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Excommunication for Faults

Sunday, June 30, 2024
Chapter 23

If monastics are found to be stubborn or disobedient or proud, if they grumble or in any way despise the holy rule and defy the orders of the elders, they should be warned twice privately by them in accord with Christ's injunction (Mt 18:15,16). If they do not amend, they must be rebuked publicly in the presence of everyone. But if even then they do not reform, let them be excommunicated, provided that they understand the nature of this punishment. If however they lack understanding, let them undergo corporal punishment.

One of the sages said: "I never met anyone in whom I failed to recognize something superior to myself: if the person was older, I said this one has done more good than I; if younger, I said this person has sinned less; if richer, I said this one has been more charitable; if poorer, I said this one has suffered more; if wiser, I honored their wisdom; and if not wiser, I judged their faults more lightly." Community is the place where we come to honor the world.

In one of the gentlest monastic Rules ever written, Benedict devotes eight straight chapters to punishment and its techniques, none of them either very acceptable or very applicable today. His concept of punishment, if not his form of punishment, however, may well bear considerable reflection in our own time.

In the first place, Benedict does not punish severely for everything. He does not punish for incompetence or lack of spiritual intensity or ignorance or weaknesses of the flesh. No, Benedict punishes harshly only for the grumbling that undermines authority in a community and the rebellion that paralyzes it. Benedict punishes severely only for the destruction of the sense of community itself.

It is community that enables us both to live the Christian life and to learn from it. Human growth is gradual, Benedict knows--the grumblers and defiant are to be warned about their behavior twice privately--but grow we must. Otherwise those who do not honor the community, those in fact who sin against the development of community in the worst possible way, by consistent complaining, constant resistance or outright rebellion, must be corrected for it.

In the second place, Benedict does not set out simply to reason with us about the disordered parts of our lives. Benedict intends to stop an action before it takes root in us. Physical punishment was common in a culture of the unlettered. Many monastic Rules, in fact,--the Penitential of St. Columbanus, the Rule of St. Fructuosus, the Rule of the Master,-- specify as many as a hundred lashes for offenses against the rules. At the same time, Benedict prefers another method more related to the nature of the sins. If we refuse to learn from the community and to cooperate with it, he implies, we have no right to its support and should be suspended from participation in it. Once we have separated ourselves from the community by withdrawing our hearts then the community must withdraw from us in order to soften them.

There may be another point to made, as well. Mild as it may have been according to the standards of the day, Benedict did mandate punishments and he did require atonement. The rule would certainly expect the same attitudes from us even now. Things broken must be mended; things running away with us must be curbed; things awry in us must be set straight. What we may have to face in a culture in which self-control is too often seen as self- destructive is that none of that happens by accident. It requires discipline--conscious, honest, continuing discipline, not in the ways that discipline may have been prescribed in the sixth century, surely, but in some way that is honest and real.