Explaining excommunication

ExcomBook.jpgA few days ago we looked at some decent media coverage of a Roman Catholic Womenpriests story. A few more stories worth looking at have been filed or discovered.

The Associated Press ran a particularly bad story about the Roman Catholic priest who faces excommunication for participating in a Roman Catholic Womenpriests ceremony. Here’s how it begins:

A Roman Catholic priest faces excommunication for attending a ceremony to ordain a woman in the United States, a Vatican official said Friday.

It wasn’t attendance at the ceremony that got the Rev. Roy Bourgeois in trouble. He officiated at the ceremony in some capacity, delivering the homily and laying hands on Janice Sevre-Duszynska at the service at a Kentucky Unitarian Universalist church. The homily, incidentally, denounced Roman Catholic teaching on the male-only priesthood. This isn’t news. It was reported by the Boston Globe‘s religion reporter in August.

Here’s the AP report explaining the penalty:

Recent popes have said the Roman Catholic Church cannot ordain women because Christ chose only males as apostles. Excommunication is the most severe penalty under church law, cutting off a Catholic from receiving or administering sacraments.

The ordained woman, Sevre-Duszynska, also faces excommunication.

A reporter who had done his research might note that women who go through such an ordination ceremony are automatically excommunicated by the church. They don’t face excommunication — they are already excommunicated. Other than these mistakes, the article also fails to explain anything about Sevre-Duszynska or Bourgeois’ history of activism or anything about the Maryknoll order. The “recent popes” line is also somewhat silly — as if only recent popes have supported a male-only priesthood.

One of my favorite pieces about the excommunication was on Slate and written for its “Explainer” column. The question answered this past week was “Can the Catholic Church enforce excommunication?” It explains that excommunicated priests may no longer perform clerical duties or receive communion, although they may still attend Mass. But do they have any way of enforcing this punishment?:

Yes. Those who refuse to comply with their sentence can be “dismissed from the clerical state,” also known as being “defrocked.” As a result, they lose their benefits provided by the church, which usually include housing, health insurance, and a small salary. (Canon law states that “provision must always be made so that [a priest] does not lack those things necessary for his decent support.” If you’re excommunicated, you can still get these perks, but not if you’re defrocked.) If the priest still refuses to leave, the church can summon the police and have him thrown out for trespassing on private property.

Usually, defrocking isn’t necessary. The purpose of excommunication is not to drive priests away but to make them repent. Once they do, they are usually welcomed back into “full communion.” (The civil law equivalent of excommunication would be “contempt of court”: A judge can throw you in jail for refusing to testify, but the moment you agree to cooperate, you’re free.)

Isn’t that helpful? Also, it makes me wonder why so many of the stories about Bourgeois played up his fragile financial situation if he only faces that in case of defrocking

For instance, the New York Times story that broke the news of the looming excommunication did a great job of getting many of the facts straight. But note this paragraph:

On a practical level, Father Bourgeois also faces the loss of his benefits and the $1,000 he receives monthly for living expenses. But, he said, “if I am without health care, I will be joining millions of people in the U.S. who don’t have health care.”

If Bourgeois only faces the loss of his benefits if he defies his excommunication, that’s different than losing his benefits because of his excommunication. This is an important distinction that wasn’t made in many of the stories about Bourgeois.

Anyway, the Slate piece also explains the difference between automatic and imposed excommunication in nice detail. It also explains the difference between disciplines imposed by the Vatican and a local bishop. Finally, the story explains that there are other punishments less severe than excommunication. For a brief article, it was terribly informative. I also appreciate that the reporter solicited help from professors at Georgetown and Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

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  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Mattk

    What do you think causes bad reportingon the topic of excommunication? Obviosly the Slate writer picked up a phone and called someone in the Catholic Church for the info. Do you think the reporters who get this story wrong believe they already know all about it so don’t bother to make that call to the Catholic Church?

  • Brian L

    I don’t know much about the differences among the various groups within the Roman Catholic Church or the training in cannon law. How possible is it that a reporter could call two Catholic officials and get two different interpretations of the meaning or process of any subject?

  • liberty

    That Slate piece is great!

    Reporters don’t even need to call anyone. They can go to the Vatican website and read the answers in the Catechism which is posted there. Also, the Code of Canon Law is freely available on the Vatican website.

    Often reporters get things wrong in reporting about the Catholic Church that I can find the correct information with a 5 minute google search… it hardly builds confidence in modern media’s research and reporting skills.

  • FW Ken

    The purpose of excommunication is not to drive priests away but to make them repent.

    Impressive to include that perspective. It’s easier just to play out the “Bad Institution Oppressing Noble Individual” script.

  • Martha

    “The ordained woman, Sevre-Duszynska, also faces excommunication.”

    (Struggling with temptation to use all caps and multiple exclamation marks) She’s not ordained. That’s the whole point.

    If the paper writes that she is ordained, and they accept that she is ordained, then the natural conclusion for the reader to draw is “What’s the big fuss? It’s just the same old bigots trying to oppress women all over again, isn’t it?”

    And yes, I know the paper will say that “We’re only using the terms they use to describe themselves; we’re not saying anything one way or another”, but if I concocted a ceremony in which I had myself crowned Empress of the United States, I’m fairly sure the reporters would qualify my self-description with something along the lines of “She claims to be” or “self-described” or the likes.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Brian–It is “canon law” not “cannon law.” I realize this may be only a typo, but I have seen this mistake repeatedly in comments and media stories.
    I also notice that this playacting of a Catholic ordination took place in a Unitarian-Universalist church–so much for ecumenism that is supposed to be so important these days. While the U-U’s participate strongly in bashing of Catholic Tradition am I supposed to hypocritically smile and glad-hand with them at the next ecumenical love-fest.
    I would like to see more news coverage of the Protestant churches that get involved in these antics that many loyal Catholics find a form of back-stabbing.

