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Threat of excommunication for stealing books from the Pontifical University of Salamanca

Excommunication (Latin excommunicatio , to the prefix ex- "from", outside; commūnis here communion , Eucharist ) is in the broader sense the temporary or permanent exclusion from a church or a religious community or from certain activities in such a community. It is used as a flexion penalty, i.e. until the wrongdoing has been terminated or redeemed.

Historical connections

In the e. S. is it part of the canon law , generally of canon law . The history of canon law is closely linked to the emergence of internal church structures and their external development. This is how three major epochs can be divided:

  • the first epoch included the time until the beginning of the development of the legal church, the rise of which began under Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085);
  • the second epoch was a phase of excessive juridification, it was accompanied by violent disputes with secular violence; it is the time of the official church crises caused by schism and reformation ;
  • the third epoch began with the Council of Trent (1545–1563) and has extended to the present day.

Before the consolidation of canon law in the Roman Catholic Church , the term anathema ( ancient Greek ἀνάθημα or ἀνάθεμα “the consecrated, cursing”) was used to denote a 'ban from church' or - in connection with a cursing - a 'curse', ie a condemnation by a church that goes hand in hand with exclusion from the ecclesiastical community and, under canon law, is to be equated with excommunication.

Even in the early Christian Church, excommunication and anathema were instruments of episcopal jurisdiction and in fact meant exclusion from the community of believers. The Catholic Church continued to develop this punitive device throughout its history and ultimately anchored it in canon law . Thus, at the First Council of Nicaea in 325, the Alexandrian presbyter Arius , who denied the full essential unity of Jesus Christ with God the Father, and his followers were 'banished'.

Under Pope Eugene III. The Decretum Gratiani, named after the Camaldolese monk Gratian , was created between 1140 and 1150 as the first collection of papal legal decrees of the Jus novum and thus the actual preliminary stage of the Codex Juris Canonici . In this collection u. a. dealt with the handling of excommunication.

Under Pope Innocent III. (1198–1216), excommunication underwent a fundamental change. Together with the interdict and the suspension , it is referred to as flexion punishment ( poena medicinalis ) and is differentiated from the church punishment ( poena vindicativa ) ( church punishment ). In excommunication, a distinction must be made between an offense ( poena latae sententiae ) and a sentence punishment ( poena ferendae sententiae ). In the first case, excommunication occurs automatically, for example in the event of an abortion , heresy or as a schismatic. In the second case, the sentence would have to be imposed by a bishop , and later in the context of a formal administrative or judicial process. Innocent III. changed church law permanently at the 4th Lateran Council (1215); he is considered one of the most important canon lawyers of the Middle Ages . So he had a wealth of procedural rules passed at the council. His draft on the financing of the Roman dicasteries was rejected, however, while the other canons were solemnly confirmed. These were later structured by the glossators , numbered and included in various canon law collections and found the widest reception in the European particular churches , u. a. on provincial synods .

In the Middle Ages, on the territory of the Holy Roman Empire , the excommunication was the secular outlawed result and often the economic or political ruin (someone "outlawed do" = from the Community rule). In the early and late Middle Ages , excommunication led to exclusion from the sacraments and acts of worship , and the excommunicated person was forbidden from social relations with other Christians. In the late Middle Ages, excommunication was also associated with secular legal consequences, such as the loss of the ability to trial and testify and the inability to acquire fiefs . The threat of excommunication was also used as an efficient means of enforcing church judgments and was often used to collect taxes and debts.

New Testament

There are precedents for excommunication in the New Testament . In the Gospel of Matthew , Jesus commands his disciples to look upon a brother who sins and persists in his sin despite repeated admonitions “like a pagan or a tax collector ” ( Mt 18.17  EU ).

The apostle Paul called on the Corinthian church to ban (“surrender to Satan”) those who commit sexual immorality with their father's wife ( 1 Cor 5 : 1-5  EU ). He himself carried out the "surrender to Satan" to Christians who had blasphemed God with their words and deeds:

"Some have disregarded the voice of their conscience and have suffered shipwreck in their faith, including Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I handed over to Satan so that through this punishment they learn not to blaspheme God any more."

- ( 1 Tim 1,19-20  EU )

Roman Catholic Church

In the Roman Catholic Church , excommunication does not mean exclusion from the church (which is impossible under canon law ), but the loss of church fellowship and thus certain rights within the church. According to the 1983 CIC , the excommunicated person is not entitled to bestow or receive the sacraments or sacramentals . In addition, he is not allowed to exercise any church office or church services and tasks.

