Bp. Vasa: excommunication can be appropriate

More from the ever interesting Bishop of Baker, H.E. Most Rev. Robert Vasa.

My emphases and comments:

Excommunication is a declaration of acts that severs ties

By Bishop Robert Vasa

BEND — During the course of this past year there have been a number of occasions when bishops have hinted to laity that being Catholic involves a bit more than claiming the title. [In some cases more than hint.  Would that we could say in many cases.] This has been done, in particular, with regard to politicians who may, in their own way, love Jesus, who may attend Sunday Mass and who do identify themselves as “faithful” Catholics. The press usually hints at the big “E” word, excommunication. The question of when a Catholic should be excommunicated has even been asked quite frequently and very seriously. [And for very good reason.] While bishops are extremely reluctant to take the seemingly dramatic step of excommunication, I think there is very good reason for us to explore more thoroughly what excommunication really means and why it might be considered in certain circumstances[Can I believe me eyes?  Is this a bishop who is suggesting that excommunication could be appropriate?]

The press would undoubtedly accuse Bishops who talk or even think about excommunication as being tyrannical power mongers [D’ya think?] but this is unfair. Excommunication is a declaration, based on solid evidence, that the actions or public teachings of a particular Catholic are categorically incompatible with the teachings of the Church. It is intended primarily as a means of getting the person who is in grave error to recognize the depth of his error and repent. [It is a remedy more than a punishment.] A second reason, while somewhat secondary but no less important, is to assure the faithful who truly are faithful that what they believe to be the teaching of the Church is true and correct. [In other words to work against the scandal caused by the errant sheep, lest other sheep be lead astray.]  Allowing their faith to be shaken or allowing them to be confused when Catholics publicly affirm something contrary to faith or morals, seemingly without consequences, scandalizes and confuses the faithful. This is no small matter. The Church, and particularly bishops, have an obligation to defend the faith but they also have an obligation to protect the faithful. We do not generally see the dissidence of public figures as something that harms the faithful but it has a deleterious effect upon them[They do not see that the dissidence of public figures harms… but it does weaken?  How is that not harming?]

I find, very frequently, when I speak a bit more boldly on matters of morality or discipline, there are a significant number of the faithful who send messages of gratitude and support. [WDTPRS will join them when you do, Your Excellency.] It is their gratitude which stirs my heart for it makes me realize how much there is a need to support and affirm the clear and consistent teachings of our Catholic faith for the sake of the faithful. While the press may caricature such bishops in rather uncharitable fashion, I trust that they are men devoted to true compassion and to the truth itself. Their compassion extends to those who are misled and to those who, while not misled, are discouraged when their faith is attacked without rebuttal. This discouragement of the faithful is not insignificant. [Do I hear an "Amen!"?]  When we look at the word itself we see that its root is “courage” and allowing someone’s courage to be dissipated, or “dissed” as the young might say, is harmful to the person. En-couragement, by contrast, builds up the courage of the faithful and increases their strength for doing good. It is life giving and revitalizing. Allowing error, publicly expressed, to stand without comment or contradiction is discouraging[How is that not something that harms the faithful?]

When that moral error is espoused publicly by a Catholic who, by the likewise public and external act of receiving Holy Communion, appears to be in “good standing” then the faithful are doubly confused and doubly discouraged. In that case, the error is certainly not refuted. Furthermore, the impression is given that the error is positively condoned by the bishop and the Church. This is very dis-couraging to the faithful. In such a case, private “dialogue” is certainly appropriate but a public statement is also needed. In extreme cases, excommunication may be deemed necessary.

It seems to me that even if a decree of excommunication would be issued, the bishop would really not excommunicate anyone. He only declares that the person is excommunicated by virtue of the person’s own actions. [Bishops cannot do these things from a personal whim.] The actions and words, contrary to faith and morals, are what excommunicate (i.e. break communion with the Church). When matters are serious and public, the Bishop may deem it necessary to declare that lack of communion explicitly.  [It is clear enough in most cases when something is "public".  Some will want to debate "serious".]  This declaration no more causes the excommunication than a doctor who diagnoses diabetes causes the diabetes he finds in his patient. The doctor recognizes the symptoms and writes the necessary prescription[Excommunication is a remedy.] Accusing the doctor of being a tyrannical power monger would never cross anyone’s mind. Even when the doctor tells the patient that they are “excommunicated” from sugar it is clear that his desire is solely the health of his patient. In fact, a doctor who told his diabetic patient that he could keep ingesting all the sugar he wanted without fear would be found grossly negligent and guilty of malpractice. [And as St. Augustine described when describing Christ as the physician of the soul, using the medicine practice of his century, the doctor does not stop cutting just because the patient is screaming for him to stop.]

