One might identify the real-world problem behind this question. I have tried to put it forth without naming anyone involved in such situation and instead posed it as an imaginary situation. Please answer in a general way and not by pointing at any specific instance, person or group.

Imagine the following situation in the Catholic Church: Some catholic commits an offense which is punishable with a latae sententiae exommunication according to canon law.

As I understand the offender will (at least if the offense is somehow public) be advised by some authority (e.g. the pope or the local bishop) that his actions are leading him into excommunication and that he should stop it.

Now let's further imagine that the offender himself argues that his actions were out of grave necessity. In this case he would not be excommunicated latae sententiae (again, according to my understanding of the matter). He thus continues committing the same offense out of perceived necessity.

On the other hand, the relevant authority (pope/bishop) does not accept his arguments and continues to put forth that the offender is excommunicated as long as the offense continues.

This might now lead to a "but he said"-situation where one group claims that the person in question is and the other group that he is not excommunicated, thus leading to major problems concerning the unity of the church.

My Question: In such a situation, what mechanism is there to create clarity about the status (excommunicated or not) of the offender for himself and the public?

  • In case of such a disagreement, the pope or bishop who said the person was excommunicated latae sententiae could simply stop arguing about that and excommunicate the person ferendae sententiae. I'm not sure, though, how much clarity that would create, as the person could claim (and sometimes correctly) that the excommunication was unjustified. – Andreas Blass Feb 26 at 20:54
  • 1
    @AndreasBlass But does canon law provide a possibility to excommunicate someone already excommunicated? If not, by excommunicating him ferendae sententiae the pope/bishop accepts that he was not excommunicated latae sententiae in the first place. Thus there was no reason for that latae sententiae excommunication and thus the ferendae sententiae excommunication also seems unjustified. Tricky situation here. – David Woitkowski Feb 27 at 7:57

Short: There is a regular criminal process for that.

A latae sententiae penality "is incurred ipso facto when the delict is committed" (can. 1314 CIC). But that does not mean that there cannot be a process over the delict. Most times the action leading to the latae sententiae penality is not public, but in foro interno. So the church needs a formal act to be sure if the penality applies. This is one sense of the canonical criminal justice system.

can. 1341 CIC: An ordinary is to take care to initiate a judicial or administrative process to impose or declare penalties only after he has ascertained that fraternal correction or rebuke or other means of pastoral solicitude cannot sufficiently repair the scandal, restore justice, reform the offender.

For penalities ferendae sententiae the court/ordinary will impose the penality, for penalities latae sentantiae it only has to declare the penality. After that the church has a formal act and is sure on the (older) penality.

This declaration can also affect the effect of the penality, e.g. for excommunication the excommunicated is forbidden to recieve the sacraments, but if it is imposed or declared (-> public) everyone else must stop him when trying to recieve the sacraments.

can. 1331 CIC: §1. An excommunicated person is forbidden:

  1. to have any ministerial participation in celebrating the sacrifice of the Eucharist or any other ceremonies of worship whatsoever;
  2. to celebrate the sacraments or sacramentals and to receive the sacraments;
  3. to exercise any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, or functions whatsoever or to place acts of governance.

§2. If the excommunication has been imposed or declared, the offender:

  1. who wishes to act against the prescript of §1, n. 1 must be prevented from doing so, or the liturgical action must be stopped unless a grave cause precludes this;
  2. invalidly places acts of governance which are illicit according to the norm of §1, n. 3;
  3. is forbidden to benefit from privileges previously granted;
  4. cannot acquire validly a dignity, office, or other function in the Church;
  5. does not appropriate the benefits of a dignity, office, any function, or pension, which the offender has in the Church.

As stated correct in Sola's Answer there are cases, when the Church does not want the unsure state of a maybe-latae-sententiae-penality. If these conditions are met, can be clarified with authority only in the formal criminal process by the respective authority. In that process also the motives of the offender will be explored.

For the details of such a process (which court, Roman or local, procedure) and possible anomalies for bishops please ask a new question.


This is a basic case of basic canon law. There is no room for 'my opinion' or 'their opinion.'

Canon 1323.

The following are not subject to a penalty when they have violated a law or precept:

1° a person who has not yet completed the sixteenth year of age;

2° a person who without negligence was ignorant that he or she violated a law or precept; inadvertence and error are equivalent to ignorance;

3° a person who acted due to physical force or a chance occurrence which the person could not foresee or, if foreseen, avoid;

4° a person who acted coerced by grave fear, even if only relatively grave, or due to necessity or grave inconvenience unless the act is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls;

5° a person who acted with due moderation against an unjust aggressor for the sake of legitimate self defense or defense of another;

6° a person who lacked the use of reason, without prejudice to the prescripts of cann. 1324, §1, n. 2 and 1325;

7° a person who without negligence thought that one of the circumstances mentioned in nn. 4 or 5 was present.