  • Brian L

    Typo. My apologies.

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    Can i just add a personal note on this blunt chisel in the used tool bin? Rev. Roy Bourgeois came in 1981 to the liberal mainline Protestant campus ministry i was active in at the time, along with our local Catholic campus ministry, and waxed rhapsodic about the awfulness of our government and the pure Christianity of the Marxist rebels in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

    Then he went down to El Salvador, and vanished. For ten days. No one has ever explained exactly what Roy was up to, but i can assure you there were prayer vigils and tears and much anxiety for almost two weeks, and then he reappeared with a shrug and a “uhhhhh, i was up in the hills with leftist rebels seeing the future and it works — power to the people.” He was so cavalier about the whole thing that i knew passionate liberals who quit CISPES over the affair, saying it was just a clumsy attempt to gin up some anger at the US and Duarte regime.

    Of course, later there were right-wing atrocities that allowed Roy and others to say everything was justified, and that’s what they were trying to make us aware of, and “power to the people, let’s protest the School of the Americas” — which is what he’s done now for a quarter century.

    Apparently that doesn’t get much in the way of headlines, so ordaining women is the ticket. But i remember a vaguely creepy guy who was a key person in my life . . . in the journey away from incipient liberalism to conservatism. Roy knew how to use lazy reporters who wouldn’t ask follow questions and idealistic young women who didn’t ask many questions either, to build a career on resentment and anxiety.

    Apparently, business is still good for him, except that he found that even Maryknollers have a line that the Vatican won’t let them cross. Roy is over it, and he will likely get over losing his health care, too. I see on-line that CISPES still has a few die hard adherents.

    Sorry for a semi-digression, but my rationale is that this guy committed a major fraud (with much support from the media), and it gets as neatly cleaned out of the record as a Memory Hole might do for you. But i like the idea of keeping a few notes alive on the internet of what a dull tool the man actually is. If you dig deep enough, you can even find online stories about his 10 day wanderjahr in the jungle.

    You can’t make this stuff up.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    I think Jeff has provided a valuable insight about Roy Bourgeois. Much thanks.

  • Jay

    To follow up on Jeff’s point (and my earlier comment): would like someone to talk about the Maryknolls. There should be plenty of clips in the newspaper library, if only about Central America.

  • Dave

    The Deacon asks:

    While the U-U’s participate strongly in bashing of Catholic Tradition am I supposed to hypocritically smile and glad-hand with them at the next ecumenical love-fest.

    If UUs are present it’s interfaith, not ecumenical.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Dave–language-wise you might be right–but U-U members and clergy show up at events around here labelled as “ecumenical.” (On the other hand maybe the label is incorrectly being used). I understand that apparently there is some dispute over whether U-U’s can still be considered some form of Christian. As I understand it many of their present congregations were apparently among the pro-American Revolution New England Christian congregations in the 18th Century. The fractures in that church can be confusing. I know because my mother’s parents were members of our city’s U-U church. But she was strongly Christian (maybe the afterglow of her Methodist-Quaker youth).

  • Emily

    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A06E3DD1738F934A35756C0A967948260 –> Here’s a link to a 1981 NYT story about Bourgeois’ vanishing act in the jungle.

    It’s an interesting back story to this. The question is, how much of that back story should mainstream media reporters be expected to cover? Should stories about his participation in the purported ordination mention of his vanishing act 27 years ago?

    I would tend to say probably not — it was 27 years ago — but it’s an interesting question.

  • Dave

    Deacon — VERY succinctly: The Unitarian and Universalist churches developed as Christian churches. Unitarians were denied membership in the nascent National Council of Churches because their ministers could not provide an assurance that their members’ relationship to Jesus was primary. Since the merger in 1961 churches of the Unitarian Universalist Association have come to harbor many theologies in the pulpit and the pew, Christian among them but also including Humanists (the largest cohort, almost a majority), Pagans, Buddhists and others. UUs will show up at “ecumencial” events if invited (though here in Oberlin we’ve tried to get the Cooperating Minister’s Association to use “interfaith”) but it would not be correct to refer to a UU church as Christian unless it was one of the handful (mostly in New England) so designated. Many a Unitarian church in New England descends from a split with the Congregationalists about 150 years ago, which divided a congregation about twice that old.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Dave– So a U-U church is NOT Christian unless they state otherwise.I presume Congregationalists are still Christian–but I thought I heard they go by a different name now: United Church of Christ. Thanks for clearing all that up– sort of–No wonder my grandmother and mother always seemed to have trouble trying to explain their respective religious affiliations and/or beliefs to me.

  • Dave

    Deacon, a UU church may contain Christians. It may also contain Buddhists. Neither makes it a Buddhist or a Christian church. (In fact, some UU congregations even avoid the word “church.”)

  • DEmetria

    Ah, Fr. Roy and all the abuse he gets on this blog. I say if Christ came back, he would get the same abuse. You people can’t see a saint if you fell over him. Christ would be turned out of the Vatican because he wasn’t dressed right and wanted to help the poor. Bah, humbug to all of you.