The cost of 'particularly grave sins'


Q What does it take to get excommunicated?

The censuring of Fr Tony Flannery by his superiors in the Catholic Church has been the subject of claim and counterclaim this week.

Just whether or not he has been threatened with excommunication for his “dissident” views remains hotly debated.

As with many matters of canon law, there is scope for different interpretations.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes excommunication as “the most severe ecclesiastical penalty, which impedes the reception of the sacraments and the exercise of certain ecclesiastical acts”. It is reserved for “certain particularly grave sins”, and cannot be absolved except by the pope, a bishop or an authorised priest. Theologians who spoke to The Irish Times described excommunication as extremely rare and almost unheard of in an Irish context. Traditionally, it has been reserved for clergy who hold “heretical” views or who have been involved in unauthorised ordinations. But it has also been used recently to penalise figures within the church who have supported or advocated abortion.

One of the few recorded cases in Ireland relates to Bishop Daniel Cohalan of Cork who excommunicated republicans during the War of Independence. Concerned at the spiralling scale of violence in December 1920, he declared that anyone who organised or took part in “an ambush or in kidnapping or otherwise shall be guilty of murder, or attempt at murder, shall incur by the very fact the censure of excommunication”.

Theoretically, the leaders of Sinn Féin, including Éamon de Valera, were subject to this order, although it didn’t impede their activities or, for that matter, subsequent harmonious relationships with the Catholic Church.

In more recent years, excommunication was periodically threatened against the IRA, as well as “rebel” priests including Pat Buckley who “excommunicated himself”, according to his superiors, in 1998 when he was consecrated as a bishop outside of the church.

Under canon law, excommunication is described as a “medicinal penalty” aimed at bringing the offender back into the fold after repenting. Normally, excommunication occurs latae sententiae, or automatically when a law is contravened rather than following a specific inquiry.

One such automatic basis is breaking the seal of confession. This has not been without controversy as campaigners believe the penalty impeded the prosecution of clerical sex abusers.

In fact, one of the first people to expose a paedophile priest, Sr Mary MacKillop, was excommunicated in 1871 for bringing the abuse to light. Three years ago, she was canonised as Australia’s first saint, showing the Catholic Church is nothing if not an evolving institution.