Can Excommunicated Persons Receive The Sacraments?

Canon 1335 only applies to clerics (ordained persons):

Can. 1335: “If a latae sententiae censure has not been declared, the prohibition is also suspended whenever a member of the faithful requests a sacrament or sacramental or an act of governance; a person is permitted to request this for any just cause.”

A priest who is under an undeclared automatic excommunication can still dispense the Sacraments, validly and licitly, in order to tend to the spiritual needs of the faithful. And only a just cause is needed, not a grave cause.

This rule applies only to bishops, priests, and deacons. However, it illustrates the principle that excommunicated persons are not completely and utterly separated from the Church. Excommunication deprives the guilty person of full communion with the Body of Christ. But some unity still remains. The person is still a Christian, and therefore still a member of the Church. The person may still be in the state of grace. And at times, the excommunicated person might still receive or administer the Sacraments.

Some Catholic commentators are claiming that a person who is under a penalty of excommunication cannot validly receive any Sacraments, even Confession, until the sanction is lifted. This claim is contrary to the mercy of God, contrary to the universal salvific will, and contrary to the teachings of the Church on the Sacraments. It is also contrary to Canon Law:

Yes, Canon law states that an excommunicated person cannot receive the sacraments: “Can. 1331 An excommunicated person is forbidden … to celebrate the sacraments or sacramentals and to receive the sacraments.”

An excommunicated person is generally forbidden from receive the Sacraments. It is illicit to receive the Sacraments, with some exceptions discussed below.

In danger of death, the excommunicated repentant person can receive Confession from any priest, validly and licitly.

In other cases, an excommunicated person receives the Sacraments validly, but illicitly. Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and recent schismatic groups are all excommunicated for heresy and/or schism. The penalty in Canon Law for heresy and schism is automatic excommunication. Yet the Church holds that the Orthodox Churches have all seven valid Sacraments, and that the Protestant denominations generally have valid baptisms and marriages. Therefore, a censure which prohibits one from administering or receiving the Sacraments does NOT necessarily deprive the sacrament of its validity. In fact, the Council of Trent infallibly teaches that heretics baptize validly, despite being heretics (and therefore being automatically excommunicated by the eternal moral law).

As an unfortunate example, the heretical and schismatic group called SSPX is under excommunication (latae sententiae), and yet the Church teaches that their Sacraments of the Eucharist and Holy Orders is valid. They administer and receive these Sacraments validly, but illicitly. So the prohibition affects licitness, but not validity. I also argue that their Sacrament of Confession is also valid.

Concerning Confession and the lifting of the excommunication, even a priest who lacks the faculty to lift the excommunication can forgive the sin and lift the excommunication, with recourse to the appropriate authority at a later time:

“Can. 1357 §1. Without prejudice to the prescripts of cann. 508 and 976, a confessor can remit in the internal sacramental forum an undeclared latae sententiae censure of excommunication or interdict if it is burdensome for the penitent to remain in the state of grave sin during the time necessary for the competent superior to make provision.

§2. In granting the remission, the confessor is to impose on the penitent, under the penalty of reincidence, the obligation of making recourse within a month to the competent superior or to a priest endowed with the faculty and the obligation of obeying his mandates; in the meantime he is to impose a suitable penance and, insofar as it is demanded, reparation of any scandal and damage; however, recourse can also be made through the confessor, without mention of the name.”

So a person excommunicated for abortion (undeclared latae sententiae), under Canon 1357, can receive forgiveness from sin in the Sacrament of Confession and have the excommunication lifted by a priest who lacks faculties to lift excommunication (but has faculties to forgive sin).

Mercy of Jesus

I would also like to point out a higher principle.

Some parts of Canon Law are simply a direct expression of magisterial teaching on faith and morals. Other parts are per se of Canon Law, and therefore fall under discipline, not doctrine. The laws in Canon law which are solely of discipline are wholly dispensable. They can be changed, dispensed in particular cases, or entirely taken away. This type of law is also subject to error and reform. The Holy See or a Bishops’ Conference exercising its right under Canon Law to decide certain matters of discipline can possibly err. For discipline is not doctrine.

The laws of Canon law that are solely of discipline are subservient to the teachings of Jesus and His Church on faith, morals, and salvation. The doctrines of the Church outrank the disciplines of the Church. So if any law is contrary to the need for a sinner to receive forgiveness for grave sin in order to be saved, then that law is null and void. Do not be fooled by the modern-day Pharisees, who treat the disciplines of Canon law as if they were dogmas.

On this basis, I conclude that a sincerely repentant sinner, even one who is under excommunication or other censure, can receive the Sacrament of Confession (under the usual conditions for validity for sinners not under censure) even from a priest who does not have the faculty to lift the excommunication. And the Sacrament is valid, as well as licit before the eyes of God. For Jesus and His Church never deny forgiveness to the repentant sinner.

Whoever contradicts this teaching contradicts the mercy of God, as explained by Jesus:

[Matthew 12]
{12:1} At that time, Jesus went out through the ripe grain on the Sabbath. And his disciples, being hungry, began to separate the grain and to eat.
{12:2} Then the Pharisees, seeing this, said to him, “Behold, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbaths.”
{12:3} But he said to them: “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him:
{12:4} how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?
{12:5} Or have you not read in the law, that on the Sabbaths the priests in the temple violate the Sabbath, and they are without guilt?
{12:6} But I say to you, that something greater than the temple is here.
{12:7} And if you knew what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would never have condemned the innocent.
{12:8} For the Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

David and his men, who were not priests, violated the rules given by Divine Revelation to the Israelites, and yet they were innocent. So I say to you that the repentant sinner can receive forgiveness in Confession from any and all sins, regardless of a censure from Canon Law.

Excommunication does not entirely separate one from the Church. All sins are forgiven by a contrite Confession, despite Excommunication.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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4 Responses to Can Excommunicated Persons Receive The Sacraments?

  1. Michael says:

    Ron – I have a question and I certainly don’t mean this in a snarky manner, but if a person can be excommunicated and still receive all of the sacraments and still be saved, then what exactly is the point of excommunication? Why does the church even need to label someone as being excommunicated at all?

    • Ron Conte says:

      The Church is solicitous to save souls. So She permits excommunicated persons the means to salvation. The purpose of excommunication is to highlight the gravity of the sin, so that the sinner will return to full communion by repentance. The idea that a repentant excommunicate would not be able to be forgiven in Confession, until a set of regulations is fulfilled, is Pharisaical. However, I’ve corrected my post above; excommunicated persons are not permitted to receive the other sacraments as broadly as I had previously stated.

  2. Larry says:


    Regrettably, you are misinterpreting c. 1335. It applies to clerics, not to the lay faithful. Essentially, it is protecting the reputation of clerics (who would otherwise be forced to disclose a latae sententiae censure to a person who requested a sacrament, sacramental, or act of governance), and it is providing a means by which a member of the faithful — who in a just cause asks for a sacrament/sacramental/act of governance — may have their request fulfilled. However, it does not (as you have asserted) lift the effects of the censure in a general way from any person who is under censure. As Michael has noted, that would negate the effects of excommunication and make it a paper tiger… which it is not.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Thanks. I’ve now corrected my post above. Canon 1335 only applies to clerics (ordained persons). However, the mercy of God and the salvation of souls outranks discipline and the rules of Canon Law. So a repentant person can receive Confession, even if the priest does not have the faculties to lift the excommunication.

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