Sunday, January 5, 2014

CHAPTER 23: Excommunication

If a brother behaves in a way that is stubborn, disobedient, proud, grumbling, or opposed to anything in the Holy Rule and disrespects his superiors, let him be admonished once and again in secret, according to the command of our Lord. If his behavior does not improve, he should be rebuked in public before everyone. But if he does not reform even then, and he understands the punishment, let him be excommunicated.

Wherever there’s a rule, you’ll find a guy who wants to break it, even in a monastery.  For people like this, there have to be consequences.  Otherwise, the order of the community falls apart.  Worse still, the monk himself may lose his vocation.  Saint Benedict’s first response is to reason with him, but if that doesn’t work, the monk needs to see in some practical way that his disobedience is affecting the whole community.  As a last resort, the abbot may decide that it is better for the community—indeed, better for the monk himself—if he spend some time alone.
By modern standards, this sounds severe,[1] but considering that the Rule was composed at a time when you could lose a hand for stealing, and homelessness was rewarded with a brand on the forehead, the penalty of excommunication is surprisingly moderate.  Notice too that Benedict doesn’t excommunicate someone for a mistake, or even for misbehavior.  Thoughtlessness, impulsivity, ignorance…these aren’t what he’s afraid of.  The abbot should only exercise this authority when the offense is deliberate and rebellious.
Today we often misunderstand excommunication.  We tend to think of it in secular terms the way we might think of a prison sentence or a fine.  We wonder, for example, why the Church didn’t excommunicate more Nazis during the Second World War.  But excommunication is something a superior only does when he still believes he can bring the disobedient Christian back into the fold. It’s not really a punishment, therefore, it’s a wake-up call—and a chance to atone for the harm that one has done.
           Have you ever got the impression that someone was mad at you, but you had no idea what you did to cause it?  You end up walking around all day trying to guess what you did wrong.  Worse yet, have you been in a situation where you angered someone, but didn’t find out they were upset until days later?  These situations are doubly frustrating because there’s no way to set them right.  Saint Benedict has no interest in holding a secret grudge.  When someone does something wrong, you tell him straight away.  You tell him twice in private, then you tell him publicly.  It’s a blunt system, but simple, and, ultimately, charitable.  It’s better to be openly angry than politely resentful.

[1] Though, as Philip Jenkins points out in The New Anti-Catholicism, most organizations—and certainly all businesses—enforce some kind of behavioral standards on their members (p. 116).

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