Comparing Church Discipline

In the midst of a discussion about Truthful Evangelism at the Spectrum webpage, Dave Larson asked that I sketch some comparisons between Catholic and Adventist teachings on church discipline, specifically, the ultimate discipline that Catholics call excommunication and Adventists refer to as “removal from church membership.” Here’s a revised version of what I had sketched there, which benefits from some comments I received from two friends who are canon lawyers; one for a major archdiocese, and the other a respected professor of canon law.

The starting point for any Christian discussion on discipline must begin with the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17:

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Over the centuries, Christians have interpreted this in many different ways. In early centuries, someone who sinned would be kept at the door of the church, and public penance might last many years. A strict form of church discipline was restored by the Reformed tradition, and considered a “mark of the Church” (see the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism); Among Anabaptists, “the ban” was listed as an article of faith alongside baptism and the Lord’s Supper (see the Schleitheim Confession). For some, such as the Amish, it may include shunning, avoiding contact with the person.

The current Seventh-day Adventist practice is described in the 2005 edition of the Church Manual (pp. 194ff). The section on Administering Discipline begins (p. 194) with this introduction:

If a member falls into sin, sincere efforts must be made for reclamation. “If the erring one repents and submits to Christ’s discipline, he is to be given another trial. And even if he does not repent, even if he stands outside the church, God’s servants still have a work to do for him. They are to seek earnestly to win him to repentance. And, however aggravated may have been his offense, if he yields to the striving of the Holy Spirit and, by confessing and forsaking his sin, gives evidence of repentance, he is to be forgiven and welcomed to the fold again. His brethren are to encourage him in the right way, treating him as they would wish to be treated were they in his place, considering themselves lest they also be tempted.”–Testimonies, vol. 7, p. 263.

The term “disfellowship,” once used, has been replaced by the term, “removal from church membership.” I’d be interested in knowing more about the reasons for the change in terminology. Someone is to be removed from membership as a last resort, “only after the instruction given in this chapter has been followed, and after all possible efforts have been made to win and restore him/her to right paths.” Restoration is the goal, not punishment. If a lesser means can be used, such as “censure” (which deprives a member of public office or a stated period of time), so much the better.

The manual lays out some specific reasons for which a member shall be subject to discipline, including “denial of faith in the fundamentals of the gospel and in the cardinal doctrines of the church or teaching doctrines contrary to the same,” “violation of the law of God,” including idolatry, murder, theft, profanity, gambling, Sabbath breaking, falsehood, sexual misconduct of various kinds, remarriage of a divorced person (except for the innocent partner of an adulterer), physical violence, fraud, “disorderly conduct which brings reproach upon the church,” “adhering to or taking part in a divisive or disloyal movement or organization,” “persistent refusal to recognize properly constituted church authority or to submit to the order and discipline of the church,” and use, manufacture, or sale of alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and narcotics or other drugs. Not that these are, for the most part, moral issues; a minority deal with attitudes and actions toward church authority.

The manual goes to great lengths to insist upon due process. Discipline must be done in a timely manner; caution must be followed; ministers and churches cannot set up tests of fellowship beyond what the denomination has done. Only a majority vote of members at a duly called business meeting can remove someone from membership, and only after the church board has reviewed the case. Neither the church board, the pastor, nor any other church official has the power to remove someone. The member has a right to be heard in their own defense and, consequently, must have due notice so that they can prepare. You can’t be removed for nonattendance or for financial reasons.

Once the action has been taken, the church must notify the former member in writing, and deliver the notification in person.

Those disciplined by the church, whether through censure (which has a time limit attached to it) or removal from membership, cannot vote or hold office, but “He/She is not deprived … of the privilege of sharing the blessings of Sabbath School, church worship, or the ordinances of the Lord’s house.” This is important. The purpose of discipline is winning the person back, and you don’t want to cut that person off from fellowship, hearing the word, or even from communion at the Lord’s table. Adventists have open communion, and practice it consistently with non-members and former members.

Reinstating a member who has been removed preferably happens in the same church from which they had been removed. Reinstatement may happen “when confession of wrongs committed is made, evidence is given of real repentance and amendment of life, and it is clear that the member will fully submit to church order and discipline.” “Readmission to church membership is normally preceded by rebaptism.”

Should the local church refuse to readmit the member, they have a right to appeal to the church for a hearing. If the church refuses, they can appeal to the conference.

