Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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EXCOMMUNICATION, ecclesiastical censure, by which a member of a religious community is excluded therefrom until he has mended his ways. Excommunication, in its essence, therefore, is intended less as a punishment than as a means of improvement. Its origin is lost in the night of time; pagan and Jewish antiquity were acquainted with it, and we must admit that the practice has its foundation in justice. Society does not exceed its right when, seeking to protect itself against those of its members who fail to fulfill the obligations imposed on them, it excludes those who show themselves, after admission to it, unworthy of membership.


—We can not, therefore, reproach the Christian church for having borrowed excommunication, as well as the greater part of its primitive organization, from the synagogue. The synagogue excluded from its meetings those whom, rightly or wrongly, it judged unworthy to take part in them: this was called, being driven from the synagogue, and this disciplinary measure was applied more than once to the early preachers of the Gospel.


—When the first Christian congregations were organized they assumed the same power: but at this time the conditions of admission to the church were in great part moral. It was especially in cases of notorious immorality, easily proven in a small community, that excommunication was pronounced. Thus the Christians of Corinth, on the advice and at the command of Paul, excluded from among them one guilty of incest, who, however, on repenting, subsequently obtained pardon. It must be remarked that the first Christians lived almost in common, and celebrated the holy supper at their frequent brotherly feasts. In case of excommunication this intimate relation with the guilty person ceased. The faithful no longer received him. They avoided speaking to him or meeting him, and would not sit at the same table with him. When, later the Christian church—its members having become very numerous—was persecuted; when, especially after the time of Constantine, violent dogmatic controversies arose, excommunication was resorted to, particularly in cases of apostacy and heresy. The clergy, whose power increased daily, reserved to themselves the right to pronounce sentence of excommunication, a right which in the beginning belonged to the assembly of the faithful, and it became a powerful weapon in their hands. The belief that the church alone could grant pardon, that outside of it no salvation was possible, became more and more prevalent, and led men to regard the excommunicated person as one damned forever unless restored to the fold. Thus excommunication, which in principle was a censure intended to warn the sinner and favor his reformation, while protecting Christian society against corruption, became a punishment, and the most severe of all punishments. Afterward different degrees of excommunication were introduced, the first traces of which are found in the time of St. Augustine, and which have been preserved and precisely distinguished from one another. A distinction is made between the major excommunication which cuts one off absolutely from the communion of the Catholic church and carries damnation with it as a consequence, and the minor excommunication whose only effect is to deprive him of participation in the sacraments. It must be added that the sentence of excommunication may be fulminated against a person, naming him, or in a general manner against all those who have taken part in any act reprehensible in the eyes of the clergy. It may even be incurred ipso facto; that is to say, a believer who commits an act forbidden by the church, under pain of excommunication, should consider himself excommunicated even when no general sentence of excommunication has been pronounced, and he has not been excommunicated by name. The canon law enumerates more than two hundred cases of excommunication ipso facto, and determines, by minute rules, what members of the clergy have the right to excommunicate or to free from excommunication.


—The clergy made frequent and formidable use of the sentence of excommunication in the middle ages more than in any other period of history. The church, which was united to the state in the time of Constantine, finally became confused with civil society, which it not unfrequently controlled. Wielding immense moral power, it made its censure feared, even by the mightiest. The unfortunate man whom it struck with the sentence of major excommunication became an object of terror and contempt to all. All intercourse with him was forbidden. Cut off from the society of his fellows, he met with neither aid nor pity. The hell to which he was doomed began for him here on earth. He recoiled before no penance, no matter how rigorous it might be, to obtain pardon and to be reconciled to Christian society. Thus in those times of dissolute life, feudal tyranny and universal disorder, excommunication often served as a protection to the weak and a powerful curb on the cruel and gross passions of the descendants of the barbarians. Unfortunately the church employed this formidable weapon in defense of its earthly interests, and the extension of its temporal power. From the right which belonged to him of excommunicating all baptized believers, even princes, Gregory VII. pretended to deduce that of disposing of kingly crowns. Believers were bound to avoid all commerce with an excommunicated person, not to greet him, not to talk to nor eat with him. In case of a king they were no longer obliged to obey him; he had no longer the right of requiring the obedience of Christians, for he was no longer a member of Christian society, and his power crumbled the moment the church cut him off from her communion. The conclusion that Christians were not obliged to obey an excommunicated king, which the stubborn genius of Gregory VII carried into practice, was reasoned out so logically that his adversaries were reduced to maintaining that a sovereign could never be excommunicated: while Gallicanism, by a compromise difficult to reconcile with the canon law, maintained that excommunication, a punishment purely spiritual, could not have civil consequences, and that thus the subjects of an excommunicated sovereign could not be absolved from obeying him.


