Bound by Church Law
All Catholics must adhere to Church law. Once they have been baptized and have accepted the authority of the Church, they become full members and must submit to the government by these laws.
But what happens if a Catholic is lax in his or her duty, or rejects some of the beliefs outright? The Church is not hard on those who are negligent, but it also recognizes three formal types of sin against Church law. These are heresy, apostasy, and schism, which draw the severe penalty of excommunication.Heresy
Heresy is the rejection of a belief at the core of Roman Catholicism. In the early days of the Church, all non-Catholics were considered to be heretics. Although this is still logically true, the Church has in recent years taken a greater interest in charity toward its neighbors and no longer bandies the word
Apostasy is a much more serious transgression. It is the total repudiation of everything that has to do with Catholicism. It is a lonely route to go, and one that usually only occurs if a Catholic has profound doubts or undergoes a traumatic experience that leads him or her to reject the Catholic faith. Those who abandon their faith are automatically considered to be outside the Church, but they are not formally charged unless they call public attention to their repudiation.
Interestingly, the Church recognizes three distinct forms of apostasy: when a Catholic layperson abandons his or her faith, when a cleric sheds the ecclesiastical state, and when a member of a religious order abandons the religious state he or she once embraced.Schism
While it might seem an old-fashioned notion, there are actually a number of marginal groups within the Church that challenge the papal authority on issues that bother them or that they disagree with. One such group of ultra-orthodox Catholics is pushing for a return to the Tridentine Mass, spoken completely in Latin.
The Church tolerates the ultra-orthodox, but there are other groups that challenge it in more inappropriate ways. One of those challenges happened in Austria in the summer of 2002, when a bishop who had broken with the Church ordained a group of ex-nuns as priests. Such groups are excommunicated for flouting Church law.
According to Church law, once a person accepts a heresy or apostasy, or joins a schismatic group, he or she is automatically in a state of excommunication and can no longer partake of the sacraments. Excommunication means exclusion from the Church and prohibition from receiving the sacraments. It is really a type of shunning, and it bears severe social stigma. Excommunication doesn't necessarily require a public notice. In serious cases, however, the Vatican issues a formal decree.
The Church does offer means of reconciliation. Lifting an excommunication requires approval from a bishop, although he will often delegate the commission to a priest or confessor at his cathedral. In matters of a truly serious nature, though, reconciliation is not that easy to get.