Fridays with Benedict: Chapters 23-30, Practicing Excommunication

In Chapters 23-30 of The Rule of St. Benedict we have a variety of chapters regarding discipline, excommunication in particular.

It starts off in Chapter 23:
1If a brother is found to be stubborn or disobedient or proud, if he grumbles or in any way despises the holy rule and defies the order of his seniors, 2he should be warned twice privately by the seniors in accord with our Lord's injunction (Matt 18:15-16). 3If he does not amend, he must be rebuked publicly in the presence of everyone. 4But if even then he does not reform, let him be excommunicated...
Obviously, excommunication is harsh. But what is interesting about Benedict's instructions regarding excommunication are the variety of humanizing aspects he includes. For example, as we note here at the beginning, there are two private warnings and a third public warning. In the next chapter Benedict goes on to talk about degrees of excommunication, from mild to more severe depending upon the issue being addressed.

But here's the most interesting part. After describing how to treat the excommunicated, Benedict goes on to describe in Chapter 27 "The Abbot's Concern For the Excommunicated":
1The abbot must exercise the utmost care and concern for wayward brothers, because "it is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick" (Matt 9:12). 2Therefore, he ought to use every skill of a wise physician and send in senpectae, that is, mature and wise brothers 3who, under the cloak of secrecy, may support the wavering brother, urge him to be humble as a way of making satisfaction, and "console him lest he be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow" (2 Cor 2:7). 4Rather, as the Apostle also says: "Let love for him be reaffirmed" (2 Cor 2:8), and let all pray for him.

5It is the abbot's responsibility to have great concern and to act with all speed, discernment and diligence in order not to lose any of the sheep entrusted to him. 6He should realize that he has undertaken care of the sick, not tyranny over the healthy.
What is striking and important here is how the excommunicated are not left alone. In fact, the excommunicated receive special care, supported socially and emotionally by skilled and wise people. During excommunication love is affirmed and reaffirmed. More, in verse 6 we read that the abbot's primary area of care is for these excommunicated. The abbot's primary job isn't ruling over the healthy, but caring for the sick.

I'm struck by this as it's very similar to the argument I made in this meditation on Jesus's instructions to treat erring brothers and sisters "as a tax collector and pagan." The basic idea I argue is that, while on one level there is a social rupture in excommunication, there is engaged, on another level, social connection and embrace.

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4 thoughts on “Fridays with Benedict: Chapters 23-30, Practicing Excommunication”

  1. This is compassionate discipline at its finest. So many fall through the cracks of healthy and productive relationships because of harsh, insensitive censure and ostracism. Let's hope 2 Corinthians is a commentary on 1 Corinthians in a similar setting. If not, Benedict comes out way better on the face of things. But Paul knew about forgiveness! And there's always Eph. 4:32.

  2. Great post, Richard. Nothing to add to your great points--except that an odd initial mis-reading of your title. "Practicing" excommunication made me think of the line that "practice makes perfect."

    I've long wondered whether we are so extremely bad at excommunication precisely because we don't have any practice? Maybe if we did it more we would learn, eventually, how to do it better? Just curious.

  3. All communities engage in some kind of boundary monitoring: nations, companies, non-profits, anarchist drinking brigades, clown colleges, and Unitarian Universalists. The combination of open, honest and explicit standards, along with a constant effort to include outsiders, seem really important to me...I love it when Christians occasionally manage to model it well, so I love this post.

    I would just add one other component: when a community identifies itself as the people of God, even the most mild approach to these issues takes on a much higher degree of severity. Being damned is always worse than being kicked out of clown college, however nice the people damning you are. So I think that Christian communities also need to maintain a critical distance, refusing to identify themselves completely with the people of God, and so leaving room for grace beyond the boundaries of their communities. Through long, hard effort, I think this openness to mystery has pushed itself into the Catholic mainstream, but it still sits a bit uneasily alongside the old, more fundamentalist reading. My favorite response to this tension is the kind of wild backflip Jesus does in the story of the good Samaritan. We should tell more stories in which the outsiders, the heretics, are the exemplars, and those who are inside show themselves to be outside. A community oriented around the guy who tells stories like that should always be able to question its self-identification as the people of God.

  4. I am struck by the ones Benedict says should be excommunicate: the stubborn, the proud, the grumblers. These are usually the ones that church leaders fear most. For that reason, they are often tolerated, but not loved. So, rather than being approached in boldness, then by tender care, they are usually left to be to tossed and beaten on the rocks of their own anger and willfulness. The tender part is not easy; but as I take from your post, certainly of the mind of Christ.

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