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 CNS Story:
SANCTIONS-HISTORY Jul-6-2004 (1,200 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxn

Holding public figures accountable to church: centuries of precedent

By Patricia Zapor

Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Some argue that recent calls to deny Communion to Catholics whose political views do not reflect church teaching amount to excessive church entanglement in secular matters.

How about barring all of France from the sacraments because the king divorced and remarried? It happened for nine months at the beginning of the 13th century.

Then there was the general interdict placed on the region of Venice, Italy, in 1606 by Pope Paul V, who disagreed with local requirements that clergy accused of crimes be tried in civil courts and that the government approve the construction of churches.

Though today's discussions of barring someone from the sacraments rarely mention the formal sanctions of "interdict" or "excommunication," those also cut someone off from full participation in the church. While interdiction and excommunication both involve bans on participating in sacraments, someone under interdict is still considered a Catholic, while someone who has been excommunicated is formally cut off from the church.

World history is dotted with dramatic public sanctions for disputes with the Catholic hierarchy over church doctrine. One of the most famous led to the excommunication of Martin Luther in 1521 and ultimately to the Protestant Reformation and the split between the Catholic Church and what became the Lutheran Church.

But there also are cases of sanctions being imposed on individuals or whole communities over what really were battles for authority more than disagreements over religious doctrine.

-- From 1208 to 1213 all of England was under interdict over King John's refusal to accept Pope Innocent III's choice for archbishop of Canterbury.

-- While the 1606 interdict against Venice over papal jurisdiction was lifted a year later, Paul V excommunicated Paulo Sarpi, a well-known theologian who had encouraged Venetians to defy the interdict.

-- As recently as 1909, the town and suburbs of Adria in northern Italy were placed under interdict over the community's efforts to prevent a popular bishop from moving to another town. That sanction lasted just 15 days.

Although interdict orders on whole states fell into disfavor centuries ago, public excommunication continues to be used intermittently to crack down on activities ranging from membership in Nazi, fascist or communist parties to participating in organized crime.

Jesuit Father Gerald Fogarty, a church historian, told Catholic News Service he could think of only two cases of public excommunication in the United States -- once as a sanction for political views thought to be radical, and 75 years later for opposing desegregation.

Father Edward McGlynn, a popular New York pastor and social activist was excommunicated somewhat famously for five years beginning in 1887 over an assortment of accusations, which he refused to go to Rome to answer because he had never seen the charges. His support for the Knights of Labor and a socialist-leaning politician were apparently among the hierarchy's complaints about him, according to historians.

In 1962, New Orleans Archbishop Joseph F. Rummel sent letters to the most vocal opponents of his plan to integrate the diocesan schools, warning them of excommunication if they didn't cease their efforts. He reminded them that Pope Pius XII had condemned racism as a major evil.

Three of the segregationists responded by becoming more vocal in their activism, according to news accounts, and were excommunicated.

Father Fogarty, a professor of religious studies and history at the University of Virginia, said the late Archbishop Rummel was so intent on desegregating schools that he'd been ready to act against segregationist Catholics nearly 20 years earlier, but was deterred by other bishops who didn't want him to act hastily.

More common in the 20th century was the use of automatic excommunication for entire groups.

With the rise of communism in the 1930s and '40s, the Vatican declared in 1949 that communism's denial of the existence of God posed such a threat to the faith that Catholics who collaborated with communism were automatically excommunicated.

A news story by the National Catholic Welfare Conference News Service, the precursor to Catholic News Service, reported a subsequent explanation attributed to New York Cardinal Francis J. Spellman that said: "Catholics whose duties require them to read communist literature may apply to diocesan authorities for permission to read it."

The article warned that those who didn't obtain permission "otherwise fall under the papal excommunication decree forbidding Catholics to read communist publications 'for information, professional reasons or curiosity.'"

Automatic excommunication was the rule from 1884 until 1977 for U.S. Catholics who remarried after divorce without first obtaining an annulment. The U.S. bishops voted in 1977 to lift the automatic excommunication, but Catholics in what the church considers "invalid" marriages remain barred from Communion.

More recently, Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., said in April 1996 that members of 12 organizations he called "perilous to the Catholic faith" were subject to automatic excommunication if they did not quit the groups.

The list included Planned Parenthood, Call to Action, the Hemlock Society, Catholics for a Free Choice, the Freemasons or four affiliated groups, and two organizations that opposed the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council and celebrated Mass in the Tridentine rite without the permission of the local bishop.

In 2004, calls for politicians or even voters to be barred from receiving Communion don't usually go as far as seeking excommunication. But in the early 1990s U.S. groups petitioned the Vatican unsuccessfully for dozens of politicians to be excommunicated because of their support for legal abortion.

Communion sanctions for abortion support go back even further. Within two years of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling legalizing abortion, the late Bishop Leo T. Maher of San Diego warned that anyone in his diocese who belonged to an organization that promoted abortion would be barred from Communion. In the 1980s and 1990s, bishops in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island publicly excommunicated Catholics who performed abortions or worked for organizations such as Planned Parenthood.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says anyone who has an abortion and anyone who formally cooperates in an abortion incurs automatic excommunication.

Other recent cases involving religious sanctions on people for their actions in public life include:

-- Bishops in Chile, Brazil, Cuba and Argentina declared in the 1960s and '70s that participants in violence against bishops, priests and nuns incurred excommunication. Among those specifically excommunicated were Argentine President Juan Peron and Cuban President Fidel Castro.

-- In 1989, Italian bishops ordered priests not to accept members of the organized crime group Camorra as godfathers and confirmation sponsors. They had previously ordered automatic excommunication for participating in Mafia-related crimes.

-- Just this June, the president of the Mexican bishops' conference said excommunication is being considered as a penalty for kidnappers. Bishops in two Mexican states that have been plagued with kidnappings have already announced such a sanction.

And it wasn't that long ago that Catholics called on the church to excommunicate someone they thought had acted improperly in his government job.

Opponents of the Vietnam War sought in 1976 to excommunicate former CIA director William Colby for his role in Operation Phoenix, which resulted in the deaths of 20,587 suspected Viet Cong, as well as torture, assassination and arrests without due process.


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