In the same way, bishops who recognize a serious spiritual malady and seek a prescription to remedy the error, after discussion and warning, may be required to simply state, “What you do and say is gravely wrong and puts you out of communion with the faith you claim to hold.” In serious cases, and the cases of misled Catholic public officials are often very serious, [Ah!  Now we have the admission that what Catholic public officials can do can be "very serious".] a declaration of the fact that the person is de facto out of communion may be the only responsible and charitable thing to do.

[Here we go…] Failing to name error because of some kind of fear of offending the person in error is neither compassion nor charity. Confronting or challenging the error or evil of another is never easy yet it must be done. [Do I hear an "Amen!"?] 

The adage usually attributed to Edmund Burke was correct: All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

The Lord has called bishops to be shepherds. That shepherding entails both leading and protecting. [And extracting errant sheep from bushes and pits and keeping them from getting in trouble even by the use of a fast nipping dog or a whack with a staff.] In an era when error runs rampant and false teachings abound, the voice of the Holy Father rings clear and true. The teachings of the Church are well documented and consistent. [And we have laws.] Bishops and the pastors who serve in their Dioceses have an obligation both to lead their people to the truth and protect them from error.

Big WDTPRS kudos to Bp. Vasa.

Do I hear an "Amen!"?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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    Now THIS is how A CATHOLIC BISHOP must be!


  2. r.j.sciurus says:


  3. Ferde Rombola says:

    I have followed Bishop Vasa for years. He learned his stuff in Lincoln, Nebraska at the feet of the sainted Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, a justification for cloning if ever there was one.

  4. kalless says:

    Amen, indeed!!!

  5. Thomas S says:

    You get the bell, I’ll get the candle, and we’ll meet in the apse. Go.

  6. I am sorry, Father, was the date on this address 1973 (Roe v. Wade) or 2010? This describes precisely why my family and I galloped to a Traditional chapel 11 years ago without ever looking back. It is FSSP, it is in accord with Rome and all the sacraments are valid. [Most parishes I know are in accord with Rome and the sacraments are valid.] The Big Church (as I call it) is flaccid, effeminate (much worse, of course!), and moribund. It is no longer worth any serious person’s time. [You have strayed waaaaay over the line. I consider Benedict XVI a serious person. I don’t think he is in a little ghetto.] To be addressing this issue after forty years and fifty million abortions is preposterous. [No. Whatever it is, it is not preposterous. It is about time.] The truth is many bishops and priests in the Big Church have supported abortion for years! That is why Cdl. Bernardin spoke twenty-five years ago of the Seamless Garment and the Common Ground.

    The Sour Grapes Award

  7. Thomas S says:


    I share your frustration with the clergy’s failure to act over the years, but there is so much wrong and self-contradictory about what you just typed.

    You say you go to an FSSP chapel in communion with Rome, but then you say “the Big Church” is no longer worth any serious person’s time? Huh? Aside from being a terrible thing to say, I can’t imagine the FSSP shares your view. That’s the kind of vitriol one hears from some corners of the SSPX, not the FSSP which is not separate from “the Big Church.”

    And how does it make any sense to criticize a bishop’s efforts as “preposterous” simply because you feel it came too late? Should he just throw the towel in because previous bishops didn’t act? Should he be denigrated for the omissions of a previous generation? This is nonsense.

    I don’t see how your response amounts to anything more than, “Things have been bad for a while so I’m taking my ball and going home.”

    And by the way, I THOROUGHLY reject your absurd claim that abortion hasn’t been addressed for 40 years.

  8. Lee says:

    In time he could have gone to Chicago, or Los Angeles or Washington, D.C., but no, he had to write this, which practically guarantees, does it not, that he will always be a voice crying in the wilderness. Maybe he wants it that way.

  9. EXCHIEF says:

    There are a lot of folks hoping he goes no farther than Portland. But we’ll keep him in Baker as long as we can because his perspective is a whole lot better than that of most U S Bishops.

  10. dcs says:

    It seems to me that even if a decree of excommunication would be issued, the bishop would really not excommunicate anyone. He only declares that the person is excommunicated by virtue of the person’s own actions

    It seems as though His Excellency is describing latae sententiae excommunication, but what about ferendae sententiae? Any canonists reading this that could comment?

  11. Dennis Martin says:

    Lee, twenty, even ten years ago, yes, writing something like this and having been associated with Bishop Bruskewitz might well have prevented being translated to a major see.