Current Catholic norms are contained in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. It makes for difficult reading for the non-specialist, because it is a complex law code modeled on Roman law. The Catholic discipline of canon law has all the attending accouterments of civil law, including law schools, law degrees, lawyers, judges, and courts. The average priest has had only a couple of courses in the subject (St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston requires three 2-hour courses; I took one of the three, and picked up much of the rest through reading on my own, workshops for priests and lay ministers, and working for the Catholic church for about fourteen years).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes,

1463 Certain particularly grave sins incur excommunication, the most severe ecclesiastical penalty, which impedes the reception of the sacraments and the exercise of certain ecclesiastical acts, and for which absolution consequently cannot be granted, according to canon law, except by the Pope, the bishop of the place or priests authorized by them.

A friend who is an internationally respected canon lawyer said,

Historically there have been different understandings of what patterns of thought and behavior so impair the Church’s spiritual integrity as to require an ecclesiastical penalty, i.e., the deprivation of some spiritual or temporal good within the Church’s control.

Excommunication, like suspension or interdict, is a censure (canon 1312), a medicinal penalty intended to get the individual to change behavior.

Excommunication forbids one to have an active part in the Mass or other ceremony of public worship, to administer or receive the sacraments, to exercise any ecclesiastical office or, in certain instances, receive church benefits from it. Excommunicated persons, however, remain members of the Church , unless the offenses of their nature exclude such membership (e.g., heresy schism, or apostasy).

The relevant canons start with can. 1312. Note first the different terminology. Where “censure” for Adventists is a preliminary step to removal from membership, “censure” in the Catholic church is a category of which “excommunication” is one particular form.

Here’s a clear and interesting difference–whereas an Adventist, removed from church membership, can still receive communion, an excommunicated Catholic is not removed from membership (except as already noted), but can’t receive communion (or be confirmed, be married, be ordained, etc.).

Can. 1341 notes that excommunication is not imposed by either a pastor or a parish council (which in Catholic understanding is not a governing board but an advisory board); rather, the only person who can excommunicate someone is the ordinary–that is, the bishop. Concern is expressed for both due process and pastoral sensitivity. A period of time is to be given for “fraternal rebuke and correction,” and the ordinary should use “a judicial or administrative process.” But “just causes” (1342) can preclude this, and it is possible (though rare) for a bishop to by pass these procedures and impose a penalty by “extrajudicial decree.” As an example of this, I’d point to an excommunication decree issued by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln in 1996 against members of certain organizations; see link below).

A bishop has a great deal of leeway, and can modify or suspend any penalty (1344), especially if there are extenuating circumstances (1345).

Can. 1347 specifies that the person must be warned in advance. And yet there are different kinds of excommunication; while some are declared, some actions can incur excommunication latae sententiae (that is, it happens automatically just by virtue of the fact that you did the act for which this was the penalty).

The reasons a person could be excommunicated are spelled out in can. 1364ff.

“An apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic” is excommunicated latae sententiae. As is someone who throws away the Eucharist or uses it profanely, as is someone who uses physical force against the pope.

A parent can be excommunicated if they let their child be baptized or educated in another faith (other legislation, including the Ecumenical Directory, understands that in a mixed marriage the non-Catholic parent may also have an obligation to raise the children in their faith, and so is going to be lenient on the Catholic parent in such a situation).

Can. 1372 says someone is to to be excommunicated if they appeal a pope’s decision to an ecumenical council–going over his head, as it were (Luther did this in 1518 and 1520, and this was one of the reasons why church leaders began to press for his excommunication, even apart from his teaching).

Can. 1378 says a priest is excommunicated latae sententiae if, in confession, he absolves someone with whom he had sex.

Can. 1397 notes “a person who commits a homicide or who kidnaps, detains, mutilates, or gravely wounds a person by force or fraud is to be punished with the privations and prohibitions mentioned in ⇒ can. 1336 according to the gravity of the delict.” Interestingly, excommunication is not an option for these cases. Abortion is the one exception, as is immediately noted in can. 1398: “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.”

Penalties are remitted at various levels, depending upon the offense; for some, it’s enough to go to confession; for others, the person seeking to have the penalty lifted must write to the bishop; for still others, he must appeal to the Vatican (1354 ff). Some of those cases that are reserved by the Vatican include desecration of the Eucharist, violence against the pope, and “absolution (by a priest) of a partner in a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue” (i.e., sexual immorality).

Whereas for Adventists rebaptism is the normal path of restoration, this is never an option for Catholics, because baptism is considered an unrepeatable sacrament.

Some final points of summary.

Note that no Adventist penalty can deprive the person of Communion, whereas deprivation of the sacraments is the essential penalty (whether excommunication or interdict) that is imposed by the Catholic church. And while Adventists “remove from membership,” the Catholic Church does not.

Note that Adventist penalties require due process involving not merely the pastor, but the church board, and then a public business meeting, where the person has the right to be heard in their defense. While also stressing due process under normal circumstances, Catholic canon law nonetheless provides for occasions in which, for a just cause, penalties can be automatically incurred or imposed by the bishop by extrajudicial decree.

