History of the Church


AN ecclesiastical censure by which a Christian is separated from the communion of the Church. It is a power included in the power of the keys, or of binding and loosing, given by Christ to Peter and the Apostles, and may be deduced from our Savior's words (Matt. xviii. 17) "If he will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican." For to treat a man as a heathen and a publican is to repel him from the Church and all things sacred _ that is, to excommunicate him. We find it put in practice by St. Paul (I Cor. v. 3), when he said of the incestuous Corinthian "I . . . have already judged . . . him that hath so done, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, you being gathered together and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, to deliver such a one to Satan," etc. St. Augustine explains: "Because outside the Church is the devil, as within it is Christ, and accordingly he who is separated from the communion of the Church is as it were delivered to the devil."

Excommunication is of two kinds, the major and the minor. The minor kind is an ecclesiastical censure, by which a Christian is deprived of the right to participation in sacraments, and indirectly, as a consequence, of the right of receiving a benefice. It is incurred by communicating with a person under major excommunication, in any case where such communication is not excused.

The major excommunication deprives of all ecclesiastical communion, and is equivalent in substance to anathema, from which it only differs in regard to the formalities by which the latter is surrounded. For the major excommunication can be inflicted by mere force of law, or by the written sentence of a judge, whereas an anathema is publicly pronounced, and "cum strepitu."

Those under major excommunication again fall into two classes: tolerati, whom the faithful are not bound to avoid; and non tolerati (i.e. those excommunicated by name and publicly denounced, and those notoriously guilty, by themselves or others, of violence to clerics), with whom the faithful are forbidden to hold either religious or civil communication. Civil intercourse is, however, permitted, for the sake of the faithful themselves, under various circumstances and to various classes of persons.

Excommunications are also divided _ and this is a most important distinction _ into those ferendae sententiae, and those latae sententiae. In the case of the former it is enjoined that a sentence of excommunication be pronounced (e.g. " we forbid this on pain of excommunication; whoever does it, let him be excommunicated," or "will incur excommunication," etc.), but the delinquent does not actually incur the sentence till it has been inflicted by a competent judge. In the second case, the words of the law or other instrument are so chosen that upon a given act being done the doer of it falls at once under the ban of the Church, as when it is said _ "let him incur excommunication ipso facto." Nor are such sentences unjust, as some have argued, on the ground that the delinquents who incur them have not been duly warned, as the Gospel requires, of the nature of their offense; for the law itself, which they must be presumed to know, is a standing and perpetual warning. At the same time, the excommunication latae sententiae is operative only in the internal forum and in the sight of God; to make it effectual in the external forum also it is necessary that the guilt be proved before, and declared by, a competent judge.

Excommunications are also divided into those reserved to the Pope, and those not reserved. Those of the first class now in force are enumerated in the constitution "Apostolicae Sedis," issued by Pius IX. in 1869, in which are also specified all excommunications latae sententiae and ipso facto incurred henceforth in vigor.

If it be asked, Who can excommunicate? it may be answered, those who possess ordinary or delegated jurisdiction in the external forum in regard to those, subject to them; but not parish priests (who have as such only jurisdiction in the forum of conscience), and never laymen or women. To the question, Who can be excommunicated? the answer is, that only Christians, alive and of sound mind, guilty of a grave offense and persisting in it, and subject to the judge giving sentence, can be excommunicated. Not Jews, therefore, nor Pagans, nor the unbaptized heathen, not the dead; but the sentence may justly be inflicted on heretics or schismatics.

The effects of excommunication are thus summed up. "As man, by baptism is made a member of the Church, _ in which there is a communication of all spiritual goods, so by excommunication he is cast forth from the Church and placed in the position of the heathen man and the publican, and is deprived accordingly of sacraments, sacrifices, sacred offices, benefices, dignities, ecclesiastical jurisdiction and power, ecclesiastical sepulture _ in a word, of all the rights which he had acquired by baptism _ until he make amends, and satisfy the Church."

Fathers of the Church.

THE appellation of Fathers is used in a more general and a more restricted sense. In a general sense it denotes all those Christian writers of the first twelve centuries who are reckoned by general consent among the most eminent witnesses and teachers of the orthodox and Catholic doctrine of the Church. Taken in this sense, it includes some names on which there rests more or less the reproach of heterodox doctrine. Origen, whose works as we have them contain grave errors frequently condemned by the highest authority in the Church, is one of these. Nevertheless, his writings are of the highest value for their orthodox contents. Eusebius of Caesarea is another. Tertullian became an open apostate from the Catholic Church; yet his writings as a Catholic are among the most excellent and precious remains of antiquity. There are some others included among the Fathers in this greater latitude of designation who have not the mark of eminent sanctity.

In its stricter sense the appellation denotes only those ancient writers whose orthodoxy is unimpeachable, whose works are of signal excellence or value, and whose sanctity is eminent and generally recognized. The following list includes the names of the most illustrious Fathers, according to the most exclusive sense of this honorable title:

First Century _ St. Clement of Rome. Second Century _ St. Ignatius, St. Justin, St. Irenaeus. Third Century _ St. Cyprian, St. Dionysius of Alexandria. Fourth Century _ St. Athanasius, St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Ephrem, St. Ambrose, St. Optatus, St. Epiphanius, St John Chrysostom. Fifth Century _ St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Leo the Great, St. Prosper, St. Vincent of Lerins, St. Peter Chrysologus. Sixth Century _ St. Caesarius of Arles, St Gregory the Great. Seventh Century _ St. Isidore of Seville. Eighth Century _ Ven. Bede, St. John Damascene. Eleventh Century _ St. Peter Damian, St. Anselm. Twelfth Century _ St. Bernard. A complete collection of the works of the Fathers contains many more names than these. Moreover, it is plain that the Fathers of the first six centuries, by the mere fact of their priority in time, are much more valuable witnesses to primitive faith and order, and that their writings are in a stricter sense sources of theological tradition, than the works of those who came later, however illustrious the latter may be. There is also a gradation of rank among the Fathers, some having a much higher authority than others. As private doctors, no one of them has a final and indisputable authority taken singly, except in so far as his teaching is warranted by some extrinsic and higher criterion, or supported by its intrinsic reasons. As witnesses, each one singly, or several concurring together, must receive that credence which is reasonably due in view of all the qualities and circumstances of the testimony given. Their morally unanimous consent concerning matters pertaining to faith has a decisive and irrefragable authority. It has always been held that God raised up in the earlier ages of the Church these highly gifted, learned, and holy men, and endowed them with special and extraordinary graces, that they might be the principal teachers of the mysteries and doctrines of the faith. Their writings are the great source of light and truth in theology, after the Holy Scriptures. The authority of their doctrine, in the proper sense of that word, is nevertheless derived from the sanction of the Ecclesia Docens, the only supreme and infallible tribunal.

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