    But we are not living ten or twenty years ago. We are living now. If you can’t see that the tide is turning as far as episcopal appointments are concerned (Dolan to New York, Carlson to St. Louis, Nienstedt to St. Paul), you do yourself a disservice. Traditionalists have been complaining about the in-betweeners, the Georges and Egans and so forth but their role in many ways was to put a stop to the hemorrhaging and create a situation in which the once unthinkable is now thinkable–that writing something like this does not mean staying in Baker forever.

    Traditionalists have been complaining and whining for a long time and with a lot of justification. But these years in the wilderness have made many bitter and of “little faith.” It’s easy to understand how this happened and to be sympathetic for it having happened. But it is not healthy. We need to lose this attitude and lose it fast. It is not compatible with active participation in the Great Mystery of the Church of Christ. The day is not far off when a Finn or a Baker will be in Washington or Los Angeles or Chicago. Increasingly, the whole pool from which bishops can be drawn is going to be far more Bruskewitzian than it is Bernardinian. We need to stop living in the past.

  12. Dennis Martin says:

    Correction, “a Finn or a Vasa” will be in . . .”

  13. Lee says:

    “I find, very frequently, when I speak a bit more boldly on matters of morality or discipline, there are a significant number of the faithful who send messages of gratitude and support. [WDTPRS will join them when you do, Your Excellency.] It is their gratitude which stirs my heart for it makes me realize how much there is a need to support and affirm the clear and consistent teachings of our Catholic faith for the sake of the faithful.”

    This is also a clear message to us to write messages of gratitude and support to our bishops when they do something right. It is a way of encouraging them. And it is very obvious that they need to be en-couraged.

    It is all too easy (and unimaginative) to strike a “prophetic” stance and dis-courage them with more vituperation and criticism.

    People with that cast of mind reveal to everyone who can see that they do not not know the abc’s of Catholicism or the spiritual life. What supernal pride to publicly criticize a pastor or a bishop. Sometimes it has to be done, but it is much brighter to wait to see if someone else will step up to the plate, someone with more wisdom, and especially more humility. Why should we incur guilt by publicly criticizing the pastors and bishops of the Church? Does the Holy Spirit need our help? Is that the way to bring down the blessings of God on one’s head?

    One could always quietly fast and pray for our pastors and bishops, but then no one would know that a prophet has arisen in the Church. Where did I read it, was it in Maritain: “There is no lack of laymen, who, with a smattering of theology, give themselves out as if they were Fathers of the Church.”

    Been there, done that. It is unbelievably stupid.

  14. tzard says:


    I would add that more than a verbal rebuke, formal proceedings, which are even more rare, are very useful. Not only does it formally produce evidence, but it gives the person A “day in court” to actually face the situation. There’s nothing like attempting to defend the indefensible in getting to the root of the problem.

    Yes, bring back the Inquisition – I say. Bring it back out of an excess of charity – the worse thing that can happen is they walk away with an excommunication. The best they may repent.

  15. JosephMary says:


    And I hear that the see in Seattle is due to have a new bishop with the present one at retirement age…

  16. Elly says:

    I’m confused every time I read about this issue. When does the latae sententiae penalty of excommunication for heretics apply? Bishop Vasa seems to refer to it but also writes about excommunication being considered, as if it were a decision rather than an automatic effect. So what am I missing?

  17. Tantum Ergo says:

    Be still, my beating heart!

  18. JMody says:

    Excellent — this good man appears to be ever closer to publicly repeating the words of Pope St. Felix III:

    Not to oppose error is to approve it; not to defend truth is to suppress it.

  19. wanda says:

    I’m with you Tantum Ergo, Hoooorraahhh! Hallelujah and Amen! Thank you Bishop Vasa! When may I submit a list of suggested candidates?

  20. bruno says:

    I don’t feel so alone anymore.

  21. TomB says:

    Some bishops have prohibited certain individuals from receiving Holy Communion. Why don’t they just come out and say they are excommunicated? Is barring one from Communion sort of a half-excommunication, or what, exactly?

  22. Central Valley says:

    Pray God for men like Bishop Vasa to be sent to the various diocese in California where we suffer so much. If these words were spoken by priests in some diocese in California Diocese of Fresno comes to mind), as a California bishop would never speak them, they would be sent off to a treatment center in the middle of the night because they are told they are unstable. Holy Father help us, soon

  23. bookworm says:

    “Is barring one from Communion sort of a half-excommunication, or what, exactly?”

    It seems to me that the difference between being barred from Communion and being formally excommunicated is that in the first instance, you are still a member of the Catholic Church with the attendant obligations (attending Sunday Mass, Lenten fasting/abstinence, etc.), even though objectively in a state of mortal sin that prevents recieving the Eucharist.