Moral failures, important in the Adventist understanding and practice, seem to be trivial concerns for Catholic canon law to Protestant eyes. Murder and violence will get someone removed from membership in an Adventist church, but they would not get someone excommunicated from the Catholic church (unless the victim was the pope). My friend noted above that these are certainly seen as serious sins by the Catholic Church, but the weight of canon law “is concerned primarily with church-related offenses.” This emphasis in the law may explain why no priests have been excommunicated for sexual abuse of children–something that most lay Catholics and non-Catholics cannot comprehend.

Adventists will restore anyone at the local level; while a priest can remit most penalties for Catholics, some are reserved to the pope.

Adventist procedures cover a few pages–Catholic laws, dozens and dozens of pages. Adventists don’t need canon lawyers trained in the intricacy of church laws like Catholics do. Adventists have no standing tribunals. Catholic canon law constitutes one of the major cultural differences between the Catholic system and all Protestant churches. The complex discipline of moral theology is related to it–the priest in confession is, in a sense, a judge, and the casuistic traditions of moral theology are intended to assist him in judging cases. This can also help to explain the requisite understanding of philosophy prior to the study of theology–Aristotelianism and other Greek philosophies undergird Catholic moral theology.

Excommunication is imposed rarely by the Catholic Church. I never heard of it being done a single time in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston during my nine years as a departmental director. When it does happen anywhere in the US or the world, in generally makes headlines, as in the following notable cases:

The Vatican recently said some women who attempted ordination are automatically excommunicated.

In 1996, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln excommunicated members of his diocese who might be members of Planned Parenthood, Society of St. Pius X, Hemlock Society, St. Michael the Archangel Chapel, Freemasons, Job’s Daughters, DeMolay, Eastern Star, Rainbow Girls and Catholics for a Free Choice. While other bishops around the country may have rolled their eyes, and while this affected only the members of his diocese, and no Catholics outside of Lincoln, the Vatican upheld his action. This is a good example of an extrajudicial decree, as well of both the independence and the authority of each bishop as Vicar of Christ for his local church.

Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis excommunicated some church board members for defying the bishop; incoming board members have been threatened with excommunication by his successor. Not only did the Vatican confirm his excommunication–he was made Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura–the head of the Vatican’s appellate tribunal.

Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre were excommunicated for ordaining bishops without authorization by the Vatican.

I want to return to the matter of the failure of the Catholic Church to excommunicate priests who have sexually abused minors. As noted above, this is something that angers and troubles many Catholics. Why are Rainbow Girls excommunicated while no priest who molests children is?

To get a sense of Catholic anger on the laxity shown toward clerical crime, read Jason Berry, Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, Jason Berry and Gerald Renner, Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, and Leon J. Podles, Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church. One of the points that Podles makes is that the clergy just don’t get it. They don’t understand the anger of the laity. They don’t understand that righteous anger is morally obligatory in such cases. Lee would like, just once, to hear a priest or bishop express some genuine anger at the abuse that was done first by priests and then by bishops and other chancery officials who protected those priests. They would like a sense that justice has been done. The failure to excommunicate the perpetrators is one further suggestion that the system understands neither the seriousness of their crimes nor the anger of the laity.

3 thoughts on “Comparing Church Discipline

  1. Bill, communion is intricately linked to obedience. Lefebvre, etc. were excommunicated after refusing to follow the party line. If a priest who is caught for abuse agrees to accept treatment and/or not break his promise/vow again then he is within the fold (regardless of wether he is sincere or not). The debate return to questions of power, not morality or faith.

  2. Liam says almost what I was going to say. Excommunication is only levied against those crimes which seriously undermine the authority of the Church. That’s why belonging to an organization that publicly opposes Church teaching or ordaining people in contravention of official policy gets you excommunicated, but sexual relations with an altar boy does not. Clerical dalliances pose no serious threat to church authority…unless the offending priest were to refuse to move to a new diocese, or the victim were to take his case to the civil courts. But I suspect those crimes would result in excommunication. For that reason, molesting a child or teenager is really not as serious a crime or as grave a sin as the offenses you previously mentioned. It’s not that the hierarchy doesn’t understand the anger of the laity; it’s that they have a thoroughly warped sense of the gravity of sin. Any large organization’s chief concern is its own self-perpetuation, and this is a good example of that instinct in practice.

  3. Authority is based on two components: power and right. “Power” is the ability to coerce by means of penalties and rewards, and “right” is ability to compel the conscience by moral appeal. Sexual abuse of minors by clergy may not undermine a church’s power to command authority, but it certainly undermines a church’s right to command authority.

    Also, it seems to me that when the severest disciplines are limited to actions that undermine a church’s power, it shows what that church really cares about, and also undermines the church’s right to command authority.

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