Interdict (canon law)

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An interdict (Latin: "prohibition") is the prohibition of acts of worship , which is imposed as a church punishment for an offense against canon law .

The interdict in the form of the local interdict , which affected entire villages or areas, was a sharp weapon of the Catholic Church against disregarding church rules and in the fight against opponents , mainly in the Middle Ages . This punishment was used up to modern times. In the form of the personal interdict, which can only affect individual believers, but not church authorities and institutions or even entire regions, the interdict is still part of the penal provisions of the Codex Iuris Canonici .

For those affected, the interdict means the failure of the sacraments necessary for the spiritual salvation of the believer and the prohibition of the valid exercise of church offices. The interdict systematically belongs to the flexion punishments , which are supposed to bring about an improvement (behavior change) of the person concerned by exerting pressure.

Medieval atonement cross in front of the Marienkirche in Berlin. This atonement cross was part of the absolution in the case of the interdict over the twin cities of Berlin-Cölln because of the assassination of the provost Nikolaus von Bernau in 1324.


Exclusion from the community is one of the oldest and most severe punishments known to mankind. In ancient times, this type of punishment was widespread among many peoples in various forms. Sometimes even the expulsion from paradise is viewed as the first interdict. 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 method in its history and ultimately anchored it in canon law . There a distinction was made between the excommunicatio maior (Latin: "major excommunication") and the excommunicatio minor ("minor excommunication"). In the small excommunication, the affected persons were only denied membership rights, for example by being excluded from the sacraments , failure of the church burial or the prohibition to enter the church. From the 6th century on, entire areas were covered with the excommunicatio minor . However, this was problematic, because a community ( universitas ) has no soul and can therefore not be excluded from the community of Christianity. Therefore, in the 11th century, the interdict was basically separated from excommunication and used as a separate punitive means.

The local interdict

The interdict was intended as a means of atonement and amendment. Canon law differentiates between several forms of interdict, essentially the personal and the local interdict. The personal interdict corresponds to the excommunicatio minor. In contrast, the local interdict was mostly used as an extension of excommunication. The interdict over entire areas was intended to increase the pressure on the excommunicated and to force them to recognize the authority of the church through the suffering and pressure of the affected population. The local interdict contained the complete cessation of all spiritual functions within the area concerned. In particular, the houses of worship were closed, the church service stopped, the church bells fell silent and the sacraments and church burials failed. For example, the Synod of Limoges in 1031 prescribed for an interdict that the churches should display a picture of mourning. The jewelry had to be removed from the altars and the crucifixes should remain covered. The atmosphere should be that of Good Friday .

Changed practice over time

In the 10th century, the interdict was still mainly pronounced by bishops and synods. From the middle of the 11th century, however, there were also papal interdicts, and later it became the practice for the interdict to be pronounced by lower ecclesiastical dignitaries. In the course of time the interdict practice has changed many times. In this way, the interdict could also be extended to people who supported those affected. Clerics who did not observe the interdict fell into irregularity. The ruling to arbitrarily impose the interdict on places where excommunicated people were staying gave rise to multiple complaints. The basic rule was: what was not allowed was forbidden. This could lead to a certain confusion among contemporaries, as it was not always ensured that one was up to date with the latest legislation. During the papal interdict over Germany at the time of Ludwig of Bavaria , for example, there were many priests who continued their worship service, but were convinced that they were acting entirely in the interests of the Pope.


The interdict was never fully enforced in its full scope, as the church leaders recognized that the cessation of spiritual acts posed threats to the salvation of innocent believers. These were excluded from the blessings of the Eucharist , the forgiveness of sins, the spiritual union with Christ, and redemption from evil. That is why those affected were repeatedly given relief, such as the worship service behind closed doors. In addition, individual churches, monasteries and entire religious communities were freed from interdicts through papal privileges ( exemption ). Pope Boniface VIII softened the interdict practice at the end of the 13th century in the decretal "Alma mater" in order to create a binding standardization. A daily church service behind closed doors to the exclusion of the excommunicated was now permitted. Furthermore, on the four main holidays of Christianity, the service should be held in all its glory. In addition, the imposition of the interdict for demands for money was forbidden. The effects of the interdict were listed in a decree of imposition.


The interdict recorded all persons who had their place of residence or stay within the affected area. It affected clerics , religious and lay people alike . The interdicted population was allowed to participate in worship services outside the interdicted areas. But the fault of the interdict were excluded from this. The interdict was imposed by verdict or became effective as an automatic punishment. With the publication of the decree, for example on the door of the most important church in town, the interdict came into effect.


The length of the interdict was determined by the behavior of the victims or by the goodwill of the accuser or of the person who was able to resolve the interdict. An interdict could go on for decades. An interdict case is known from Sicily that lasted for 60 years.


The repeal of the interdict was mostly associated with expiatory payments. In most cases this was atonement , the donation of altars or atonement crosses .

Historical development

The interdict was used more frequently from the 14th century. However, this also made it less effective. It was increasingly used in the struggle against the secular rulers. They often defended themselves by breaking the interdict by putting pressure on the clergy. The long duration of interdicts (Papal Interdict on the Mark Brandenburg 1327–1358) also often led to a certain numbing of the population. In addition, the interdict was increasingly used by the lower clergy for profane purposes. For example, it was common practice to sell debt securities to clergymen because the interdict allowed them to lend more weight to their demands.

After the Reformation , interdicts were only rarely imposed on areas from the 17th century onwards. In the Evangelical Church , the interdict does not exist as a punishment.

The interdict was incorporated into the penal provisions of the Codex Iuris Canonici of the Catholic Church in 1917 (cann. 2268–2277). Here, however, it only retained a weakened form in relation to participation in worship and the performance of the sacraments. The current Codex from 1983 only knows the personal interdict (can. 1332 CIC). With regard to the reception of the sacraments and participation in religious services, it has the same consequences as excommunication, but does not lead to the loss of church offices like this.


According to the Codex Iuris Canonici of 1983 , the interdict becomes effective if

just like

  • False accusation of a confessor of seduction in confession by a confessor,
  • attempted marriage with a religious who is not a cleric with perpetual vows (can. 1394 § 2 CIC),
  • Support of an anti-church association (can. 1374 CIC),
  • The disposition of a sacrament based on simony (can. 1380 CIC)

and as

In times when faith played a dominant role in life, the interdict was a powerful weapon of the church against secular rulers. Nowadays the interdict as a punishment is of little importance; only the Interdictum personalale still plays a certain role in relation to priests .