Around AD 485, the patriarch of Constantinople, Acacius, was excommunicated by Pope Felix III, in a dispute over both theology and authority. This excommunication, however, seems unique in that it was said to be "perpetual," as the Catholic Encyclopedia explains:

Acacius was branded by Pope Felix as one who had sinned against the Holy Ghost and apostolic authority (Habe ergo cum his . . . portionem S. Spiritus judicio et apostolica auctoritate damnatus); and he was declared to be perpetually excommunicate — nunquamque anathematis vinculis exuendus. (source)

Wikipedia further indicates that Acacius was "irrevocably excommunicated," though I'm not sure if that's an accurate characterization, particularly in light of the Catholic Encyclopedia's article on excommunication, which does not seem to address the concept of a "perpetual" excommunication. After reviewing that article, I can conceive of a few ways that the perpetual excommunication of Acacius could be understood:

  1. That this excommunication was simply a "reserved" excommunication, one that could only be absolved by the Pope, and the "perpetual" was an indication of the Pope's confidence that absolution would not be sought or given.
  2. That this excommunication was of a special category not described in the CE, and that it truly was irrevocable, without any possibility of absolution.
    • If so, does this special category continue to exist today?
  3. That Wikipedia and I misunderstand the term "perpetual" in this context and thus this isn't actually any different from many other excommunications (perhaps the adjective simply means "perpetual until absolution")

How does Catholicism today understand this excommunication of Acacius by Pope Felix? Was it truly "irrevocable," and if so, can such excommunications be pronounced today?

  • 1
    I can't speak to the history, but when the CE said "sinned against the Holy Ghost" they were likely referring to Matthew 12:32.
    – JBH
    Jul 20, 2017 at 14:51
  • What leads you to believe modern Catholics care about this? Is the issue at hand whether or not the one pronouncing the excommunication -- with the unusual and dire modifier of perpetual -- possessed of the authority to do so? Jul 20, 2017 at 16:26
  • @KorvinStarmast Based on what I've read I assume that modern Catholics agree that he did have authority to do so, though if that's a mistaken assumption I'll be happy to be corrected. Thus it's more a matter of understanding where this fits in Catholic excommunication today, since CE didn't mention it as an option. Does it fit into a "normal" category? Or was it a special, rare case? Jul 20, 2017 at 16:36
  • @Nathaniel As I understand it, that "perpetual" bit looks like a serious, but I'd need AthanofAlex or someone far better versed in that details to help me understand this well enough for an answer worthy of the issue. Jul 20, 2017 at 23:28

1 Answer 1


Perduring or Unending

First and foremost, it should be noted that Canon Law pertains to clerics, and only very rarely to the laity (and even then, I think only to those in some position of authority).

There is no specific penalty called "perpetual excommunication" in the current Code of Canon Law (1983). Generally speaking, mercy is of greater weight than justice, and a repentant person should never be so drastically punished in that way without there being some extraordinarily grave matter. This penalty has been either handed down (in the case of Acacius) or used as a dire form of oathmaking (in the case of two brothers going off on crusade). In the case of the latter, we can read their transaction, giving the Church their manor if they die while on crusade here. This particular phrase is of interest: "If, however, another lays claim to this gift, not only is it protected from that which is sought, but may he suffer every curse [malediction] and perpetual excommunication from God and the holy apostles for his sins, unless he recovers his senses."

Canon law does provide for "perpetually expiatory penalties", however. (These are mentioned in Book VI.) Josemaría Sanchis, in his Exegetical Commentary for Book VI, notes examples such as "dismissal from the clerical state or deprivation of office". An example of this sort of penalty was that imposed upon Mr Theodore McCarrick (formerly a Cardinal), who was laicised. Essentially he can no longer act as a priest. The penalty in this case is almost certainly perpetual because it is extremely unlikely that he will be readmitted to orders.

As regards Acacius specifically, it would appear from this article that he was quite the character. Reading between the lines in this article, I suspect that the excommunication was termed "perpetual" simply because Acacius was too dangerous in his behaviour to be allowed back.

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