A very extraordinary event occurred earlier this month. I was corresponding with an expert on Canon law from the Las Vegas diocese and I was excommunicated for heresy and apostasy because of my Deist beliefs. Excommunication is no easy task to accomplish. The Roman Catholic Church is committed to a precept known as invincible ignorance. The Church assumes that its members are ignorant of its Canon law and therefore cannot be held culpable for violating that law. As a result even those who steadfastly oppose the Church and its doctrines will not be excommunicated. The Church seeks to keep these members in the hopes that one day they will realize their errors and return to their superstitious past. In fact, the Church has created for itself an incentive to keep its members ignorant of its own rules.
However, the chorus song of “We want you back” must not be taken as the full position of the Church. This speciously seems like a very accepting doctrine and one that is consistent with their emphasis on an all-merciful god. Rather we should hear the full chant, “We want you back, but only after you agree with our position.” This stance is one that seeks to coerce people into accepting their dogma and to exclude those who disagree with it. Those Catholics who seek to leave the community will, nevertheless, still find it difficult to do so with any sense of formality.
Because, in the words of the Church official, no one is “placed outside of the community” severing one’s relationship can only be a one sided affair. Though the individual believes he has left, the Church still considers him a member. At most the individual can only be excommunicated. This is the most severe sanction the Church can impose on a member, but even this person is still in the community though he is as excluded as he can possibly be.
To be excommunicated one must violate Canon law not just materially but formally. Many people can commit a material sin, that is do something wrong in the eyes of the Church but not be considered culpable for that sin. People born in India and who practice the Hindu religion, while “worshipping false gods,” are not sanctioned because of their ignorance of Church bylaws. Similarly, a Catholic who is unaware is not sanctioned for the same reason. They are only materially sinful because of their ignorance.
Indeed, there are several mechanisms by which a person will not be held accountable for their actions. First, a person must have the full the use of their reason; this means that children and those who are otherwise mentally disabled cannot be held accountable. Secondly, a person must have sufficient moral liberty; this means that a person must not have been coerced into taking an action. The action must have been taken of their own free will to be held accountable. Thirdly, the person must be aware of the law and of the penalties.
This last criterion is not as easy as one may suppose. One must became a novice expert on Canon law to incur the penalty. They must not only know what precisely is prohibited, but also know exactly what the sanction is for committing the action. Heresy and apostasy are violations of Canon law that incur the sanction of latae sententia excommunication, and they are the ones committed if one adheres to the traditional Deist views. In the case of excommunication one must not hold to popular misconceptions about the penalty, but understand the penalty and what it entails from the Church’s own perspective.
Once this knowledge is acquired there is yet one more hurdle. One must choose not to cease in the prohibited action. One must be obstinate and recalcitrant. Only with these four criteria met can one be culpable and incur the sanction. It is only then that the sin is consummated and that one is formally in violation of Canon law.
In this regard the Church does make every attempt not to punish its members. And even the sanction of excommunication is designed to “rescue the single lost sheep.” It is imposed so that the person will realize their errors and return to the herd. But verily I say to you, no reasonable person should wish to be a member of a herd. The tyranny of the priestly shepherd over his “sheeple” must be resisted. Sheep are mindless creatures that obey their masters, but people are rational creatures with a capacity for judgment and a will of their own. Eat from the tree of knowledge, form your own opinions and live independently. This is the American way. Freedom from all forms of tyranny, mental and physical, is why we revolted. It is a value that must be defended.
Moreover, error and sin are relative. The Deist could as easily argue that the popish are erroneous and sinful. But I suggest no such thing. Arguments between those with different theological views are intractable. Instead, we should hold steadfast to a higher morality than the Church itself adheres to. To accept those with different views into our lives, by letting them share in our camaraderie, is a stronger moral position than excluding those who disagree with us. I believe the Church to be like a child who says, “I don’t want to play with you anymore.” The Deist is and should be above such petty bickering.