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"mid-15c., from L.L. excommunicationem (nom. excommunicatio), from pp. stem of excommunicare "put out of the community," in Church L. "to expel from communion," from ex- "out" (see ex-) + communicare, from communis "common" (see common)."[1]

In the loose sense of the word, anyone who commits a mortal sin is "excommunicated" from the Church by that very act because their sin prohibits them from taking Communion. The sin breaks their relationship with God and with His People. Until they repent, confess their sin, and do penance, they are "out of communion" with the Church.

The technical meaning of the term is quite different, as the material below shows. In this sense, "excommunication" is a special penalty or punishment imposed by the Church for sins that are especially scandalous. Such ecclesiastical censures can only be removed by those authorized to do so--special confessors, the local bishop, or the Pope or his delegated representatives.


Canon law


Wikipedia, "Latae sententiae--Excommunications"
Unless the excusing circumstances outlined in canons 1321-1330[2] exist, the Code of Canon Law imposes latae sententiae excommunication on the following:
  • an apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic;[3]
  • a person who throws away the consecrated Eucharistic species or takes and retains them for a sacrilegious purpose;[4]
  • a person who uses physical force against the Pope;[5]
  • a priest who uses confession as a pretext to solicit the penitent to break the commandment against adultery;[6]
  • a bishop who ordains someone a bishop without a papal mandate, and the person who receives the ordination from him;[7]
  • a confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal of confession;[8]
  • a person who procures a completed abortion;[9]
  • accomplices without whose assistance a violation of a law prescribing latae sententiae excommunication would not have been committed.[10]
Legislation outside of the Code of Canon Law may also decree latae sententiae excommunication. An example is that governing papal elections, which applies it to persons who violate secrecy, or who interfere with the election by means such as simony or communicating the veto of a civil authority.[11]
The ipso facto excommunication that applied before 1983 to Catholics who became members of Freemasonry was not maintained in the revised Code of Canon Law that came into force in that year. However, the Holy See has declared that membership remains forbidden and that "the faithful who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion".[12]


The word "excommunication" appears only three times in the Catechism.

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. In danger of death any priest, even if deprived of faculties for hearing confessions, can absolve from every sin and excommunication.[13]
Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. "A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,"[14] "by the very commission of the offense,"[15] and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law.[16] The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.
From its conception, the child has the right to life. Direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, is a "criminal" practice (GS 27 § 3), gravely contrary to the moral law. The Church imposes the canonical penalty of excommunication for this crime against human life.


  1. Online Etymology Dictionary, "excommunication."
  2. Cann. 1321-1330
  3. Can. 1364
  4. Can. 1367
  5. Can. 1370
  6. Can. 1378
  7. Can. 1382
  8. Can. 1388
  9. Can. 1398
  10. Can. 1329
  11. Universi Dominici Gregis
  12. Declaration on Masonic Associations.
  13. Cf. CIC, can. 976: "Even though a priest lacks the faculty to hear confessions, he absolves validly and licitly any penitents whatsoever in danger of death from any censures and sins, even if an approved priest is present"; CCEO, can. 725.
  14. CIC, can. 1398.
  15. CIC, can. 1314: "Can. 1314 Generally, a penalty is ferendae sententiae, ["judgment to be imposed"] so that it does not bind the guilty party until after it has been imposed; if the law or precept expressly establishes it, however, a penalty is latae sententiae, ["judgment imposed"] so that it is incurred ipso facto when the delict is committed."
  16. Cf. CIC, cann. 1323-1324.