The Church, Excommunication, and Reconciliation

On the Readings for Sunday, September 7, 2014

Pope Francis hears confession during a penitential liturgy in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican March 28. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Pope Francis hears confession during a penitential liturgy in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican March 28. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

• Ez 33:7-9
• Psa 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
• Rom 13:8-10
• Mat 18:15-20

Here’s a simple truth that I’ve learned over the years: A poor understanding of the meaning of “church” inevitably leads to a skewed understanding of many significant issues.

Take, for example, the matter of “excommunication.”

Many people, including quite a few Catholics, think excommunication is simply a way for the Church to control, coerce, and otherwise bully people. It is, they believe, an exercise of power meant to further increase that power, which is possessed by a privileged few. Some insist excommunication is contrary to the teaching and spirit of Jesus; after all, wasn’t He all about love, mercy, and forgiveness? Today’s Gospel reading helps set the record straight, even though the term “excommunication” doesn’t appear.

We cannot rightly appreciate the purpose and nature of Church authority unless we understand that the Church is not a club, a political party, or a merely human institution. The Church was founded by Christ, states the Catechism, for one ultimate purpose: “for the sake of communion with [God’s] divine life.” The Church “is the goal of all things” (CCC 760). As the Body of Christ, the Church exists to redeem man, to guide him into holiness, and to transform him, by the power of the Holy Spirit, into a child of God.

This reading from Matthew 18 contains the second of only two uses of the word ecclesia, or “church”, found in the Gospels. The other occurrence is in Matthew 16:18, in the Gospel reading proclaimed two weeks ago. In both cases, the word “church” is uttered in the context of apostolic authority. In Matthew 16:16-20, Peter—the Rock—was given unique authority as the King’s prime minister or vicar. In today’s reading, the context is that of resolving conflicts within the Church. Jesus provides some practical directives about how Christians should approach someone who has sinned against him. The offender is not just anyone, but a brother in Christ, and the response is to take place within the family and household of God, the Church.

This section, it should be noted, follows after Jesus’ declaration that we must be like children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven (18:3), that it would better to lose an eye or limb than to be thrown into eternal fire (18:8-9), and that the heavenly Father rejoices in the return of the one stray sheep (18:12-14). The stakes are eternal and the struggle against sin can be fierce. Being a child of God and a member of His household is not easy; on the contrary, it can be trying. It might even involve rebuke and discipline.

So the steps described by Jesus are not aimed at revenge or retribution, but at reconciliation. When we sin against a brother in Christ, we harm the unity of the Body of Christ. Our sin poisons our souls and our familial bond with others. Which is why it needs to be addressed, first by one-on-one communication, then by a small group. This is rooted in the Law, which declares that “a judicial fact shall be established only on the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deut 19:15).

If those attempts fail the matter should come before the Church. The possibility of losing communion with the Church is meant to awaken the sinner to the serious straits he is navigating in spiritual blindness. Christ “threatens the one punishment,” observed St. John Chrysostom, “to prevent the other from happening.” Better to suffer temporal punishment than eternal separation from God. “Thus, by fearing both the rejection from the church and the threat of being bound in heaven, he may become better behaved.”

The Catechism sums it up: “Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God” (CCC 1445). If we believe the Church was founded by Christ and has been granted His authority, we should appreciate that she works to keep us in right relationship with Him.

Yes, excommunication is a severe penalty, but it is a medicinal penalty, meant to cure us from what might destroy our souls.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the September 7, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1233 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.