Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Circular letter on the acta formalis defectionis ab Ecclesia catholica, 26 December 2006.

Following the promulgation of the Circular Letter on the Actus Formalis Defectionis ab Ecclesia Catholica by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts in March 2006, the Council received a request for further clarification on three points in the Circular Letter. The response of the Pontifical Council has been translated from the original Spanish and is as follows:

Vatican City

December 16, 2006

Most Reverend Excellency:

It has arrived in time to this Pontifical Council your kind letter about the "Guidelines" approved by that Episcopal Conference on how to proceed in case of a request of formal abandonment of the Church, in relation to the Circular Letter of this Dicastery of March 13, 2006, Prot N. 10279/2006, in which you put three questions:

a) If, in light of the "Norms" of the Pontifical Council, the approach of processing applications of formal abandonment in the diocese of baptism can be maintained?

b) If, in light of the "Norms" of the Pontifical Council, the approach of managing the process by mail when the interested person refuses to appear can continue?

c) If, in light of the "Norms" of the Pontifical Council, the approach of centralizing the process in the diocesan curia can be maintained?

Above all it is a satisfaction to see that those "Guidelines," in anticipation of the Circular Letter of this Pontifical Council, had addressed this sensitive issue timely. The “Guidelines” also show the correct perception that only if the external manifestation is the consequence of an internal act of apostasy, heresy or schism, a proper formal act of rupture of ecclesiastical communion, with the subsequent consequence of the canonical penalty of excommunication (cf. cans. 751 and 1364), may exist.

As to the doubts raised by that Conference, its careful study has allowed the formulation of the following responses:

1. On the approach of processing the application. The rules of the Circular letter provide that the review of the application itself is undertaken by the proper Ordinary (diocesan Bishop, Vicar general or episcopal Vicar, if there is one) or the proper parish priest, which are those of the place of the domicile, quasi-domicile or place of residence (cf. can. 107). The reason for this attribution of competence is that it is easier for the ecclesiastical authority of the place of residence of the faithful to find him and establish with the faithful the necessary pastoral dialogue. The purpose of this personal dialogue is threefold: a) help him to become aware of the gravity of this act and of the resulting canonical penalty of excommunication; b) explain to him the consequences already transcribed in the n. 4 (the 5th indent) of the "Guidelines”1; c) seek with patient charity his conversion and desist from his intention to abandon. If despite this pastoral dialogue the faithful insists in his petition the proper Ordinary or parish priest will communicate the decision itself, if it is a different diocese, to the diocese of Baptism, for entry in the appropriate parish book.

2. On the management of the procedure by mail. Failing to establish a convenient personal dialogue, it will also be possible to record the abandonment, and provide for its entry in the book of baptisms, when, through direct postal communication between the faithful and the proper Ordinary or parish priest, it is deemed to have fulfilled all the conditions of the formal act of abandonment. For that the ecclesiastical authority should state in the letter what he would have said to the faithful if a personal meeting would have been possible (n.2). The letter must be certified, as is already planned so accurately in the "Guidelines," because only if it is known that it has come to the faithful and he has confirmed with an expressed or implied answer his decision to abandon, the procedure can be completed communicating the decision, if it is a different diocese, to the diocese of Baptism.

3. About the centralization in the diocesan curia. The rules of the Holy See taking into account the diversity of situations by country left free to choose if the procedure is performed before the Ordinary or the pastor. As long as the necessary conditions for the existence of a formal act of abandonment as indicated in nn. 1 and 2 have been fulfilled it is left to the discretionary choice of the Episcopal Conference to centralize the procedure or not.

In the hope that these observations could be useful, I’m happy to take this opportunity to renew my sentiments of profound esteem and warm affection in Christ.


Julián Card. Herranz



Bruno Bertagna

Bishop Secretary

1 Transcript of the n. 4, 5th indent of the "Guidelines": [From the abandonment of the Catholic Church by formal act (that is, under canon law, an act of apostasy, heresy or schism)] "with the following consequences: Exclusion from the sacraments (cf. cc. 1331, §1, 2° and 915); Deprivation of ecclesiastical burial, unless before death the person would have given some sign of repentance (cf. c. 1184 §1, 1°); Exclusion of the possibility of being a godfather for the baptism and confirmation (cf. cc. 874, §1, 4° and 893, §1); Need for permission from the local Ordinary for admission to a canonical marriage (cf. c. 1071, §1, 5°).”

Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Circular letter on the acta formalis defectionis ab Ecclesia catholica, 26 December 2006, CLSA, Roman Replies and Advisory Opinions, 2009, 32-24.