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    Question 88: Does the practice of excommunicating and anathematizing people from the Catholic Church imply condemning them to eternal damnation?

    Answer: Neither excommunication or anathemas imply the Church's condemning anyone to hell. That is the prerogative of God alone. Excommunication is a Church law, excluding a notorious sinner from the communion of the faithful. The Code of Canon Law (1331 §1) stipulates that the excommunicated person is forbidden:

to have any ministerial part in the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Eucharist or in any other ceremonies of public worship;

to celebrate the sacraments or sacramentals and to receive the sacraments;

to exercise any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, functions or acts of governance.

    The purpose of excommunication is to warn the sinner of the danger he runs of incurring eternal damnation, unless he repents of his sin. Excommunication or "Delivering the sinner to Satan" is based on the words of St. Paul, who delivered the incestuous sinner to Satan, "that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Cor. 5:5; Cf. 1 Tim. 1:20).

    When St. Paul said, "Let him be accursed" (Greek, anathema) who preaches a heretical Gospel (Gal. 1:8), he did not condemn the heretic to hell, but stigmatized the willful teacher of false doctrines as a rebel against the Gospel of Christ. The Church in the anathemas, which accompany the canons of her Councils, merely imitates the example of St. Paul.

    The Council of Trent solemnly warned bishops to be moderate in its use, declaring, "Although the sword of excommunication is the very sinews of ecclesiastical discipline…yet it is to be used with sobriety and great circumspection; seeing that experience teaches that if it be wielded rashly and for slight causes, it is more despised than feared, and works more evil than good” (Sess. 25, ch. 3, De ref.)

 

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