Latae sententiae is a Latin phrase, meaning "sentence (already) passed", used in the canon law of the Catholic Church. A latae sententiae penalty is one that follows ipso facto or automatically, by force of the law itself, when a law is contravened.
A penalty that binds a guilty party only after it has been imposed on the person is known as a ferendae sententiae (meaning "sentence to be passed") penalty.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law, which binds Catholics of the Latin Church, inflicts latae sententiae censures for certain forbidden actions. The canon law that binds members of the eastern Catholic Churches (see Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches) does not include latae sententiae penalties.
Note that latae sententiae is an adjectival phrase (in the genitive) intended to accompany a noun, such as "excommunication". In order to be used in connection with a verb, an adverbial form of the phrase in the ablative case is required, as in: "He was excommunicated lata sententia."
The censures that the Code of Canon Law envisages are excommunication, interdict, and suspension. Excommunication prohibits participation in certain forms of liturgical worship and church governance. Interdict involves the same liturgical restrictions as excommunication, but does not affect participation in Church governance. Suspension, which affects only members of the clergy, prohibits certain acts by a cleric, whether the acts are of a religious character deriving from his ordination ("acts of the power of orders") or are exercises of his power of governance or of rights and functions attached to the office he holds.
Unless the excusing circumstances outlined in canons 1321-1330 exist, the Code of Canon Law imposes latae sententiae excommunication on the following:
Legislation outside of the Code of Canon Law may also decree latae sententiae excommunication. An example is that governing papal elections, which applies it to persons who violate secrecy, or who interfere with the election by means such as simony or communicating the veto of a civil authority.
The ipso facto excommunication that applied before 1983 to Catholics who became members of Masonic associations was not maintained in the revised Code of Canon Law that came into force in that year. However, the Holy See has declared that membership remains forbidden and that "the faithful who enrol in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion".
Instances in which one incurs a latae sententiae interdict include the following:
An example of an interdict that is not latae sententiae but instead ferendae sententiae is that given in canon 1374 of the Code of Canon Law: "One who joins an association which plots against the Church is to be punished with a just penalty; one who promotes or moderates such an association, however, is to be punished with an interdict."
Automatic suspension applies to clerics (those who have been ordained at least to the diaconate) in the following cases:
Ferendae sententiae suspension (along with other punishments) is to be inflicted on any cleric who openly lives in violation of chastity and on any priest who "in the act, on the occasion, or under the pretext of confession" solicits a penitent to a sexual sin.
If one commits an ecclesiastical offence for which a ferendae sententiae punishment is prescribed, the penalty takes effect only when imposed by the competent ecclesiastical authority. It can also happen that the ecclesiastical authority issues a declaration that a particular individual has in fact incurred a latae sententiae censure. In both these cases the effects are more severe than those of a merely automatic censure.
Those under interdict or excommunication of any kind are forbidden to receive the sacraments, including the Eucharist, but a priest may not refuse Communion publicly to those under merely automatic censure, even if he knows that they have incurred this kind of censure; However, if the excommunication has been imposed or declared, others are obliged to prevent the censured person from acting in a ministerial capacity in the liturgy or, if this proves impossible, to suspend the liturgical service; and the censured person is not to be admitted to Holy Communion (see canon 915).
Apart from cases where remission of a censure is reserved to the Holy See, it is for the ordinary responsible for its infliction or, after he has been consulted or in extraordinary circumstances in which such consultation is not possible, the ordinary of the locality where the censured person is present to remit a declared or imposed censure established by law. However, an ordinary can remit a merely automatic censure for his subjects, wherever they are, and for anyone present in his territory or who committed the delict in his territory, and any bishop can remit merely automatic censures for anyone whose sacramental confession he is hearing.
If a penitent finds it burdensome to remain in grave sin for the duration of the time necessary for obtaining remission by the competent authority from an undeclared latae sententiae excommunication or interdict that excludes the penitent from the sacraments, the confessor may immediately remit the censure in the internal sacramental forum, while requiring the penitent to have recourse within one month to the competent authority.