According to canon law , a distinction is made between the

Excommunication as a criminal offense only occurs in those cases in which the person concerned was aware that the act he had committed is a criminal offense on the part of the church. Since the offense already occurs when the act is committed, it is not necessary that it is confirmed or announced by a bishop or the Pope; However, this can be done under certain circumstances in order to make the event known to the believers.
  • The excommunication as saying penalty ( Excommunicatio ferendae sententiae ) is performed by explicit judgment on the part of the bishop or the Pope . This takes place in the event that the excommunicating person arouses public nuisance.

On the two types of excommunication: excommunication as a penalty ( Excommunicatio ferendae sententiae ) and excommunication as a punishment ( Excommunicatio latae sententiae ) see can. 1314 CIC , can. 1983 CIC

In special cases, especially when a believer is in danger of death, there are exceptions to the excommunication of a donor or recipient of sacraments . It can also just be exposed. In this context, the public declaration of the excommunication that has occurred plays a role.

The excommunication remains until the cause has been eliminated or the person concerned has made amends for the offense, cf. Reconciliation . After that, the local ordinary (usually the diocesan bishop ) is obliged to lift the excommunication again. The bishop can also delegate this authorization to individual priests. In certain cases the excommunication can only be lifted by the Holy See (the first seven under the Excommunicationes latae sententiae ). However, in the event of death, every priest is entitled to lift the excommunication.


In Germany, in particular, the declaration of leaving the church at the responsible state authority is considered a reason for excommunication. This practice has been challenged by an opinion of the Pontifical Council on Legal Texts , which this declaration alone does not consider sufficient. Because of the forwarding of the declaration to the congregations and because the resignation represents a “refusal of the solidarity contribution obligation” due to the elimination of the church tax obligation, the German bishops want to stick to the previous practice.

The visible consequences for laypeople are above all the exclusion from the sacraments of the Eucharist , confession, church marriage and the anointing of the sick, as well as sacramentals such as church funerals .

Since excommunication does not result in exclusion from the church, state law also continues to treat the excommunicated person as a church member. The obligation to pay church tax therefore does not expire if the excommunicated person does not declare his exit from the church himself.

The excommunication of opponents of the infallibility dogma was banned in the German Reich in May 1873 .

Orthodox churches

In the Orthodox Church , excommunication is an exclusion from the Eucharist . It is not an exclusion from the Church and does not have the same serious character as in the Western Church. The excommunication can be pronounced for relatively minor reasons, such as if someone has not confessed in the last year, or as a temporary excommunication as part of a penance .

In addition to excommunication, there is also exclusion by declaring someone anathema , but this only happens in cases of serious and unrepentant heresy . In this case, too, the person is not condemned by the church, but left to himself outside the church. Only in 1965 was the mutual excommunication between the Eastern and Western Churches by Pope Paul VI. and repealed the Patriarch Athinagoras .

Protestant church

In most Protestant churches there is a legal possibility to exclude someone from the Lord's Supper for serious reasons . However, it is very rarely put into practice (see the article church discipline ).


The Reformation Anabaptist movement also knows the possibility of being excluded from the congregation. The Schleitheim article of 1527 already mentions the ban in the second article. However, this must be preceded by a twofold admonition. The Mennonite Dordrecht Confession of 1632 also addresses the ban from the community in Articles 16 and 17. The use of the ban, however, also gave rise to discussions and conflicts between the individual Anabaptist groups. The more traditionalist Anabaptist communities such as the Old Mennonites , the Amish and the Hutterites practice the so-called avoidance based on their respective order after unsuccessful admonition , which is suspended when the person asks the community for forgiveness and changes his behavior.

Free Churches

In free churches there is the legal possibility of congregational exclusion. Often, members who have fallen out of favor try to forestall the exclusion by moving to another free church. Switching to a Christian community of equal faith is generally only possible through a “referral” (recommendation) from the community to which one belonged.


The Islam knows no excommunication, since no institution exists that could be responsible. However, there is the concept of avoidance (see also al-Walā 'wa-l-barā' ) and Takfīr .

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)

Within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints , one person is disfellowshipped who still has membership status but has limited membership rights. This measure is pronounced for serious violations of church commandments and rules. A person who has been disfellowshipped has his or her temple recommendation slip withdrawn. This means that this member is no longer allowed to enter the temple. Furthermore, this person is not allowed to serve in any church office or perform priesthood acts. The person is also not allowed to give public speeches or lead public prayers. Additional conditions can also be imposed for disfellowshipping, such as: B. the distance to pornographic writings and other negative influences in terms of church morality. Additional requirements can include reading Mormon literature and attending meetings regularly. However, disfellowshipped members should continue to paytithes ” and “ fasting sacrifices ”. Also, if they have already received the endowment , they should continue to wear temple underwear and strive to seek sincerely repentant return to the church community.

