A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How do I go about getting excommunicated?

January 16, 1998

Dear Cecil:

I'm one very disgruntled and estranged member of the Catholic church — so disgruntled, in fact, that I really don't want to be counted as a member. How can I get excommunicated? I assume it's not as simple as writing a letter (though this probably only means the church is more bureaucratic than most mail-order CD clubs). How can I make my intentions known to the right offices?

Cecil replies:

I think you fail to grasp the concept here, bubba. The purpose of excommunication isn't to allow you to quit or make a political statement or pursue some other private agenda. It's to allow the church to throw you out. If you're already out — that is, if you don't partake of the sacraments or otherwise participate in Catholic activities (I assume this describes your situation) — excommunication is likely to strike church authorities as a waste of good holy water.

That's not to say you can't get excommunicated; on the contrary, canon law describes a number of situations in which excommunication is automatic. But these days formal proceedings are rare and reserved mostly for renegade clerics and such. Too bad you weren't around centuries ago, when they were bigger on this sort of thing. You could have gotten the old "book, bell, and candle" routine (more on this in a sec) or even been burned at the stake.

Strictly speaking, excommunication doesn't render you a non-Catholic. It merely means you're a Catholic who's been damned to hell. What's more, it isn't intended to permanently separate you from the church; rather, it's a "medicinal" procedure, meant to make you see the error of your ways. If in fact you do become reconciled later, you won't be rebaptized, just forgiven. In the eyes of the church, once a Catholic, always a Catholic. Irritating, I know, but as I say, this wasn't set up to accommodate you.

There's also a practical problem. You can't have your name stricken from the Catholic membership rolls, because there aren't any such rolls. Sure, some records may be kept at the parish level, and if you're the determined type I suppose you could get your name crossed off those. But the church maintains no central registry. They figure God can keep track.

Fine, you say, but I still want to get excommunicated. OK, let me get out my — whoops, Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft. Gotta get this library organized. Ah, here we are, the Codex Juris Canonici. As revised in 1983, there are nine grounds for excommunication — physical attack on the pope, "violating the sacred species," procuring an abortion, and so on … all a little drastic. Your best bet is "apostasy, heresy, or schism," canon 1364. Probably the simplest thing is to join the Presbyterians. Voila, latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication.

But I think what you're after is an official pronouncement of excommunication (ferendae sententiae). Apparently the only way to do this nowadays is to make a conspicuous pest of yourself. The ultraconservative French archbishop Marcel LeFebvre did this by consecrating bishops without authorization, which got him excommunicated in 1988. If he could get himself formally kicked out, so can you, though it may require establishing your own schismatic sect.

Who knows, maybe you could get the Holy See so ticked off they'd dust off the old "book, bell, and candle" ceremony referred to above. First a bishop and twelve priests appear holding lighted candles. The bishop then recites this bloodcurdling formula:

We separate him, together with his accomplices and abettors, from the precious body and blood of the Lord and from the society of all Christians; we exclude him from our holy mother the church in heaven and on earth; we declare him excommunicate and anathema; we judge him damned, with the devil and his angels and all the reprobate, to eternal fire until he shall recover himself from the toils of the devil and return to amendment and to penitence.

The priests answer, "So be it!," whereupon the whole crew extinguish their candles by dashing them to the ground. Dunno about you, but if they threatened me with this I'd never miss Sunday Mass again.

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