A censure is a penalty by which a person who is baptized, who has committed a crime, and who is contumacious, is deprived of certain spiritual goods (benefits) until, having desisted from his contumacy, he is absolved. There are three kinds of censure: excommunication, interdict, and suspension. Only excommunication will be considered here. Excommunication is a censure by which one is excluded from the communion of the faithful with specific consequences which it is not necessary to enumerate for the purposes of this study.
Excommunication can be incurred in two ways. (1) Latae sententiae, sentence already passed. This penalty is inflicted by the law itself immediately upon the commission of the offence. It is the automatic imposition of a penalty. (2) Ferendae sententiae, imposed by a sentence. This is the infliction of a penalty by a court or the action of a legitimate superior.
The primary object of a censure is to overcome contumacy in order to bring back the guilty person to a better sense of his spiritual condition; the secondary end is to furnish an example of punishment so that other evildoers may be deterred.
It has already been explained that a formal heretic is a person who pertinaciously doubts or denies a truth which must be believed by divine and Catholic faith. Such a person incurs automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication under both the Old and the New Codes of Canon Law. As with all crimes incurring a censure latae sententiae, the law inflicts the penalty the moment the crime is complete. If the crime be secret the censure also is secret, known only to God, but binding before God and in conscience. Evidently, only God is able to judge when the contumacy (pertinacity) of a secret (occult) heretic has reached the stage which incurs excommunication. As was explained above, under the old Code of Canon Law those suspected of heresy were to be admonished by their superiors and have a six month period to retract their errors before being considered heretics and becoming liable to the penalties for heresy.
The possibility of occult heretics holding position of authority within the hierarchy raises the question of their power of jurisdiction. A bishop can occupy his see legitimately only with the authority of the Pope, and a parish priest must be appointed by the diocesan bishop in order to obtain the ordinary jurisdiction necessary to hear confessions and solemnize marriages. The aspects of Catholic life dependent upon the exercise of valid jurisdiction at various levels of the hierarchy are very extensive. The consequences for the life of the Church if an occult heretic in a position of authority lost his power of jurisdiction are almost too terrible to contemplate. Imagine, for example, that a pope came within this category. The bishops he appointed would not occupy, their sees legitimately, and all their acts requiring jurisdictional power would be invalid; the religious orders the pope approved would have no legal right to existence; the legislation he promulgated would not be binding; and the very cardinals he appointed to elect his successor would have no legal right to their position. In such cases, for the protection of the Mystical Body, even though the occult heretic would no longer be a member of the Church, he would retain his power of jurisdiction until he had committed a public act which incurred a canonical sentence of excommunication.* If this were not so no Catholic could ever be absolutely certain that any action of any cleric of any rank requiring jurisdictional authority for validity was, in fact, valid, because it could not be affirmed with absolute certainty that the cleric concerned was not an occult heretic.
Once the crime of heresy becomes public, even though it incurs ipso facto excommunication, the censure incurred must be made public. A judicial examination of the crime takes place, and a formal declaration (declaratory sentence) is made that the delinquent has incurred censure.
It has already been explained that the primary objective of a censure is to
bring back the guilty person to a sense of his spiritual condition. The basic
thesis of this study has been that the Church is an extension of the
Incarnation, that the Church is a perpetuation of Our Lord's presence and
mission throughout the nations and the centuries. The mission of Our Lord was
not to condemn souls to hell, but to save them from hell, given the requisite
degree of cooperation with divine grace on their part. Our Lord is
preeminently the Good Shepherd, Bonus Pastor. The Council
of Trent cautioned the hierarchy in the following terms:
If there is any doubt as to whether a censure is latae sententiae or ferendae sententiae, it is presumed to be ferendae sententiae. The reason for this is that in penal matters the more benign interpretation is to be followed. Moreover, before the infliction of the latter kind of censure, three warnings (monitiones) are necessary, or one peremptory warning, except where both the crime and the contumacy of the delinquent are notorious and therefore sufficiently proved. Unless expressly stated, cardinals and bishops were exempted from latae sententiae penalties under the Old Code, with the exception of very grave offences such as heresy which resulted in ipso facto excommunication. Only the Roman Pontiff could declare or inflict a penalty in their cases. This is also the case in the New Code.
The requirements for the lawful imposition of a canonical censure are: (1)
Jurisdiction in the legislator or judge. As censures are punishments they can
only be inflicted by a superior on his subjects. (2) Sufficient cause. (3) The
correct method of procedure. An examination of the supreme jurisdictional power
of the Pope will now be made, and it will be evident that as he has no
ecclesiastical superior he is subject to no ecclesiastical censure apart from a
declaratory sentence that he had forfeited his office through notorious public
© 1997 Michael Davies.
Last modified 27th October, 1997, by David Joyce.