From time to time I’ll read a letter to the editor or a column in a newspaper from someone accusing the Church of being wimpy, especially when it comes to dissent from Catholics on church teachings. They usually feel that the Pope should just excommunicate everyone who doesn’t tow the line. Well, yes, dissent is indeed a problem. I’m not merely talking about difference of opinion or people who don’t fully understand the church’s teaching on a particular matter; I’m referring to true dissent, where people know what we beleive and should be able to give full consent but instead dissent. So why doesn’t the Pope just excommunicate them all? Maybe today’s feast will help!
Today we celebrate the feast of two Roman martyrs, St. Pontian, pope, and St. Hippolytus, priest. Both were active in the early 3rd century. Hippolytus was frequently critical of the popes. He thought the popes were too soft on heretics and should excommunicate them all. Only a church of rigorously committed Christians was good enough for Christ and would survive, so anyone who was lukewarm should be spewed out of the Church’s mouth. While Hippolytus’ desire for faithful service to Christ is commendable, he seems to me to have made the mistake of holding up the goal as the starting line. Somehow he seems to have expected everyone to be automatic saints, rather than realizing that saithood is the goal we strive for. As a result, he became “holier than the Church” and a self-appointed defender of the truth, even against several popes! When Pope Zephyrinus refused to make a definitive statement condemning a heresy (because the Pope did not yet feel it was sufficiently understood to warrant condemnation), Hippolytus gravely censured him, representing him as an incompetent man, unworthy to rule the Church of Rome and as a tool in the hands of the ambitious and intriguing deacon Callistus. Consequently when Callistus was elected pope on the death of Zephyrinus, Hippolytus immediately left the communion of the Roman Church and had himself elected antipope by his small band of followers. These he called the Catholic Church and himself successor to the Apostles, terming the great majority of Roman Christians the “School of Callistus.” He accuses Callistus of having through avarice degraded ecclesiastical, and especially the penitential, discipline to a disgraceful laxity. Hippolytus continued in opposition as antipope throughout the reigns of the two immediate successors of Callistus: Urban and Pontian. During the persecution by the Emperor Maximinus, Pontian and Hippolytus were sent into exile in the salt mines of Sardinia. While there, Pontian was able to work his charm on Hippolytus and help him see the errors of his excessive rigorism. Hippolytus made a full confession, renounced his claim to be the pope, was completely reconciled with the church, and died a martyr.
Did you notice that Hippolytus, in his desire to try to get everyone else excommunicated, actually was in the very position he berated? I’m sure there were many people wondering why the Pope didn’t excommunicate Hippolytus! Pope Pontian had a better idea: reconciliation. He remembered that, as shepherd of the flock, his first duty is to try and bring back those who stray and correct their errors so as to bring them back into the loving embrace of Christ, not to kick everyone out who disagrees. Sometimes an excommunication is necessary, either to help the person see the error of his ways and bring him back – the primary desire of using this censure, as a medicinal device – or in extreme cases, like when one has a gangrenous toe, to cut it off so as to protect the health of the rest of the body.
We can all disagree about when something has gotten so bad that the Pope has no choice but to excommunicate someone, but that needs to be a last resort and not an immediate reaction. Our desire is to call every soul to salvation. No one is outside the call to reconciliation with Christ. If we must resort to excommunicating someone to bring him back to his good senses and back into the fold, so be it, but we should only use excommunication as a final solution when it is absolutely necessary for the health of the rest of the body and we have no choice otherwise.