Dr. Edward Peters 

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11 jan 2013

Why archbishop's action brought excommunication

Edward Peters, "Why archbishop's action brought excommunication",

Our Sunday Visitor (22 Oct 2006) 3.




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Edward Peters, with doctoral degrees in canon and civil law, teaches at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, MI. His new book, Excommunication and the Catholic Church, is now available from Ascension Press at 1-800-376-0520.

On September 26 [2006], the Vatican Press Office released a short statement confirming that Abp. Emmanuel Milingo, the retired archbishop of Lusaka, Zambia, but now living in the United States, had incurred automatic (Latin: latae sententiae) excommunication under Canon 1382 of the Code of Canon Law. This canon threatens excommunication upon any Catholic prelate who confers episcopal orders without papal authorization. Milingo and four priests who participated with him in such a ceremony in Washington DC on Sept 24, have thus incurred the most severe censure that the Catholic Church can impose upon the faithful. Sadly, this is not the first time Milingo has run afoul of canon law.


Born in 1930 and consecrated a bishop by Pope Paul VI in 1969, Milingo was seen as a rising star in the African hierarchy until complaints about his poor pastoral administration led the Holy See to request his resignation from archdiocesan governance. Milingo stepped down from office in 1983 and reportedly was intermittently admonished for imprudent actions over the following years. But upon his sudden civil marriage to a Korean acupuncturist in May 2001 during a group wedding organized by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, Milingo was immediately suspended from holy orders under canon 1394. At the same time, the Holy See formally warned Milingo of further canonical penalties, including excommunication, unless he repented of his violation of clerical celibacy. Intense discussions between Milingo and Vatican officials though the summer of 2001 eventually resulted in Milingo’s decision to separate from his Unification wife, whereupon his suspension was lifted.


The uneasy truce between Milingo and the Catholic Church unraveled, however, this past summer when Milingo disappeared from his Roman residence only to surface some weeks later in New York with his Unification wife at his side. Milingo began agitating for “optional celibacy” for priests and gave indications that he would ordain as bishops several like-minded priests. Repeated efforts by the Holy See to contact Milingo were fruitless, and on Sept 24 he carried out what appeared to be episcopal ordinations on four priests, though at least some of the priests claimed to have received episcopal orders illicitly elsewhere. One of them, in fact, George Stallings of the Archdiocese of Washington, already under excommunication since 1990 for schism, had married a woman from Japan in the same Unification ceremony wherein Milingo had wed four years before. The Vatican’s announcement of excommunication against Milingo and the four priests followed promptly, and included a phrase about “not recognizing” whatever orders that Milingo might have conferred that day.


Because excommunication under Canon 1382 is automatic (not all excommunications are automatic, but those that are latae sententiae seem to capture the public’s attention), there is a sense in which one can say “Abp. Milingo has excommunicated himself.” On the other hand, every excommunication arises as the result of Church law being applied to one’s actions. Just as one might say, “The defendant convicted himself” without losing sight of the fact that the legal system decides who is convicted and who is not, so one might say “Abp. Milingo has excommunicated himself” without losing sight of the fact that his status must be assessed in terms of canon law.


Excommunication, which traces it roots back to the Apostolic Age, is seen by many as a harsh ejection from the Catholic Church or even as a declaration that one is (or will be upon death) damned in the eyes of God. Neither assertion is correct. In fact, excommunication is presented by the Church as her chief medicinal penalty. This phrase “medicinal penalty” is not a play on words, and in fact it has some important canonical consequences.


Some sanctions in the Church have as their goal the preservation of good order or the restoration of justice (these so-called expiatory penalties include deprivation of ecclesiastical office and dismissal from the clerical state). Medicinal penalties, in contrast, have as their primary goal the personal reform of the offender. While expiatory penalties can be imposed on an individual even if he is truly sorry for his actions (for example, the laicization of priest for child sexual abuse, even if he has repented of his behavior), medicinal penalties must cease as soon as their goal of reform is achieved (see Canon 1358). The suspension Milingo incurred in 2001 after his civil wedding was a medicinal penalty; as soon as he repented, his suspension was lifted.

While he is excommunicated, Abp. Milingo is forbidden under Canon 1331 to celebrate the sacraments (including offering Mass), to perform sacramentals (such as conferring blessings), or to hold any Church offices (though this is not an issue in Milingo’s case). Of course, many persons under excommunication ignore these rules, but in doing so, they only spread scandal among the faithful and compound the difficulties of reconciling themselves with the Church. In the meantime, faithful Catholics should not approach Milingo for ministerial services.


It is sometimes said that excommunication is an ineffective penalty because it is only imposed on the kind of people who are least likely to abide by it. This argument, not unreasonable on its face, needs correction in several ways. First, it overlooks the number of times that people under excommunication do repent of their actions and reconcile with the Church; second, it fails to acknowledge the effect excommunication has on those who might consider following others into grave error or objectionable ways; third, it underestimates the wider teaching function of law whereby the wrongfulness of certain behavior is underscored by being punished with a sanction such as excommunication.


Fundamentally, the way to resolve an excommunication is by manifesting personal sorrow for the offensive behavior and by expressing a willingness to repair the harm caused. Some additional canonical requirements that might affect a high-profile case like Abp. Milingo’s can be, and certainly would be, addressed promptly upon his showing repentance. As was true the last time Milingo gravely violated Church order, the road back is always open. Only time will tell whether he takes it. +++