The National Post has an interesting article on the policy of the Catholic church with regards to abortion. The Catholic church will excommunicate anyone who procures an abortion. The article mentions the fact that there has been debate as to whether or not this practice should be extended to those who legalize abortion or assist the woman. As far as I am concerned, the answer should clearly be yes. You cannot excommunicate the woman who had an abortion but let any accomplices go scot free. It would be hypocritical. I would also be interested to know what, if any, mitigating circumstances the Church puts on this policy. For example, I find it hard to believe that the Catholic church would excommunicate a woman who needed an abortion to save her life. But, I am not a Catholic. If anyone has any comments on this, I'd be interested in hearing them.
I'd like to make a few comments on excommunication. The Reformed Church also conducts this practice. It is the last step of church discipline. When people unfamiliar with the practice hear the word excommunication, they often jump to the wrong conclusion. They immediately envision inquisition-like behaviour, shunning, and people who are being inappropriately judgemental. While I am sure this has happened in the past, I am also sure that it is rarely the case. Furthermore, even if a denomination does not formally conduct the practice of excommunication, most Christians would admit to practicing it in some form with believers who go astray.
Let me explain.
Church discipline is a multi-step process based on Matthew 18 and other Bible passages. It begins when one believer is caught in some sin by another believer. That individual should go to the offending member and tell them to repent of their sin. There are many ways of going about this. Parents discipline their children. Spouses encourage each other to behave properly or they might have a fight or discuss the matter until it is resolved. Friends sit each other down and "set them straight." Since everyone will deal with sin at some point in their lives, everyone will deal with this step. In a best case scenario, the matter will end with the first step.
However, if the offending member refuses to repent, then a second or third individual is to be brought as a witness. It could be that the situation has been entirely misunderstood and no sin was committed. It could also be that the offending member is genuinely hard-hearted and refusing to repent. If the matter cannot be resolved, then the leadership of the church must get involved. Depending on the situation, this may or may not mean that the entire church will find out. Often, however, the matter never moves beyond the knowledge of the church leaders. If the Church leaders cannot convince the offending member to repent of their behaviour, then discipline will move to the last step, that is the act of excommunication.
Excommunication itself, that is the act of withholding communion, will draw only one of two opinions: that it is either a good thing or that it is not. It is unlikely that you would find someone who has no opinion on the matter.
The practice of withholding communion follows from 1 Corinthians 5 where Paul instructed the Corinthian church to expel a sexually immoral man. This is generally interpreted to mean that an unrepentant individual who claims to be a believer must be treated as though they are not a believer. Note that excommunication it NOT shunning, although it did take that form in the past. Christians are NOT supposed to cross to the other side of the street or refuse to speak to the offending member. Excommunication means that the unrepentant member is not to participate in communion and their fellow Christians are to witness to them and call them to repentance. Depending on the circumstances, some Christians may refusing to attend a gathering hosted by the individual. Christian parents may, if the situation calls for it, expel an unrepentant child from their home.
Before anyone reacts in shock and asks "How could anyone do this?" let me just say that such an action is very difficult. No parent ever does this on a whim. It always causes a great deal of heartache and takes an enormous amount of intestinal fortitude and spiritual strength.
Excommunication is not intended to be permanent unless the unrepentant individual wishes it to be so. When someone repents, they are to be accepted back. The same immoral man from 1 Corinthians 5 repented and Paul instructed the church in 2 Corinthians 2 to receive him back. We are also given the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 as what will happen if a repentant individual is not forgiven by their fellow Christian.
Church discipline is not something to be taken lightly. As far as I am concerned, and I know some will disagree, it is simple-minded to immediately accuse any church who performs discipline as being "judgemental" or "Pharisaical." To be honest, given the state of some churches, I think that more discipline is needed and not less. If more churches correctly practiced Biblical discipline, we would have less churches who think it's ok to ordain or marry gays, or that it's acceptable to preach the Jesus is not Divine, but just a "good guy."