“That is what you call a bishop who’s not afraid to bishop.”

Because the Church has no authority to ordain women, and because of active resistance by those who dissent from that teaching, the Church provides a canonical response to simulations of the sacrament of Orders: “[B]oth the one who attempts to confer a sacred order on a woman, and the woman who attempts to receive a sacred order, incur an excommunication latæ sententiæ reserved to the Apostolic See.” 1 Such excommunications take effect ipso iure and need not be declared, 2 but on occasion it proves helpful, to do so, and his excellency Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield has seen fit to declare that Mary Keldermans, a laywoman in his diocese, has incurred one. 3 She did so when she carried out—over a warning from Bp. Paprocki that she would excommunicate herself by doing so—her publicized intention to be “ordained as a priest for Roman Catholic Womenpriests Inc. in a ceremony at the Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Springfield.” 4 (The person who simulated the ordination, Ms. Joan Clark Houk, a laywoman of the diocese of Pittsburg, remains excommunicated from her own simulated ordination in 2006. 5)

While I do not find the snide tone pervading much of the commentary to be helpful, I applaud Paprocki and find all this quite refreshing. Excommunication is not a punishment, but rather a medicinal penalty, a call to repentance—poen[a] medicinales is the underlying Latin. 6 It is medicinal in the sense that it calls a person back to the Church. People are not excommunicated in order to banish them from the Church, but because their conduct has already placed them outside of her; indeed, to the extent that they have placed themselves in a state of mortal sin, they may well be heaping far greater judgment upon themselves if they are receiving certain sacraments. When a man dreams that he is running in a meadow while he sleepwalks through a minefield, it is no kindness to let him sleep.

And far from being a relic or museum piece, excommunication is an old idea well-suited to modern times. In this age, words are ignored, bishops are dismissed, 7 and the notion of authority—the overweening authority of the state excepted—is non-existent; we live in a radically-individualistic cultural mileu in which people find it very hard to wrap their heads around the idea that they are subject to a criterion other than their own judgment. In such circumstances, people need to be accosted by dramatic action that breaks into their lives and shakes them up. Excommunication is, in the argot of therapy culture, an “intervention,” intended to bring a person to their senses if they can’t or won’t awaken by themselves. Think about it: Why would a man who believes that he is right with Jesus seek to get right with Jesus? He won’t. Indeed, he will resent being told that he has any such need. Only a dramatic intervention can break through and make that man realize the peril in which he has placed himself. (This is also, presumably, why God quite often uses crises to break through to the unchurched.) It may not work—but nothing short of it is likely to work. The care of souls requires more than mere talk! The enemy is playing for keeps; we must realize that this is a deadly game with eternal consequences, and there is nothing charitable or loving about letting a person walk blindfold into hell for fear of her taking offense if we should tackle her to the ground.

Would excommunication make the schismatic priests of the so-called “Pfarrer initiative,” for example, realize how serious their actions are? Perhaps; perhaps not; but nothing short of it will. And perhaps it will make the watching laity realize that something is very wrong, that this is the wrong crowd in which to get mixed up. And while it’s easy to be cynical about entrenched dissent, it sometimes works. For example, in 2010, Sister Margaret McBride, RSM, incurred a latæ sententiæ excommunication which was announced by his excellency Thomas Olmsted (D. Phoenix), but, despite initial resistance, deo gratias, Sr. McBride reconciled with the Church and her excommunication was lifted. 8 Will excommunication shake Keldermans awake? Probably not. You never know. But it isn’t just about her; it’s also about the watching laity; it’s about sending a message, about sounding the alarm. Like the excommunication of Greg Reynolds, 9 it sends a message.

So three cheers for Paprocki; it may be outré to say it in this climate of gathering storms, but we need more bishops like him. Bishops who know who they are to judge, if you take my point. 10 Bishops who are obsessed with what the Church teaches and who know that it very much is necessary to talk about it all the time. Bishops who will give a Catholic blessing. Bishops who don’t want people to make a mess and who see the risk in scandal. Bishops who don’t think that the truth of the faith isn’t conditional on one’s parentage. Bishops who care about those small-minded “rule” thingies. Sacristy bishops.

Notes:

  1. Decretum generale, 100 AAS 403 (CDF, 2008), available at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20071219_attentata-ord-donna_en.html (last visited May 21, 2014); see generally Ap. Con. Ordinatio sacerdotalis, 86 AAS 545 (John Paul II, 1994).
  2. Rev. Ethelred Taunton, The Law of the Church: A Cyclopedia of Canon Law for English-speaking Countries 330 (1906) (imp. +Johnson, 1906). They are disfavored, see Beal et al, New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law 1538 (2000), but the 1983 Code does impose them for some situations.
  3. See John White, Dear Woman Priest, You’re Excommunicated, Catholic Vote, May 22, 2014, http://www.catholicvote.org/dear-woman-priest-youre-excommunicated-love-bishop-paprocki (last visited May 23, 2014).
  4. Steven Spearie, Local woman to be ordained as Catholic priest, State Journal-Register, April 12, 2014, http://www.sj-r.com/article/20140412/News/140419782.(last visited May 22, 2014).
  5. See Marylynne Pitz, Despite excommunication threat, McCandless woman plans to become a priest, Pittsburg Post-Gazette, July 12, 2006, http://www.post-gazette.com/life/lifestyle/2006/07/12/Despite-excommunication-threat-McCandless-woman-plans-to-become-a-priest/stories/200607120195 (last visited May 22, 2014).
  6. See 1983 CIC 658 § 1
  7. Cf. Simon Dodd, Episcopal authority and the abuse crisis, https://simondodd.org/blog/?p=1065, 3 MPA __ (2013).
  8. Compare Dan Harris, Nun Excommunicated After Saving a Mother’s Life With Abortion, ABC News, June 1, 2010,  http://abcnews.go.com/WN/Media/church-excommunicates-nun-authorized-emergency-abortion-save-mothers/story?id=10799745 (last visited May 22, 2014), with Mercy nun at hospital that allowed abortion ‘no longer excommunicated’, CNS, Dec. 9, 2011, http://www.catholicnews.com/data/briefs/cns/20111209.htm#head13 (last visited May 22, 2014).
  9. See Brian Roewe, Australian priest, advocate for women’s ordination excommunicated, National Catholic Reporter, Sept. 24, 2013, http://ncronline.org/news/global/australian-priest-advocate-womens-ordination-excommunicated (last visited January 4, 2014).
  10. Cf. Simon Dodd, Of Humanæ vitæ and the approaching Synod on the Family, n.11, https://simondodd.org/blog/?p=1332, 4 MPA __, __ n.11 (2014)