How excommunication works

Q. From what we are seeing on social media here in New York state, there seems to be some misunderstanding about what excommunication is and how it happens. Does the pope excommunicate someone, or can a bishop? Is there a process? What is the pastoral approach to something like this? What are the consequences for someone who is excommunicated? (Syracuse, New York)

A. Excommunication is the church's most severe penalty, imposed for particularly grave sins. Its purpose is not punitive but medicinal, with the hope of awakening an individual's conscience and bringing a person to repentance. It has its origins in the earliest days of the church; St. Paul (1 Cor 5:1-5) urged that a man who practiced incest be expelled from the Christian community "so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord."

Excommunication can be imposed by competent authority (usually a bishop) or it may be incurred automatically for certain sins (e.g., a person who desecrates the Eucharist, someone who procures an abortion, a priest who violates the seal of confession). A person who is excommunicated is forbidden from participating in the church's sacraments, from exercising any ministry in the church (lector, for example, or extraordinary minister of holy Communion) or from serving as a Catholic godparent or confirmation sponsor.

I am guessing that your question is prompted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo's support for the Reproductive Health Act recently passed by the New York state legislature. That act, among other things, permits abortions to be performed by nondoctors, allows abortion for virtually any reason throughout the entire course of a woman's pregnancy and removes any protection for an infant accidentally born alive during the course of an abortion.

Some (including Protestant evangelist Franklin Graham) have called for the Catholic Church to excommunicate Cuomo for his part in this. Many, including Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, were particularly galled by the fact that Cuomo directed that the lights of New York City's Freedom Tower should sparkle in pink to celebrate the act's passage.

A statement issued from Cardinal Dolan's office, though, has indicated that excommunication might not be the correct response canonically nor the most effective one. The statement suggested that, from a pastoral point of view, the issue should be addressed personally and directly with the offending individual and that, from a strategic perspective, "many politicians would welcome it (a public excommunication) as a sign of their refusal to be 'bullied by the church,' thinking it would therefore give them a political advantage."

Q. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has called upon priests to limit their homilies at Mass to between eight and 10 minutes. I fully support this, because that seems to be the attention span for most of us. (Also, few priests are good orators, and some are unprepared and speak extemporaneously.) Why don't more priests observe this call of the pope? (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

A. Your information is correct. In February 2018, at a weekly general audience attended by some 8,000 people, Pope Francis spoke about homilies, saying that they should be short and well-prepared. Be brief, he said, "it must not go longer than 10 minutes, please." (Not incidentally, he also said, "Those listening have to do their part, too," by giving the homilist "the appropriate attention.")

Honestly, I'm not sure why more priests don't follow this advice; what you say about people's attention span seems right on the mark. My sense is that these comments by the pope were not reported very widely. (I say this because I heard little discussion of them among either priests or laity.) If your concern is with your own parish, you may want to target the rectory with a copy of this column. (Anonymously might be best!)

- - - Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.

- Father Kenneth Doyle is a columnist for Catholic News Service