Questions About Excommunication
In one of my religion classes last semester, my professor announced that there are only two religions that currently and routinely excommunicate people. Who are they? The Catholics and the Mormons. This is due at least in part to the strongly centralized authority structures both religions maintain, said my professor. Other religions might have disciplinary processes called excommunication, but it doesn’t compare to the expulsion from the church that Catholics and Mormons face.*
I hadn’t realized that Mormons were alone with the Catholics in the excommunication world. I came home from class that day wondering why we had to have this practice, since so many thousands of other religions manage just fine without it. I was particularly concerned for those that are excommunicated for publicly disagreeing with Church leaders. That just seems so sad to me.
Other Mormons are particularly concerned about leaders using excommunication to deal with sexual sin. I was very sympathetic to this comment from Kelly Ann, that she left on my last post.
“If I was to give you the answer I learned in Sunday School, I would say that the purpose of church discipline is to call a sinner to repentance, to protect the innocent, and to protect the name of the church. I can see the purpose of excommunication in criminal cases – instances of murder, rape, or incest (like the Church Handbook suggests). However, what scares me is how it can be used in cases of adultery or fornication – where an endowed individual (stereotypically male) had sex outside of marriage.
My question is why is it necessary? Yes, we believe sex outside of marriage is a sin. But why is church discipline necessary in these cases? I believe in a personal God. I pray and receive personal answers and revelation and forgiveness for my mistakes. Why is it that forgiveness cannot be achieved by the individual even for such a large mistake? What bothers me in particular is when an endowed female errs and is called before the high council composed of all men. My mom has a friend who was ex’d for adultery and absolutely humiliated in the process. What does this do to a woman’s sexuality who is already apparently struggling? Furthermore, let’s say a young 20 year old something sleeps with her boyfriend. Even the thought of having her go before a bishop’s council bothers me. Why does she have to go before men even if she has already felt forgiveness from God?”
I think these are great questions. One of my biggest feminist epiphanies a few years ago was the conviction that I didn’t necessarily need middlemen to mediate between me and God. I could go to God myself for insight, forgiveness, etc.
Not that talking to a bishop about one’s problems/sins is necessarily a bad thing – I can see it being very healing for some people to do so, and I can also see a leader acting as a counselor with great compassion. It just strikes me that personalities and circumstances vary. What could be a wonderful and healing experience for some in going to talk to a leader could turn into a nightmare for another.
Kelly Ann does a good job of illustrating that second possibility, and she also brings up the important factor of gender in the disciplinary process. I myself would be a thousand times more likely to talk to a bishop if that bishop were a woman. I hurt for the woman who, having committed some kind of sexual sin, has to face a counsel of men who have the power to decide her future membership in the Church. I imagine it would be traumatic enough if both men and women were present. Having only men there could make it much worse, it seems to me.
What do you all think? Do you see a place for excommunication in the Church? What about for sexual sin? Do you think that’s one area that can be left up to the individual and God?
*I assume she was talking about major religions, since I imagine some smaller ones might have this practice.