Canon 1324.

§1 The perpretrator of a violation is not exempted from penalty, but the penalty prescribed in the law or precept must be diminished, or a penance substituted in its place, if the offence was committed by:

1° one who had only an imperfect use of reason;

2° one who was lacking the use of reason because of culpable drunkenness or other mental disturbance of a similar kind;

3° one who acted in the heat of passion which, while serious, nevertheless did not precede or hinder all mental deliberation and consent of the will, provided that the passion itself had not been deliberately stimulated or nourished

4° a minor who has completed the sixteenth year of age;

5° one who was compelled by grave fear, even if only relative, or by reason of necessity or grave inconvenience, if the act is intrinsically evil or tends to be harmful to souls;

6° one who acted in lawful self-defence or defence of another against an unjust aggressor, but did not observe due moderation;

7° one who acted against another person who was gravely and unjustly provocative;

8° one who erroneously, but culpably, thought that some one of the circumstances existed which are mentioned in Can. 1323, nn. 4 or 5;

9° one who through no personal fault was unaware that a penalty was attached to the law or precept;

10° one who acted without full imputability, provided it remained grave.

§2 A judge can do the same if there is any other circumstance present which would reduce the gravity of the offence.

§3 In the circumstances mentioned in §1, the offender is not bound by a latae sententiae penalty.

You said,

On the other hand, the relevant authority (pope/bishop) does not accept his arguments and continues to put forth that the offender is excommunicated as long as the offense continues.

The pope may be the supreme judge (i.e. as to having final say, not as to be being the best or most prudent judge of matters), but he is a judge nonetheless: since latae sententiae is defined in canon law, commenting or declaring anything concerning that penalty stands or falls on whether it is what canon law prescribes, since "x falls under latae sententiae" is an assertion—the pope can't make something true by simply asserting it. If the pope says, 'the book of Genesis says in verse 78 of chapter 90...' there doesn't suddenly become a 90th chapter of Genesis because the pope asserted there is a 90th chapter of Genesis. Likewise, he cannot say 'x falls under latae sententiae' if he in fact does not according to canon law. Moreover, such a mistaken assertion does not automatically convert into a directly imposed excommunication (ferendae sententiae).

What you describe is simply a pope who is not going by canon law, which protects the assumed innocence principle when considering their subjective experience/declared motives (Can. 1234.8). To ignore a declared subjective motive is to ignore canon law 1234.

In such a situation, what mechanism is there to create clarity about the status (excommunicated or not) of the offender for himself and the public?

There is no other recourse (apart from making an argument from reason, perhaps) apart from simply pointing to established law.


The answer given by @SolaGratia is nearly perfect. There are a couple of things to add, though.

The point of a latae sententiae excommunication is that no one need know about it. This will almost certainly be something that no one other than the individual knows of. In a case of ferendae sententiae, as you state, the person's pastor or ordinary will no doubt rebuke them at least once. But in the case you're discussing, there will be no such warning. Thus, the bishop will almost certainly not hear of it—for b ordinary case at least.

Supposing the bishop did come to hear about it, though:what then? Sola's answer invokes canons 1323 note 7 and 1324 note 7; these in turn refer to canon 1323 notes 4 and 5. In particular, the argument runs, the supposed excommunicate is not excommunicated because they were acting, or felt they were acting, out of necessity. But note 4 contains an exception: "... unless the act is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls."

It is normally not difficult to determine that an act is intrinsically evil—but the bishop may feel,and the excommunicate disagree, that it tends to the harm of souls. Or, indeed, the bishop may have a low moral opinion ofthe person, and feel, or even say outright, that they are lying. In this case, there is a disagreement about whether the canons cited even apply. What then?

Fortunately, there is a place to decide these things. The Tribunal of the Roman Rota is the second-highest court of appeals in the Church. For bishops involved in what are called "contentious cases", those requiring a judge, the Rota is the court of first instance—the court to which the case goes right away. If the bishop truly felt that he needed to resolve the problem, he would need to present the case to the Rota. If the other person wanted a resolution, he could request the bishop to do so, and if the bishop refused, the other could bring the issue (not the issue of the excommunication but that of the refusal to request a hearing) to the attention of the Vatican's Congregation of Bishops. The congregation would rule on whether the bishop was obliged to carry out the request.

