Excommunication literally means "out of communion" and is the removal of a member from standing in a religious faith community, usually a church body. In the New Testament, the Jews agreed that if anyone confessed that Jesus is Christ he was to be put out of the synagogue, meaning, excommunicated. Most excommunications are automatic under church doctrine, as in the automatic excommunication for facilitating abortion.
Priests can be automatically excommunicated. If, for example, a priest ever reveals the contents of a confession, then he is automatically excommunicated.
Excommunication is a drastic step that may result in cutting ties with other members of that church as well. In the Roman Catholic Church, to be excommunicated mainly results in being prohibited from receiving the sacraments (but not removed from the jurisdiction of the Church). If certain conditions are met, the order may later be lifted.
The concept of excommunication is discussed in the New Testament and was made famous during the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods in references to the Catholic Church. It continues to be practised into the 21st century.
A similar practice is utilized by churches such as the Conservative Mennonites, Amish, and some non-denominational churches, which is often called 'shunning', 'disfellowshipping', 'church discipline', or similar terms. The practice has been criticized by both liberal Christians and genuine ones, especially when a church attempts to discipline a member who either seeks to leave (or has left) the congregation, or who has brought forth genuine concerns (e.g. church leadership engaged in false teachings, or financial or moral wrongdoing).
Recognition of an excommunication can occur even after someone has passed away.
Excommunications by Pope Francis
Though portrayed as liberal by the media, Pope Francis excommunicated an Australian priest who was pro-same-sex marriage and favored allowing women clergy. The excommunication was in Latin and reportedly did not provide an explicit reason, but the bases were well-understood.
At the Council of Arles in A.D. 314, which was the first conclave of Christian bishops in the Roman Empire in the West, excommunication was established for those “who throw away their weapons in time of peace," as well as for charioteers and actors.
- John 9:23
- Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. "Discipline That Can Yield Peacable Fruit" in The Watchtower; (April 15, 1988)