Disfellowshipping is a temporary condition. Usually it is imposed for a period of at least one month. If a member shows genuine repentance, the Disciplinary Board may meet again and decide to restore the member to full membership rights. If the member shows no remorse, the council meets and decides to either continue the disfellowship or disfellowship the member.

Jehovah's Witnesses

With Jehovah's Witnesses excommunication is referred to as "disfellowshipping" and is supposed to be practiced as avoidance . In their opinion, among other things, the Bible texts from 1 Cor 5 : 11-13  EU and 2 John 1 : 8-11 EU prove that disfellowshipping was  already common among the original Christians . This sanction usually applies to those members who no longer recognize the “Governing Body” as an authority and who publicly announce this (apostasy) or who are guilty of serious misconduct against the principles of faith of Jehovah's Witnesses and do not regret it . Most of the time, those affected leave the community of their own accord before they are excluded. Disfellowshipping can be reversed by resuming. Re-entry into the religious community is possible upon written application under certain conditions. Disfellowshipping and re-enrollment will be announced without giving a reason in meetings where the person concerned has close contacts and is well known. The announcements have the prescribed wording: "(Name of the person) is no longer a Jehovah's Witness" in cases of disfellowship and "(Name of the person) has been reinstated as Jehovah's Witness" in the event of a reinstatement.

Other communities

Other communities also know forms that are comparable to excommunication. In the case of the Christadelphians , members are disfellowshipped in the event of (unrepentant) violations of the principles of faith, which means a ban on participating in active congregation life and the memorial meal. Those excluded are free to attend the meetings. In practice, disfellowshipping leads to at least greater detachment on the part of the other members of the congregation. In the event of repentance, the resumption usually takes place.

The New Apostolic Church also knows an exclusion. The responsible District Apostle makes the decision. This also applies to the resumption of members who have resigned or been excluded.

Web links

Wiktionary: excommunicate  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Andreas Thier: Canon Law. Max Planck Institute for Comparative and International Private Law, Verlag Mohr Siebeck, on wb-eup2009.mpipriv.de [1]
  2. ^ Stephan Haering : Gratian and canon law in medieval theology. MThZ 57 (2006) 21 34, on mthz.ub.uni-muenchen.de [2]
  3. Alberto Melloni: The seven "papal councils" of the Middle Ages. In: Giuseppe Alberigo (ed.): History of the Councils. From the Nicaenum to the Vaticanum II. Wiesbaden 1998, pp. 197-231, here p. 215.
  4. Jürgen Stein: excommunication . In: Evangelisches Kirchenlexikon . Vandenhoeck and Rupprecht, Göttingen 1989, vol. 3, col. 1100.
  5. can. 1331 §1 CIC . Furthermore, he is forbidden from any service in the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, as well as in other worship celebrations; nor may he set any acts of governance.
  6. can. 1335 CIC : If a penalty forbids the administration of sacraments or sacramentals or an act of governance, the ban is suspended as often as is necessary for the salvation of believers who are in danger of death; if a flexural penalty forfeited as a criminal offense has not been established, the prohibition is also suspended whenever a believer asks for the administration of a sacrament or sacrament or for an act of governance; but to ask for it is permissible for any just reason.
  7. can. 1352 CIC : § 1. If a punishment prohibits the reception of sacraments or sacramentals, the prohibition is suspended as long as the perpetrator is in danger of death. § 2. The obligation to comply with a criminal offense that has neither been determined nor is it evident at the place where the perpetrator is staying is suspended in whole or in part if the perpetrator fails to comply with it without the risk of serious annoyance or damage to reputation can.
  8. Michael Sachs: 'Prince Bishop and Vagabond'. The story of a friendship between the Prince-Bishop of Breslau Heinrich Förster (1799–1881) and the writer and actor Karl von Holtei (1798–1880). Edited textually based on the original Holteis manuscript. In: Medical historical messages. Journal for the history of science and specialist prose research. Volume 35, 2016 (2018), pp. 223–291, here: p. 278.
  9. Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, David L. Weaver-Zercher, Die Gnade der Amish , CH Wiley Verlag, Weinheim, 2009, p. 177ff.
  10. A current statement can be found in the study edition of the Wachtturm from July 15, 2011, p. 15ff .
  11. Rodney Stark and Laurence R. Iannaccone , Why the Jehovah's Witnesses Grow so Rapidly. A Theoretical Application , in: Journal of Contemporary Religion 12/2 (1997), p. 136.
  12. Statute (StRG) in the new version of May 27, 2009 (Official Journal of Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany, No. 2, year 2009, p. 1 ff.), §§ 15, 16