diocese. The bishop can impose an interdict on parishes or persons within the diocese.

2) Reasons for reservation. Holy Mother Church reserves cases to the Holy See or to the bishop to impress her erring children with the enormity of their crimes and, by the very difficulty of obtaining absolution, to discourage them from committing such sins. Nonetheless, in the case of danger of death, the Church not only grants general jurisdiction to all priests to hear confessions, but grants them full power to absolve from reserved cases and all censures.

The confessor and his duties. The duly authorized priest likes the place of our Saviour in the confessional. As a confessor, he has special duties.

1) Christ's representative. First and foremost, as Christ's authorized agent he is the minister of the sacrament, charged with the duty of valid administration. He must absolve the truly contrite and refuse absolution to those unworthy of it.

2) As judge. In order to administer the sacrament validly, the minister must decide each particular case; accordingly, he also acts as judge in the tribunal of Penance. Sacramental absolution is a judicial act. Before the judge can pass the verdict of worthiness or unworthiness of forgiveness, he must make a decision regarding the proper dispositions of the penitent. Furthermore, he must pass a just sentence and impose a suitable or proportionate penance. However, the desire and object of the judge is the reform and pardon of the sinner rather than his punishment. And since the confessor, as judge, dispenses pardon and mercy in the name of Jesus Christ, the tribunal of Penance is more fittingly called the tribunal of mercy. To appreciate the attitude of mercy on the part of Christ's ministers, read the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin as recorded in Luke 15, 1-10.

3) As physician of souls. Besides functioning as minister and judge, the confessor has the duties of a physician of souls. He has spent years of study to prepare himself for his priestly duties. He understands the human mind and heart and has knowledge of the ills of the human soul. It is his duty to diagnose the cause of sin or sinful habits and to apply fitting remedies. This very duty implies the confession of sins. A doctor cannot prescribe for the cure of bodily diseases unless they are revealed to him. Neither can the priest, the physician of souls, prescribe spiritual remedies unless the penitent reveals to him the symptoms of his spiritual ill health-his sins. Therefore, the confessor has the right to question the penitent, when the revelation has been insufficient or lacking in some point necessary to his judgment of the case. The advice of the confessor and the penance he imposes are medicinal means of building up the supernatural strength and health lost by sin.

4) As teacher. The confessor is also a teacher. It is his duty to see to it that his penitents know all that they ought to know so as to receive the sacrament worthily. Should he discover that a penitent is deficient in knowledge concerning necessary matters of faith or morals, he must instruct him. Again, the confessor has years of study and training behind him. Moreover, he has the grace of the sacrament of Holy Orders. For this reason, we should not hesitate to make use of his learning and experience by asking questions in case of doubts or problems relating to temptations, sin, or our progress in Christ-likeness.

5) As father. Above all, however, the confessor is a father. This is his best loved and the most consoling of his titles. It really includes all his titles and duties. For, as a father, it is his duty to judge and correct or punish his spiritual children. As a father, it is his duty to teach, encourage, suggest, advise, command, and console. He is truly a father and spiritual friend in the sense that he shields us from evil, strengthens us against sin, leads us on to virtue, and assists us to become finer and more fully developed characters. Consequently we should have a childlike confidence in the priest who takes the place of Jesus Christ toward us in the confessional.

6) The seal of confession. We need never fear that what we have told the priest in the secret of the confessional will ever be revealed, for God's ministers are bound under pain of grievous sin to maintain the strictest secrecy regarding what is told to them in confession. They have the graces of Holy Orders to help them observe this silence. A priest would commit a mortal sin if he revealed even a venial offense that he knew only from confession. He is bound to preserve the seal of silence even if he would thereby lose his life. In this respect, the Catholic Church has a marvelous record. Have you ever heard of a priest who broke the seal?

The Church has one particularly illustrious example of faithfulness to the seal, St. John Nepomucene, "the Martyr of the Secret of Confession." St. John was the court chaplain of the Emperor Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia in the fourteenth century. He was also confessor to the Empress Jane. The dissolute Wenceslaus became jealous and tried to force St. John to reveal what he had learned from the empress in sacramental confession. The confessor remained steadfast in his refusal to reveal anything. At length, the enraged king ordered St. John to be drowned. He died, therefore, a victim of the seal of confession. Some three hundred years later his tomb was opened. His body had become dust, but his tongue was found fresh and incorrupt. By this miracle, God revealed His approval of the silence of the heroic martyr.

It might be well to remind ourselves that it would be seriously wrong on our part to try to overhear what is being told in the confessional. If we should hear anything, even by accident, we are bound by the seal of confession, like the priest.

In general, we should not speak of what we ourselves have confessed nor repeat the advice that has been given to us by the confessor. In this last respect we should remember that the priest deals with individual souls. What he advises for you might be the wrong thing for another. You would not think of giving a prescription made out for you by your doctor to another, would you? Moreover priests are frequently misquoted, or what they have said is applied to a completely or partly different situation. They cannot defend themselves because of the seal.

(Our Quest for Happiness, Book Three "The Ark and the Dove" pp 414-420, published by Mentzer, Bush and Company, Chicago)