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Excommunication is a form of ecclesiastical discipline practiced by many religions wherein an active member of the religion is kicked out of the religion. Afterward, the leaders of the group will deny the excommunicant the right to partake of the religion's sacraments (i.e., communion, marriage and confession). This is usually done for doctrinal disobedience.
Generally associated with the Catholic church, it's not used as much these days as it once was. Excommunication or the threat of it was used for a very long time to silence the victims of priestly paedophilia. Today, the threat of excommunication is occasionally reiterated by the Catholic Church for any bishop ordaining a woman priest, but most notably used to punish people who participate or consent to abortions. Also, some American bishops have warned pro-choice Catholic politicians they may not approach the blessed sacrament while voting and espousing views which do not adhere to the gospel of life. Two high profile politicians who have been advised in this manner are Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden.
The severity of excommunication varies widely among religions. In some religions, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, excommunication carries with it a complete severance from the group. In others, like the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, it merely means that an excommunicant may still attend church but may not partake of the Eucharist.
Common forms of excommunication
There are several actions that religious leaders may take against excommunicants.
In Catholicism, the interdict is the mother of all excommunications. In the past it was used against kings and countries. Any bishop may impose an interdict, but in many cases it can only be removed if the offending party appeals directly to the pope. Interdictions were most commonly used by popes during the Middle Ages to place political pressure on a monarch, whose subjects might become agitated at the prospect of getting kicked out of their religion for something said monarch did. Today, most interdicts are aimed at politicians who support abortions, unordained people who act as priests and at priests, monks and nuns who get married.
Also called exile, this is when one is forced to leave one's hometown, region, or even country. If the excommunicant's family are not themselves excommunicated, they may be excommunicated if they decide to follow the excommunicant into exile. While banishment may seem like something that couldn't happen in today's democratic societies, there are still enclaves where the power of religious groups trumps local government control. Or, in some cases, the religious leaders also run the local government.
For example, the polygamous Mormon sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints controls the neighboring towns of Hilldale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona. For years, church leader Warren Jeffs banished teenaged boys from the towns because they were seen as romantic rivals to the old men (including Jeffs) who intended to marry the towns' teenaged girls.
In contrast to shunning (see below), banishment is, in most cases, unambiguous coercion.
Shunning is the practice of refusing to acknowledge -- i.e., ignoring, refusing to look at or speak to -- a person who is in your presence. The Amish are known to shun family members who choose to leave Amish society.
Jehovah's Witnesses are also known to shun members who use tobacco (specifically prohibited in their denomination), accept blood transfusions (verboten above all other Witness-specific injunctions), gamble, steal, fornicate or drink to excess. Shunning as church discipline is implemented by the congregation, in parallel with formal excommunication (in Witness usage, "disfellowshipping").
Catholic canon law
Unless the excusing circumstances outlined in canons 1321-1330 exist, the Code of Canon Law imposes latae sententiae excommunication on the following:
- an apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic;
- a person who throws away the consecrated Eucharistic species or takes and retains them for a sacrilegious purpose;
- a person who uses physical force against the Pope;
- a priest who absolves an accomplice in a sin against the commandment against adultery;
- a bishop who ordains someone a bishop without a papal mandate, and the person who receives the ordination from him;
- a confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal of confession;
- a person who procures a completed abortion;
- accomplices without whose assistance a violation of a law prescribing latae sententiae excommunication would not have been committed.
Legislation outside of the Code of Canon Law may also decree latae sententiae excommunication. An example is that governing papal elections, which applies it to persons who violate secrecy, or who interfere with the election by means such as simony or communicating the veto of a civil authority.
The ipso facto excommunication that applied before 1983 to Catholics who became members of Masonic associations was not maintained in the revised Code of Canon Law that came into force in that year. However, the Holy See has declared that membership remains forbidden and that "the faithful who enrol in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion".
Instances in which one incurs a latae sententiae interdict include the following:
- using physical force against a bishop;
- attempting to preside at Eucharist, or giving sacramental absolution, when not a priest; 
- falsely denouncing a confessor for soliciting a penitent to sin against the commandment against adultery; and
- a perpetually professed religious who attempts marriage.
