So our Catholic Campus Ministry Community at UNC-Asheville is pretty active on our Discord Channel and one of the favorite activities is the late night questions that I, David the campus minister, get to wake up to. Here on the blog, I’ll start sharing some of those questions, anonymously, and my slightly expanded and edited answers.
I am anything but infallible, and a lot of my answers are extrapolations from Church teaching. If you know of specific Church teachings that contradict my answers, or have a different interpretation of Church teaching, I’m always open to considerate and compassionate disagreement.
QUESTION: If I go back in time and get excommunicated for something stupid—Like if I said slavery was a moral issue and we need to fight against it [as two Capuchins had been excommunicated for doing so in Havanna in 1681]—and then back to the present. Am I still excommunicated?
DAVID: The Council Of Trent (1545-1563) recommended the abolition of excommunication as a disciplinary means/censure for all but the gravest matter* (as opposed to breaking gravest moral law, assaulting the Pope, or clerics who a) break the seal of confession or b) ordain a priest or Bishop without authority which do incur excommunication), and this would presumably include getting excommunicated for condemning what is, in fact, a sin. As you can see by the date of the Capuchins’ excommunication, above, this recommendation was not always followed. I can’t find any primary source or specific canon to this effect (probably because excommunication as censure isn’t done anymore) but according to the Catholic Encyclopedia (1914) because of the excess number of excommunications made for lesser offenses, theologians hold that for most of the excommunications to that effect were absolved without the faithful needing to make recourse to a bishop or Rome. So no, said time traveler would (probably) not still be excommunicated.
FOLLOW-UP #1: Isn’t the excommunication null and void because there was no sin? (sort of, I misread someone else’s response to the question, and this is what I thought I was answering):
DAVID: So excommunication doesn’t affect the relationship between the soul and God, but only the relationship between the person and the Church. Excommunication does not equal condemnation; excommunication only means exclusion/exile from the society of the Church and participation in her sacraments. So even if the soul was right with God for whatever reason the excommunication had been imposed, they would still need to approach the Church about having the excommunication lifted, that they may be considered a member with full rights within the Church and access to the sacraments again.
FOLLOW-UP #2: but the Church is not a requirement to go to heaven, right? If your life is ordered towards God. A person that was wrongfully excommunicated can still reach heaven.
DAVID: It’s helpful here to distinguish between the earthly Church (or visible Church, or Pilgrim Church, or Church Militant, see CCC 769-771) alone and the supernatural church as a whole; “there is no salvation outside the church“ being an expression of the supernatural church. In that sense the Church is a requirement for salvation. It would be better to say “Being in good standing with the visible Church is not a absolutely necessary requirement to go to heaven.“
FINAL NOTE: While the excommunication for denouncing slavery might automatically be lifted upon the time-traveler’s return, I wonder if the time-travelling itself isn’t an act of sin. One is gravely disturbing the space-time continuum and thus the natural order by the displacement of your matter and spirit from one time to another. The matter might be compounded if one’s intention is to alter history, when we consider God to be the Lord of History. If you presume that history as it has been is not “good enough” and should have been different, one is attempting to play God if travelling to the past to “fix” it, and thus likely guilty of an extreme form of pride, or even a form of scientific sorcery.
*Council of Trent Session XXV, Decree 8, Chapter III – “Although the sword of excommunication is the very sinews of ecclesiastical discipline, and very salutary for keeping the people in their duty, yet it is to be used with sobriety and great circumspection; seeing that experience teaches, that if it be rashly or for slight causes wielded, it is more despised than feared, and produces ruin rather than safety.”