Everyone knows that the strictest penalty in the Catholic Church is excommunication. In contemporary conversations it is billed as the ultimate harsh punishment for sinners and heretics. Of course heretical groups and monarchs who supported them, like Elizabeth I, were regularly forced out of the church. But the truth is that excommunication isn’t just for heretics.
In fact, sometimes it’s a punishment for good behavior. In 562 the Irish saint Columba was excommunicated at the Synod of Teltown for praying for the winning side in the Irish War. In truth this doesn’t seem fair. When you are a saint you do seem to have something of an advantage when asking God for divine intervention, but does exploiting this merit disqualification from the church? Later authorities agreed, and the excommunication was first commuted into banishment and then overturned as a miscarriage of justice. A group of 16th-century Carmelite nuns in Avila, who refused to reject St. Teresa of Avila’s leadership, were excommunicated by local officials. And in 1871 the Australian nun and now saint Mary Mackilop was excommunicated by her local bishop, Bishop Sheil, for insubordination. Some have claimed that her excommunication resulted from the fact that she reported sexual abuse in the church. Sheil removed the excommunication on his deathbed, but what a thing to be remembered for.
Excommunication is one of the few arenas in which being rich and famous doesn’t help you. Henry VIII, excommunicated for marrying Anne Boleyn, wasn’t the first monarch to feel that his sex life was being overly scrutinized. Four centuries earlier Philip I of France decided to repudiate his wife (on the grounds that she was too fat) and marry his mistress, Bertrade de Montford. He was summarily excommunicated, but the ban was lifted when Philip made a public penance. French monarchs have a problem with their wives: only a century before that, the 10th-century King Robert II of France was excommunicated by Gregory V for marrying his cousin, Bertha (What can you say, the heart wants what it wants). It was only after Gregory’s death and after Robert agreed to annul the marriage that he was readmitted into the church. Jousting with the Pope over multiple wives? It’s a good thing The Donald isn’t running for Holy Roman Emperor.
More often than not, though, regal excommunications have often just been a cover for political shenanigans. Sometimes it was just a sign that the Pope had changed sides. Most scholars believe that when Pope Alexander II excommunicated Harold II of England in the 11th century, he did so in support of William the Conqueror’s Norman Conquest in 1066.
There are of course authentically grave sins that provoke excommunication. There are a number of artists and scientists who fell afoul of church teaching. Most famous, of course, is Galileo, but Galileo was never actually formally excommunicated (or tortured, for that matter). There are others who were. In 1878 Dr. Chil y Marango was excommunicated for his work on evolution in the Canary Islands and, as recently as 1908, famed Bible scholar and Catholic priest Alfed Loisy was excommunicated for his book on the Gospels which suggested that the Jesus of history is far from the person portrayed in the Synoptics (standard fare for Bible scholars today).
Finally, of course, there’s no shortage of clerics who have committed grave offenses against the church. Falling in love (and acting on it), preaching anti-Pope sermons, ordaining women, writing heretical tracts, and exhuming the corpse of a deceased pope and putting him on trial are all crimes punishable by excommunication. (For those who enjoy a good Wikipedia rabbit hole, check out the Cadaver Synod).
The good news for everyone involved (grave-digging cardinals included) is that excommunication is widely misunderstood. Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, who was excommunicated no fewer than three times during his lifetime, received his first chastisement in 1227 for failing to start the Fifth Crusade. Excommunication is often thought of as the church hanging up the phone on you, it’s really more like just pressing the mute button for a bit.. It doesn’t mean that a person is banned from church or that he or she ceases to be Catholic. In fact someone who is excommunicated is required to attend church on a weekly basis; he or she is simply unable to receive the sacrament of communion. Although mandating church attendance even for the excommunicated might seem counterintuitive, if you care enough to be bothered by excommunication you’re probably going to church every week already anyway.