Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Circular letter on the requisites of the formal act of defection from the Catholic Church, 24 November 2006.

The following letter clarifies some aspects of an earlier circular letter by the President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative texts concerning the requisites for the formal act of defection that releases a baptized Catholic from the impediment of disparity of cult, the prohibition of mixed marriage, and the obligation of canonical form for the validity of a marriage.

John Huels noted in April 2008 in a list-serv discussion: “The 13 March 2006 circular letter of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts made it clear that a formal act of defection had to be received by a competent Catholic ecclesiastical authority. The act of reception by the Catholic authority is a constitutive element of the formal act of defection. It applies retroactively, affecting marriages since the 1983 Code entered into force.” The following reply offers a clarification of the requisites.

Vatican City, 24 November 2006

Most Reverend Eminence,

In reference to the circular letter sent from this Pontifical Council, 13 March 2006 (Prot. N. 10279/2006) [See Roman Replies 2006, 31-33; Roman Replies 2007, 7.14 ] regarding the formal act of defection from the Catholic Church (actus formalis defectionis ab Ecclesia catholica), Your Eminence has asked if the affirmation contained in n. 5 (“It is required, moreover, that the act be manifested by the interested party in written form before the competent authority of the Catholic Church”) implies the necessity of presenting oneself in person before the Ordinary or proper pastor or, rather, could it be sufficient for the interested person to send a written petition.

[…] Regarding this matter, it must be taken as a given that the mind of the circular letter of the Holy See is that belonging to or not belonging to the Church is not only a juridical-administrative question of public record but is a delicate theological-canonical question that pertains to the constitutive elements of the life of the Church.

In fact, only those who knowingly place acts of true apostasy, heresy or schism (cf. cc. 751 and 1364 CIC) are separated from the Church and therefore have the actual intention to break the bonds of communion with the Church, notwithstanding the canonical penal consequences of which they are aware or of which they must be made aware.

It is always desirable that the ecclesiastical authority have personal contact with the member of the faithful who has presented or sent the request or the simple communication of abandonment of the faith. Only he can verify the existence or absence of these free and conscious dispositions of will in the interested party and of the awareness of the relative canonical consequences. In this case, therefore, it is not a matter of an act of regulation of personal facts in the civil order, but an act of great theological-canonical significance placed within the ecclesiastical order, whose autonomy of jurisdiction in this matter is recognized by the State […].

In the case of one of the faithful who is unwilling to meet in person (which would have permitted the sacred pastor to help the person reflect on the gravity and consequences of the act, and hopefully to motivate a change of the decision), it would be necessary to resort to sending a personal letter in which it is explained with clarity and delicacy that a true act of defection breaks the bonds of communion with the Church which existed from the moment of baptism. It would be necessary to clarify that such a gesture, which qualifies as an act of true apostasy (or heresy or schism, according to the reasons given by the interested party), is so grave that it is considered not only a grave sin but also an ecclesiastical delict, for which is prescribed the most onerous of canonical penalties, namely, excommunication. To help the person understand the gravity of the penalty, it would be suitable to illustrate in a concrete manner the practical effects of excommunication (for example, that without the remission of the penalty one is not able to receive communion or sacramental absolution, that one cannot be a sponsor at baptism or confirmation, that one cannot have ecclesiastical funeral rites, etc). In short, the communication must be a reasoned invitation to consider carefully and eventually change the decision to leave the Catholic Church.

Whenever this invitation, whether orally or in writing, is not accepted - or the letter is received but remains without a response – there will be documentary evidence that the interested party has chosen to place himself formally in a canonical situation of rupture of the ecclesial communion with the corresponding penal consequences, and one could then proceed to make the required annotation. In any case, if it were still possible, it would also be profitable to assist the interested party to understand that, in light of the baptismal character, the ontological bond with the Church remains, and that his return to the Father’s house (cf. Luke 15: 11-33) will always be desired.

[…] Hoping to have furnished your Eminence the elements necessary to resolve the doubts in the case before you, I gladly take this occasion to confirm my sentiments of cordial esteem of your Most Reverend Eminence.

Julián Cardinal Herranz

President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts

Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Circular letter on the requisites of the formal act of defection from the Catholic Church, 24 November 2006, CLSA, Roman Replies and Advisory Opinions, 2008, 13-15; Communicationes 38 (2006) 185-187.