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What is Excommunication?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Excommunication, also known as disfellowshipment in some sects, is a form of censure which can be used by religious officials to exclude people from the congregation. This practice is most common in Judeo-Christian religions, particularly Catholicism, and it is used as a very severe form of punishment for people who go against the doctrine of the Church. Some of the more notable excommunications include the excommunications of Martin Luther and Elizabeth I of England for their involvement in the Protestant Reformation.

Generally, a high-ranking church official must formally issue an excommunication, sometimes on the recommendation of a regional official. Once excommunicated, someone does not belong to the church. He or she cannot be prayed for by members of the congregation, and the excommunicant is also barred for burial in sanctified ground. He or she is also barred from participating in religious rites, and social ostracization is common for people who have been excommunicated.

In some cases, someone may be able to re-enter the congregation after an excommunication, if he or she confesses, displays genuine remorse, and does penance. Other Christian sects believe that once someone has been excommunicated, he or she is forever barred from the church. In the case of the Amish, people are subjected to “shunning,” in which they are rejected entirely by all members of the church community. Once shunned, a former member of an Amish congregation will never be permitted to talk to practicing Amish, including his or her own family.

Because excommunication is a very severe and in some cases irreversible punishment, church officials tend to be cautious about using it. In some faiths, the congregation may work together with the erring member of the congregation in an attempt to reconcile him or her with the church. Counseling and prayer sessions may also be utilized so that excommunication can be avoided. For an excommunication to occur, solid evidence must be presented to confirm that the individual really should be expelled from the church.

For many members of Christian sects, excommunication is not just about a denial of participating in church rites. It is also a punishment which will live on after death, since many denominations believe that people who have been rejected by the church will face punishment in Hell. The formal condemnation of an excommunication would bar someone from entry into Heaven, whether or not the excommunicant was a decent person, and this is a fate which excommunicants find deeply troubling.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By john127sebas — On Mar 14, 2009

IS it possible to receive a letter of excommunication from Rome, or any other place for that matter?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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