Questions regarding excommunication


What provision in Roman Catholic Canon Law allowed for a excommunicate (one who has been excommunicated/e.g… a king) to be killed with impunity? I remember from my reading on King John I of England that after his excommunication he feared being killed by his subjects. What provision allowed such as killing? Was is communicated with by Papal Bull, expressed explicitly or implicitly?. I couldn’t find anything to this effect online.

I look forward to your feedback

What an odd question. There is no provision in Canon Law to kill anybody, excommunicated or not.

From my reading the Catholic Church absolved subjects of their allegiance to their excommunicated reigning monarch and did not punish them for killing that monarch. What provision in Catholic Canon law provided for any absolution in the case of killing an excommunicated monarch?

I never heard of such a thing. If anything, murder is a mortal sin, so I doubt that there’s anything in canon law that would allow such a thing!

My probably-fairly-accurate wild guess is that church officials had discretionary power to bend the rules as they existed at the time, and that it was probably not a case of official laws “on the books”.

That seems highly unlikely to be officially the case. Murder is right out, even if the victim is a particularly annoying ex-monarch. It seems more likely that John I was a bit paranoid and feeling hounded.

MAAaaaybe there might have been a bishop or two that got a little worked up about how John wasn’t royal and therefore not ‘extra’ sacredly inviolate anymore, but that still doesn’t imply that anyone could just go out and kill him with impunity.

I’d say that being killed was a general occupational hazard of people who work in the king-being industry at the time, and a common way of reducing that hazard was an endorsement from the pope (which was the closest proxy available for an endorsement from God).

Excommunication of a King is not so much, “I give you permission to kill this guy” as “I am taking away one of the reasons why you shouldn’t kill this guy”.

A lot of anti-Catholic zealots on the web point to The Decretals of Gregory IX, Decreti, pars ii. causa xxiii. quaest v. can. xlvii

Which translates as:

The anti-Catholic zealots find the sentence “Those are not to be accounted homicides who, fired with zeal for Mother Church, may have killed excommunicated persons” somewhere in there. Only having taken one year of Latin and done so too long ago to remember much vocabulary , I cannot vouch for that translation.

Ooops. For some reason I neglected to include the first line of the Latin quote in the translation.
“Non sunt homicidae qui aduersus excommunicatos zelo matris ecclesiae armantur.”
Google translate:
“They are not murderers, who had fought with was excommunicated by the church are.”

The problem as I see it was that excommunication released all subjects from their oath to the monarch, as mentioned.

Therefore, if someone had a certain ambition to replace the king, this was an added incentive - they were less likely to be judged by their peers (sorry) as a traitor, and more likely able to persuade other nobles to follow their lead.

After being deposed, an ex-monarch often risked death; killing the ex-king removed a rallying point of any still loyal followers. Plus, killing the existing king often was a good prelude to initiating the replacement process, so the king also had to be wary of sneak attacks. It’s not that they were absolved from murder if the person were excommunicated, but succeeding at a coup usually justified any action after the fact. It’s not like people involved in coup attempts were worried about their immortal soul.

OTOH, keep in mind too that excommunicating a king often involved interdicting the whole country, meaning no mass or other sacraments; so this might provide sufficient agitation to someone fanatically devout to seek the simplest solution to end the lack of holy approval.

And also, a coup was a constant threat and so excommunication did not suddenly introduce a new danger - it just made the risk a bit greater.

And occasionally a whole country would be excommunicated, but AFAIK the Navarrese response the two times we were was along the lines of [collective raspberry], rather than “OMG, now the not-excommunicated neighbors can invade with impunity!”

If I remember my catechism, only individuals can be excommunicated. Countries are interdicted, as md2000 said.

I had a vague memory, from previous readings of history, that the concept of ‘murder’ in the early middle ages was really quite different to the concept that we have today. Looking around, I found somescholarly references:

In other words, if you got into a furious argument with someone in the course of which you drew your knife and stabbed him … eh, well, that was the kind of thing that happened. You paid your fine and got on with your life. If the person in question was the king, and he lived then doubtless you’d be in a lot of trouble, but that didn’t really stop people. And the kings of that era weren’t really “l’etat c’est moi” levels of powerful - they were quite dependent on their nobles, particularly if said nobles were richer than they were (was John’s excommunication before or after he got all his money washed away in the sea?). I can quite imagine anyone, even a king, being nervous about making a lot of his fellow-countrymen angry at him, because that was the sort of thing that led to people getting killed in brawls of one sort or another quite frequently, and the legal system and society weren’t really treating sudden killing as a terrible crime

Murder may be out, but what if the killing is part of a plot to overthrown an heretic monarch and restore a Catholic regime? In other words, regime change with extreme prejudice?

That was the general understanding of Pope Paul’s bull against Elizabeth. It freed all English from their allegiance to Elizabeth and her gouvernement, and provided that anyone who wanted to try to overthrow her was not committing a sin.

If that could be done by a peaceful coup and arresting her, so be it, but if violence was the result and Elizabeth were killed, well, that’s fortunes of war.

Essentially, Paul relieved all English from the principle that “Thou shalt not touch the Lord’s Anointed,” making Elizabeth fair game.

Thanks Northern Piper. This gets closer to my point and back to my question as to what provision in Church law allowed a pope make war on a heretic/call a Crusade on a heretic? The pope was essentially telling Catholics to kill heretics. What granted him that power?

What provision in Church law gave a pope the power to make war on a deposed excommunicate monarch?

Being excommunicated doesn’t make you a heretic.

But excommunicates were declared heretics by popes. Martin Luther was declared both. But again my question was what power the the pope had based on Roman Catholic law that allowed him to call for war against an excommunicate deposed monarch?

I don’t think you would find that in canon law. The Popes were like monarchs in an age before constitutional restraints. As God’s Vicar on Earth, he didn’t need to point to something in Canon law to authorise him to declare that a heretic queen who was leading her nation into permanent sinfulness needed to be removed and replaced by a good Catholic monarch.

I don’t think the popes did call for war against excommunicated monarchs. I think the point is that, if being excommunicated invalidates your claim to the throne, then an excommunicated monarch is a usurper, and anyone with a better claim to the throne can legitimately try to enforce that claim, including by force. Which, obviously, might not work out too well for the excommunicated monarch, depending on how things go. But it isn’t a question of him being attacked because the pope has called for it; it’s a question of him being attacked by someone who wants to take the throne, and who considers (with papal support) that he has a better claim to it. And it would also be wrong to say that the excommunicated king could be “killed with impunity”; a war against the excommunicated king by someone with a legitimate claim to the throne might be considered a just war, but even in a just war there were rules about when and who you could and couldn’t kill.

PS not all excommunicates are, or are declared, to be heretics. Heresy is only one possible ground for excommunication.