—The church had abused the powerful weapon which it held, and saw it broken in its own hands. Philip the Fair, supported by the states general, twice braved the excommunication launched against him by Boniface VIII., and in proportion as, in all Europe, civil society severed its connection with religious society, it became more difficult to make men respect the sentence of excommunication and its consequences, which soon ceased to inspire terror. The bulls of excommunication launched against the reformers did not sensibly hinder the spread of their doctrines, and this weapon, once so terrible, became less feared every day, and was therefore less and less employed. At present the church seems to fear the use of it, especially in grave cases relating to politics. When its traditions or the rules of its constitution force it to have recourse to excommunication, it carefully omits the mention of names. After the decree by which Napoleon I., May 17, 1809, suppressed the temporal power of the pope and united the states of the church to the French empire. Pius VII. confined himself to excommunicating, in a general manner, the authors of the deed, without even naming the signer of the decree. More recently Pius IX., when he saw his provinces taken away one by one, imitated this example, and, without naming any one, excommunicated all who had contributed to bring about that result. Thenceforth it was for each one to know how far the decree concerned him. Count Cavour, and after him many others, were able to obtain priests to minister to them in their last moments.


—It must not be supposed, however, that the Catholic church has entirely given up excommunication. Thus the Jansenists have organized a church in Holland at the head of which is an archbishop who resides at Utrecht. Whenever the see is vacant the church nominates a bishop, and the newly elected writes to Rome asking the pope to approve his election and bless it. A little later the pope answers him and all those who have contributed to his election by a sentence of excommunication. If, however, excommunication is a thing almost unknown today in some countries, it is not in certain countries where Catholicism has retained more of its ascendency and is still able to execute, at least in part, such a sentence. Thus in Austria, at the end of the year 1862, a person was excommunicated by name on account of heresy.


—This is a fact far from unique. In 1857 M. Braun, an ecclesiastic of the diocese of Passau, was subjected to the major excommunication for refusing to read from the pulpit the bull relating to the dogma of the immaculate conception; in 1856 the pastor of Thonex, canton of Geneva, excommunicated several of his parishioners for having joined an aid society in Geneva which admits as members Catholics and Protestants without distinction. The following year a shoemaker of Budweis, afterward confined as insane in consequence of a medical examination, was excommunicated by his bishop for having maintained that he and he only possessed the power of casting out devils.


—More recently the church has again used excommunication against some of its rebellious children. The council of the Vatican having proclaimed the doctrine of the infallibility of the pope, attempts to resist the decree were made in different countries, notably in Germany, and sentence of ex-communication was passed in very many cases against the Old Catholics, but the sentence could not stop the movement. On the other hand, since the major excommunication may have, if not a civil, at least a social effect, governments have thought of interdicting it. (German law of March, 1873.) In the different Protestant churches the use of excommunication, preserved in the beginning, soon disappeared. The reformers maintained it, and the confessions of faith drawn up in the sixteenth century and the rules of the reformed church made mention of it, but it was maintained only with important restrictions. Thus major excommunication and excommunication ipso jacto were rejected by the Protestants; they preserved only the minor excommunication, which is reduced to non-participation in the sacraments, and which, as it never involved civil disabilities, could be pronounced only by the body of believers. A little later, it is true, in Germany and at Geneva, the right of excluding unworthy members from the Lord's supper was given to the ecclesiastical authorities, but soon fell into disuse. In many places excommunication was replaced by public penance, which was abolished in Pomerania in 1744, and in Prussia in 1746. Würtemberg preserved it, at least in its laws, till 1806. Notwithstanding some attempts made in various parts of Germany to establish a stricter discipline, it may be said that excommunication is unknown to Protestant churches in our day.


—It is not so in the Greek church, where it has always existed. Nevertheless, the orthodox clergy, who never attained the summit of power to which the Catholic clergy formerly rose, have never, like the latter, made a formidable use of excommunication, and it is scarcely ever used at present by them. (See ABOLITION, EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION, SLAVERY, ETC.)


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