Once the Rota had the case before it, a panel of three judges would investigate and hand down a ruling based on the evidence offered by each side. If either side felt the ruling was in error, they could appeal the case to the highest court of appeals in the Church: the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. This court will appoint usually five judges to hear the case. In theory, if they desired, either side could appeal to the Pope: the highest authority. Of course, if the Signatura or the Pope refused to hear the case, the lower court's ruling would stand.

  • "The point of a latae sententiae excommunication is that no one need know about it." The point of it is that it is automatic once a particular Church law is broken. Many latae sententiae offences are well known offences and thus publically known. – Ken Graham Feb 28 at 21:26
  • @ken understood - but my point was that unlike a ferendae, a latae sententiae excommunication need not have the ordinary involved, and therefore it's quite possible that the excommunication takes place without anyone, much less the bishop, being aware. That's not the case with imposed excommunication. – Matt Gutting Feb 28 at 22:34

How are conflicting views concerning latae sententiae excommunications resolved in the Catholic Church?

Latae sententiae excommunication is the penalty of excommunication that follows ipso facto or automatically, by force of the law itself, when a particular law is contravened. Rome can and has reaffirmed to individuals that a latae sententiae excommuniation has been incurred by publicly stating so, especially when a particular case is quite overt. If in this situation the case for which on incurred the excommunication on believes to be unjust; one must make an appeal to Rome in order to prove one's innocence as if it were a ferendæ sententiæ excommunication. to the Apostolic Tribunal of the Roman Rota, or the Apostolic Signatura or in the case of urgent matters to the pope himself.

Let us look into this matter a little closer:

Latæ and Ferendæ Sententiæ

Excommunication, especially a jure, is either latæ or ferendæ sententiæ. The first is incurred as soon as the offence is committed and by reason of the offence itself (eo ipso) without intervention of any ecclesiastical judge; it is recognized in the terms used by the legislator, for instance: "the culprit will be excommunicated at once, by the fact itself [statim, ipso facto]". The second is indeed foreseen by the law as a penalty, but is inflicted on the culprit only by a judicial sentence; in other words, the delinquent is rather threatened than visited with the penalty, and incurs it only when the judge has summoned him before his tribunal, declared him guilty, and punished him according to the terms of the law. It is recognized when the law contains these or similar words: "under pain of excommunication"; "the culprit will be excommunicated".

Effects of invalid or unjust excommunication

An excommunication is said to be null when it is invalid because of some intrinsic or essential defect, e.g. when the person inflicting it has no jurisdiction, when the motive of the excommunication is manifestly incorrect and inconsistent, or when the excommunication is essentially defective in form. Excommunication is said to be unjust when, though valid, it is wrongfully applied to a person really innocent but believed to be guilty. Here, of course, it is not a question of excommunication latæ sententiæ and in foro interno, but only of one imposed or declared by judicial sentence. It is admitted by all that a null excommunication produces no effect whatever, and may be ignored without sin (cap. ii, de const., in VI). But a case of unjust excommunication brings out in a much more general way the possibility of conflict between the forum internum and the forum externum, between legal justice and the real facts. In chapter xxviii, de sent. excomm. (Lib. V, tit. xxxix), Innocent III formally admits the possibility of this conflict. Some persons, he says, may be free in the eyes of God but bound in the eyes of the Church; vice versa, some may be free in the eyes of the Church but bound in the eyes of God: for God's judgment is based on the very truth itself, whereas that of the Church is based on arguments and presumptions which are sometimes erroneous. He concludes that the chain by which the sinner is bound in the sight of God is loosed by remission of the fault committed, whereas that which binds him in the sight of the Church is severed only by removal of the sentence. Consequently, a person unjustly excommunicated is in the same state as the justly excommunicated sinner who has repented and recovered the grace of God; he has not forfeited internal communion with the Church, and God can bestow upon him all necessary spiritual help. However, while seeking to prove his innocence, the censured person is meanwhile bound to obey legitimate authority and to behave as one under the ban of excommunication, until he is rehabilitated or absolved. - Excommunication

How can one present one's case against an unjust or invalid latæ or ferendæ sententiæ excommunications for a resolution is to appeal to the Apostolic Tribunal of the Roman Rota, or the Apostolic Signatura or if all else fails to the pope himself is the case is serious enough.

Refusal to negotiate with the Holy See would not look good on one's appeal and would show a lack of genuine concern for the case to be resolved.

  • But this specifically is "not a question of excommunication latæ sententiæ", which seems to render it irrelevant to the question, since that specifies that the excommunication is of that sort. – Matt Gutting Feb 28 at 19:35

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