    A similar situation currently applies to Catholics who remarry civilly after a divorce, when the first marriage is still recognized by the Church. At one time (prior to the 1970s) divorced and remarried Catholics were automatically excommunicated; now they are not. Divorced and remarried Catholics are encouraged to continue to practice their faith to the extent that they can but they cannot receive Communion unless something is done to regularize their situation — either obtaining an annulment of the earlier marriage followed by convalidation of the current marriage, or separating from or agreeing to live chastely with the current spouse.

    Also — correct me if I’m wrong here Father — it is my understanding that if someone who is formally excommunicated dies, they cannot have a Church funeral or at least are not “entitled” to one, whereas someone who was not excommunicated but basically in a chronic state of mortal sin could still be buried as a Catholic.

    So the question with regard to pro-abortion Catholic politicians is, should they be “kicked out” of the Church completely, or simply be treated as Catholics living in a state of objective mortal sin? Either way would be an improvement over the current situation in most cases.

  24. pattif says:

    “Allowing their faith to be shaken or allowing them to be confused when Catholics publicly affirm something contrary to faith or morals, seemingly without consequences, scandalizes and confuses the faithful. This is no small matter.”

    This litotes stuff appears to be contagious.

    Good man.

  25. Is the good Bishop planning something??

    I am not sure that voting in support of abortion will cause a person to incur excommunication latae sententiae. I am of the impression that such cases must be unequivocally stated in canon law. But then again the law states that it is an excommunicable offence to help someone procure an abortion. It may well be argued that voting to expand abortion coverage, at least if this is an explicit aim of a bill, is included under this canon.

  26. Fleeb says:

    Hate to be a runner-up to the “Sour Grapes Award”, but isn’t Bend’s representative Greg Walden…an Episcopalian?

    Senator Jeff Merkley, a demoncrat, has no “faith”

    Senator Ron Wyden, another democrat, is a Jew.

    I wholeheartedly agree with his excellency’s words, and although the good bishop speaks the truth, his words ring hollow when the public officials (all who are card-carrying member of “Murder, Inc.” [aka Democrat Party]) don’t give a whit about life and couldn’t care less about the words of a Roman Catholic bishop. Maybe he was directing his words toward an elected county or state official.

    It’s tantamount to Bishop Loverde boldly stating that he would shut down Catholic hospitals if they were forced to perform abortion…he doesn’t have any Catholic hospitals in his diocese.

    Until a bishop–who has a pro-abortion “catholic” politician in his diocese–takes ACTION, we the faithful will continue to be skeptical about our shepherds’ collective resolve.

    I say this in all humility and do not presume to dictate to bishops, but come on, 40 years and no excommunication of a public official like Pelosi, Biden, Kennedy, Guiliani, Dodd, etc, etc, etc?

    I continue to trust in God and pray for an end to this scourge…

  27. paladin says:

    TomB wrote:

    Is barring one from Communion sort of a half-excommunication, or what, exactly?

    Bookworm covered quite a bit of this, but just to add: barring someone from Holy Communion is much more of a “positive” medicine (i.e. not primarily for shock value–though the MSM usually doesn’t know that), in that it prevents the person in question from committing sacrilege after sacrilege (by receiving Holy Communion while in a state of mortal sin). It’s akin to applying a tourniquet to a wound that’s gushing blood. Several of the other Sacraments are still open to the person–most notably (and most importantly) the Sacrament of Penance.

    Excommunication, on the other hand, bars a person from ALL the Sacraments, including the Sacrament of Penance; the excommunication must be absolved BEFORE sacramental absolution of sins can take place. (Yes, some bishops have been rather free in delegating this authority [to absolve excommunications] to their priests–in our diocese, all priests are deputized to absolve excommunications pertaining to abortion–but the point remains.) If an excommunicant went to a priest who was ignorant of the person’s canonical status (i.e. excommunicated) and went through a “normal” confession, the absolution would (except perhaps in danger of death) have no effect.

  28. MaryMaria says:

    Life is short….Pray Hard!!!!

  29. Ferde Rombola says:

    Dennis Martin, I was going to write what you wrote. You said it better. Your predictions are, IMO, on the nose.

    Mr. Phalen, how about dipping an oar in the water and helping move the boat. Your attitude is a drag.

  30. mpm says:

    …the once unthinkable is now thinkable—that writing something like this does not mean staying in Baker forever. — Comment by Dennis Martin — 6 January 2010 @ 9:22 pm

    Dennis, my only quibble with what you say is that it may not matter whether the Bishop is in Hippo or Rome: if it’s cream, it rises (unless it is homogenized)! What’s wrong with Baker (Hippo)?

