Let the brother who is found guilty of a more serious fault be excluded from both the table and the chapel. Let none of the brethren associate with him in any way. Let him be alone at the work given him, persevering in penitential sorrow, mindful of the terrible sentence of the Apostle who says, that "such a man is delivered over for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord" (1 Cor 5:5). Let him take his meals alone in such quantity and at such a time as the abbot thinks proper; and let him not be blessed by anyone passing by. Even the food he eats should not be blessed.
“Let him be alone.” I can’t imagine a more frightening proposal. Yet Saint Benedict deems it necessary.
In the case of the errant monk, he has, in effect, already begun to isolate himself by his actions. The point of formal excommunication is to help him see where his actions will lead him. The monk may still consider himself part of the community, but by his disobedience, he has stepped outside the community to do his own thing. If the abbot doesn’t catch this soon enough, the poor brother will wake up one morning to discover that he couldn’t return even if he wanted to. The cloister wall now separates him from his own brothers. At that point, only a miracle will save him.
This tragic scenario plays out in monasteries all over the world. But you can see it happening in other communities as well—within families, between spouses, among circles of friends. Every act of disobedience is a little excommunication that we impose upon ourselves—one step further from the circle of friendship. One small lie becomes two small lies, then a larger deception…a minor infidelity of this or that kind…soon the relationship begins to degrade into formalities and avoidance. Resentments fester and spread. The fight goes public and people begin to take sides. At last, the only realistic solution is permanent separation. Then when it’s all over, we wonder in our loneliness how it ever came to this.
There was a particularly interesting case back in the 1960s of a Jesuit priest, Father Leonard Feeney, who taught that there was no salvation outside of the Church. This is, in fact, Catholic doctrine—extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church 6). In fact, the Catechism itself says: “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body" (CCC 846). But notice that it only stipulates how salvation is possible. It doesn’t make any claims about non-believers. Father Feeney, however, insisted on broadening this doctrine to mean that pretty much anyone who wasn’t actually registered with a parish was going to Hell. That included unbaptized babies, righteous non-Christians—even people who had never heard of the Church. When he wouldn’t back down, poor Feeney was excommunicated, and so by his own teaching, he was bound for Hell. Talk about a no-win situation!
Truly, we wind up in a very awkward position if, like Father Feeney, we start making particular judgments about exactly who is and who isn’t saved. It’s not our job to send them to heaven (“My grandma is an angel now”); but neither is it our job to send them to Hell (“There’s a special place in Hell for that guy”). God alone judges the hearts of men. As Christians, we are forbidden to judge our brother, but we must, for love of him, and for the sake of the larger community, make judgments about his actions. We get ourselves in trouble when we get those two confused.