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Excommunication of illicit bishop raises questions

Excommunication does not mean expulsion from the Catholic Church

  • Lucia Cheung, Hong Kong
  • China
  • July 11, 2011
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Last week, the Holy See issued a statement on the illicit episcopal ordination in Leshan, where Father Paul Lei Shiyin was ordained bishop without apostolic mandate on June 29.

This is the first latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication the Holy See has ever publicly declared on any illicit bishop in the Church of China, since the first “self-election and self-ordination” took place there in 1958.

Before the Leshan ordination, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Legislative Texts published a declaration on June 6, detailing the correct application of Canon 1382, which deals with sanctions and excommunication.

Though the document applies to the universal Church - it is known that illicit episcopal ordinations have also taken place in other countries - many observers believe that it pinpointed the China Church.

The Council has been very careful in interpreting and clarifying the canon. Surely, they have their valid reasons. But the majority of  Chinese faithful, as well as clergy, still remain unclear about the technical explanation.

Last week, after Father Lei’s excommunication was declared, there were lots of arguments about it in a popular Chinese Catholic internet forum.

I observed one serious misunderstanding among many Chinese Catholics: They think that excommunication means that a person has been expelled from the Church.

In fact, this is incorrect.

After talking to a few Catholic canonists, I think we can attempt to use a more ‘layman’ way to explain it.

A mainland Chinese priest who was conferred with a doctorate in canon law from overseas explained that excommunication is a “medicinal” measure imposed on a Catholic who committed a very serious external sin and aims at his or her repentance for that sin.

Once the excommunicated person repents and manifests it to the proper Church authority, then he or she can receive forgiveness from the same authority.

“In other words, the excommunicated person is not expelled. To expel someone from the Church is not the objective of the canon,” said the canonist, who identified himself as Father Joseph.

“After receiving baptism, a person is a Catholic forever. This sacred seal can never be removed, even if he or she leaves the Church,” he added.

To put it in an easier way, I think we can draw a comparison to someone who commits a grave crime. The judiciary of any country would impose a sentence on a criminal, but it would never say that the criminal is no longer its citizen.

If a criminal is not treated that way, the Church, which spreads God’s love, definitely will not expel its members for their wrongdoings.

We can also look at the root of the word. Excommunication comes from “ex-communion.” Communion means unity with the Church, so ex-communion means the loss of it.

When we are talking about communion, it is about something spiritual. Excommunication is thus the loss of unity in a spiritual sense, not physical.

The fate of the seven bishops

Another point of serious misunderstanding was whether the seven bishops who participated in the Leshan ordination and laid hands on Father Lei were also excommunicated.

The Holy See’s July 4 statement said the consecrating bishops “have exposed” themselves to the grave canonical sanctions laid down by the Church law.

In fact, this is less specifically stated than that of Father Lei because he had been given warnings before the ordination. However, as in other similar cases, the Holy See has to judge the personal involvement of the consecrating bishops, and it requires more information about their involvement in the ordination.

According to another canonist, each participant knows in his heart the degree of his involvement. Conscience will indicate to each one whether he has incurred an automatic penalty.

More importantly, “they are invited to clarify their canonical position only with the Holy See and avoid scandals in their dioceses,” he stressed.

The canonist, who preferred to remain anonymous, told me that a public declaration of this kind is a painful act but it is for the good of the faithful as well as the “offender.”

Even though it is not yet known if the consecrating bishops are to incur an automatic penalty, Father Joseph stressed that they “have to judge whether they can carry out their episcopal ministry according to their conscience.”

“If the consecrating bishops have acted freely according to their conscience, they should consider themselves under sanction of latae sententiae excommunication and avoid administering sacraments and sacramentals with their priests,” he said.

He added that they should “approach the Holy See as soon as possible in order to clarify the facts.”

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