  31. irishgirl says:

    Bingo! Now that’s a real shepherd!

    Bring it on, Bishop Baker-and the rest of the Bishops follow suit!

  32. Theotimus says:


  33. Cavaliere says:

    The truth is many bishops and priests in the Big Church have supported abortion for years! That is why Cdl. Bernardin spoke twenty-five years ago of the Seamless Garment and the Common Ground.

    For the sake of clarity it is important to note that Cardinal Bernardin did not support abortion nor did he believe that within his seamless garment theory that all moral issues were equivalent. He spoke out a number of times against those who tried to hijack his theory and equate abortion as just another social ill. He clearly placed abortion as the primary moral evil and that life was the issue upon which all others depended.

  34. Dennis Martin says:

    to mpm,

    Nothing whatsoever is wrong with Baker. To all Catholics of the Diocese of Baker, I salute you.

    I was simply responding to someone who was claiming that taking a strong stand like this would prevent Bishop Vasa from being translated to a larger see where (presumably) his stance could bring about even greater good.

    My point is that a strong stance like that is no longer an impediment.

    It’s also simply a fact that for a good 20 years now, John Paul II has been using the smaller dioceses, like Sioux Falls or Yakima and Neu Ulm and many others, as well as the auxiliary bishop staffs of dioceses with outstanding bishops like Bishop Chaput in Denver or Bruskewitz in “little” Lincoln to “develop episcopal talent” in preparation for the eventual reformation of the major sees. We are now in the phase where that strategy is beginning to bear fruit.

    For all these years we traditionalists have been complaining that JPII didn’t do enough. Well, whether it was “enough” or not, it’s time to recognize that there was method in his “madness.” Armchair bishops like ourselves ought to rein in the complaints and unfurl the prayers and cheers of encouragement. I would hazard a guess that the Good God in heaven much prefers the latter.

  35. Elly says:

    Gideon Ertner

    I’m not sure if you were responding to my question or not. What I was asking about, however, was the penalty for heretics, not those who procure an abortion. Canon law states that “a heretic, or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.” Then in order to find the exact definition of a heretic i searched the Vatican website and found “Whoever denies a truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or who calls into doubt, or who totally repudiates the Christian faith, and does not retract after having been legitimately warned, is to be punished as a heretic.” I found this in a letter called

    Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio
    by which certain norms are inserted
    into the Code of Canon Law
    and into the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches

    So my conclusion is that according to this definition many of these public officials who are in the news are in fact heretics and therefore already are excommunicated. But this doesn’t seem to be the case with all the discussion about whether they should be excommunicated or not. So that is where my confusion lies and I was wondering if anyone who understands these issues better than I do can explain it.


  36. lofstrr says:

    Now that is some serious bishing! I like this guy.

  37. MrsHall says:

    I love Bishop Vasa. The traditionalist-leaning in his diocese seem to love him too. Check out http://www.securechild.org for his alternative to the typical “good touch, bad touch” and “stranger danger” curricula most parishes are required to offer. If only we could clone Bishop Vasa… (just kidding)

  38. Dr. Eric says:

    Will His Excellency be the first one to “layeth the smacketh down?”

    I think if finally one bishop does excommunicate a politician, we will see a massive flood of excommunications for the politicians who have been needing them for a long time. And may God grant that these wayward children repent and all Catholics become good Catholics.

  39. EXCHIEF says:

    As was pointed out there is no prominent “catholic” politician residing in the Diocese of Baker which, while huge geographically, is small in population. Cows and horses outnumber people by a long shot. Now if he were in the Archdiocese of Portland next door there is a certain Governor of the State of Oregon who would likely be a prime candidate for a smack down.

  40. Lee says:

    Here, in case anyone ever needs it, is particualry thorough-going excommunication prayer:

  41. bookworm says:

    “there is no prominent “catholic” politician residing in the Diocese of Baker”

    True; but might Bishop Vasa know or at least suspect that he will at some point be moved to a diocese that does contain “prime candidates for a smack down”? It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist or a canon law expert to deduce that he’s probably being seriously considered for such a move. He’s still young enough (not quite 60). And as Dennis Martin points out, this kind of stance, which back in the 80s or early 90s would pretty much kill any bishop’s chances for “promotion”, probably enhances those odds today.

  42. Fleeb says:


    You may be on to something…but let’s see what diocese a “smackdown” would have most effect:

    Boston? No. New Bishop there.

    New York? No. New Bishop there.

    Washington? No. New Bishop there.

    Arlington VA? Why, there are many “Catholic” politicians inside this diocese who continue to cause scandal, yet not a whimper from the Cathedral.


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