An example of an interdict that is not latae sententiae but instead ferendae sententiae is that given in canon 1374 of the Code of Canon Law: "One who joins an association which plots against the Church is to be punished with a just penalty; one who promotes or moderates such an association, however, is to be punished with an interdict."
Historical examples of excommunication
- Simon Magus (maybe)
- The patriarch of Constantinople
- Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV , for insisting he could choose bishops within his realm, and Henry V, for the same.
- Martin Luther, over the Protestant Reformation.
- Henry VIII (and the archbishop of Canterbury with him)
- Napoleon Bonaparte, for annexing Rome and otherwise annoying the pope (and his predecessor).
- A nineteenth century nun, for speaking out about a paedophile priest; the priest returned to Ireland and carried on working, and possibly also carried on abusing.
Contemporary examples of excommunication
The Catholic Church has attracted criticism for its baffling need to excommunicate anyone involved in abortions, even in cases where the abortion is performed because of serious concerns for the health of a pregnant woman.
In 2009 it was alleged that a stepfather had been raping his then nine-year-old daughter, since she was six. In addition to this it was claimed he was doing the same to her handicapped sister. The first daughter became pregnant with twins and it was deemed that carrying the twins to term could only be done at serious risk to the daughter's health. An abortion was subsequently performed, which led to the Brazilian Catholic Church excommunicating the daughter's mother and the doctors who participated in the abortion. This decision was later backed by a senior Vatican cleric.
In 2010 a nun was excommunicated for allowing an abortion to take place to save the life of a patient experiencing heart failure.
Generally, in the 20th and 21st centuries, it appears that the best way to be excommunicated is to participate in a life-saving medical procedure, become a communist, or disagree with core Catholic doctrines. You can also get excommunicated or threatened with excommunication if a priest did anything sexual to you while you were underage and you dare to speak out about it. Crimen sollicitationis indicates how excommunication was officially done up to 2001; RationalWiki does not know what happens now unofficially.
Genocide, rape, and similar unsavoury crimes are likely to be met with criticism, but not excommunication. Medical professionals have been accused of playing God, which is kind of rich coming from an organisation that claims to be led by a guy addressed as His Holiness, whose election was divinely guided, and his proclamations on doctrine are made flawless by God personally intervening to ensure that he cannot err.
Other religions known to excommunicate their followers
- Jehovah's Witnesses
- "Mainstream" Mormons
- Scientologists call it 'Disconnection'. They are not universally regarded as a religion.
- At least not in the Catholic church.
- see Crimen sollicitationis
- "Cann. 1321-1330". Code of Canon Law. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P4W.HTM. Retrieved 2008-06-01.
- "Can. 1364". Code of Canon Law. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P52.HTM. Retrieved 2008-06-01.
- "Can. 1367". Code of Canon Law. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P52.HTM. Retrieved 2008-06-01.
- "Can. 1370". Code of Canon Law. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P53.HTM. Retrieved 2008-06-01.
- "Can. 1378". Code of Canon Law. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P54.HTM. Retrieved 2008-06-01.
- "Can. 1382". Code of Canon Law. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P54.HTM. Retrieved 2008-06-01.
- "Can. 1388". Code of Canon Law. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P54.HTM. Retrieved 2008-06-01.
- "Can. 1398". Code of Canon Law. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P57.HTM. Retrieved 2008-06-01.
- "Can. 1329". Code of Canon Law. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P4W.HTM. Retrieved 2008-06-01.
- John Paul II. "Universi Dominici Gregis". http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_jp-ii_apc_22021996_universi-dominici-gregis_en.html. Retrieved 2008-06-01.
- Declaration on Masonic Associations
- "Can. 1390". Code of Canon Law. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P55.HTM. Retrieved 2008-06-01.
- "Can. 1394". Code of Canon Law. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P56.HTM. Retrieved 2008-06-01.
- "Can. 1374". Code of Canon law. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P53.HTM.
- Vatican backs abortion row bishop
- Nun Excommunicated For Allowing Abortion
- Pope 'led cover-up of child abuse by priests'