Chapter 23: Excommunication for Faults

1 If 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 orders of his seniors, 2 he should be warned twice privately by the seniors in accord with our Lord’s injunction (Matt 18:15-16). 3 If he does not amend, he must be rebuked publicly in the presence of everyone. 4 But if even then he does not reform, let him be excommunicated, provided that he understands the nature of this punishment. 5 If however he lacks understanding, let him undergo corporal punishment.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

After establishing some sharing of authority under the direction of the abbot and then speaking about sleeping arrangements, Saint Benedict turns immediately to the sanctions that need to be in place in a monastery if there is going to be any kind of observance of order. This is a straightforward sociological necessity. All of us would like to think that monks would obey the structures of the monastery and that there would be no problems. It is clear from Saint Benedict’s experience that monks don’t obey, monks don’t cooperate and monks can be stubborn, disobedient and proud. Monks also grumble and despise the Holy Rule. Monks also defy the orders of their seniors.

This is a pretty strong commentary on the types of people who join monasteries. And it is always the same. At times newcomers to a monastery are scandalized by the faults of a community. This generally shows a lack of human experience. Saint Benedict receives everyone into the community if they seem to show a sincere desire to be a monk. We must understand from the beginning that a sincere desire to be a monk is not incompatible with bad and even rebellious behavior!

Always there is need for a system of sanctions: what happens to a person in a community when they don’t follow the norms of the community? This is true in any type of society, not just in a monastery. That is why we have civil laws and why we have Church Law.

Saint Benedict wants us to follow the Gospel. So we first warn a brother, privately. If that does not work, then there is a public rebuke, with everyone present. After that comes excommunication, if excommunication really has any effect on the particular brothers. If a brother does not understand the meaning and experience the reality of excommunication, then there should be physical punishment.

Neither excommunication nor physical punishment are used today in most monasteries. We don’t use excommunication because we live in a society of individualists and excommunication doesn’t mean anything to monks (or to others). We don’t use physical punishment because culture has changed and this is no longer an acceptable way of punishing.

So we must find new ways to have sanctions. An abbot has to be thinking all of the time about what a monk wants in his life. Then, if there is need, the abbot has to begin to withhold what a monk wants. This kind of sanction generally works today.

More important than the sanction must be the attempt to form a monk to live his monastic life for the love of God and not because of fear of sanctions. May we all strive to live our monastic lives faithfully for the love of God!