I have quite often met people who have told me that they are excommunicated. Not a single one of them has actually been through the process. In fact, it is hard to get yourself excommunicated, writes Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith.
- Catholic Herald
Just to clear up any confusion, let me count the ways.
The first way to get excommunicated is to be excommunicated by the decree of the competent ecclesiastical authority.
Elizabeth I, Queen of England, one of the most famous excommunicated people in history, was excommunicated by Pope Pius V for heresy and schism, and the sentence of excommunication was published in the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis of 1570.
Elizabeth was given time to appeal against the sentence, but never did so. Actually, the Bull merely recognised an existing fact: Elizabeth had long ceased to be a Catholic. The decree of excommunication formalised an already existing state of affairs.
The most famous excommunication of our own times was that of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was excommunicated for consecrating bishops without the permission of the Holy See. This excommunication was formalised by an apostolic letter of John Paul II entitled Ecclesia Dei, which was dated July 2 1988.
Again, this excommunication recognised what had long been a fact: that the archbishop had abandoned any semblance of obedience to the Pope. This excommunication, which applied as well to the bishops consecrated, was later lifted in 2009. This removed an obstacle to the reconciliation of these schismatic bishops, but that reconciliation has still to take place.
The excommunications above are unambiguous, in that they are made so by a papal decree.
The Code of Canon Law lays down that there are two forms of excommunication. The first is sententiae ferendae. This is where the person excommunicated is subject to a canonical process or trial, and if found guilty of misdemeanours meriting excommunication is duly sentenced. Once the sentence is published, that person is no longer a member of the Catholic Church. But this is a rare event.
More common is excommunication latae sententiae, or what is often termed 'automatic excommunication', where someone, in committing a certain act, incurs the penalty without any canonical process having to be undertaken.