PCILT and CDW, Leaving the Church by a Formal Act, June-August 1993. Private.

What follows is an exchange of letters between a diocese in the United States, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The first installment below is a reply of the Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts to the initial inquiry of the bishop regarding c. 1117:

In your letter of 14 May 1993, sent through the good offices of the Apostolic Nunciature, you requested a clarification concerning a specific case in light of c. 1117 of the Code of Canon Law.

I am pleased to inform your excellency that this dicastery is currently studying the doctrinal problems concerning the expression actu ab Ecclesia catholica defecerit of the aforesaid canon.

In this case, however, the matter is one of the correct application of the law (taking into account the precise and specific circumstances of the case) rather than a matter of general interpretation. Therefore, the competent dicastery from which you should request a clarification is the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

The Bishop then wrote to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments the following letter:

We would appreciate an interpretation of c. 1117 as to what constitutes “a formal act of leaving the Catholic Church,” particularly as it might apply to the following matrimonial case.

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On August 27, 1967, Mary Jane Smith, the respondent in 93/106-DRbefore this tribunal, was baptized at St. Mary’s Church in Small River, Texas, U.S.A. (See enclosed photocopy of certificate.)

However, about 1976, Ms. Smith, age 11, according to her own testimony, along with her Catholic mother, was baptized into and joined Trinity Church (an Assembly of God Church) in Wide Open Prairie, Texas, U.S.A. According to Ms. Smith’s statement, she never returned to the Catholic Church and today considers herself a Baptist.

Mary Jane Smith first entered marriage on November 5, 1982, with John Paul Jones in North County, New Mexico, U.S.A., before a civil official. Mary Jane Smith at the time she attempted marriage with Mr. Jones in 1982 was bound to the Catholic form of marriage under the 1917 Code, and after 1949, since she was baptized as a Roman Catholic.

After Ms. Smith’s civil divorce from Mr. Jones, the petitioner in the above-noted case 93/106 DF, Boniface Tedesco entered a marriage with Ms. Jones on August 9, 1987, before a civil official in Ocean County, South Carolina, U.S.A.

Our question: Was Mary Jane Smith at the time she attempted marriage with Boniface Tedesco in 1987 bound to the Catholic form of marriage? Did her baptism and admission to the Assembly of God Church in 1976 constitute leaving the Catholic Church by a formal act, thus no longer binding her to the Catholic form of marriage even though an intervening non-canonical wedding was invalid due to her childhood Catholic baptism?

We look forward to hearing from you and would be glad to provide further clarification of these questions, if necessary.

What follows is the reply that was received two months later from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments:

With reference to the doubt you have set forth in your letter of 17 August 1993, a clarification of the much discussed question concerning the formal act of defection from the Catholic Church as it relates to the canonical form for marriage for baptized Catholics (cf. CIC, c. 1117) is anticipated from the Departments of the Holy See that are responsible for the same. In the meantime, our Congregation would like to express its opinion concerning the question posed in your letter.

1. Certainly in 1976 Mrs. Mary Jane SMITH, at the moment of her baptism in the “Assembly of God Church” given her immature age and a submission to the decision of her mother, could not have acted with sufficient consciousness and freedom to have formally severed or broken

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away from the Catholic Church into which she was incorporated at a young age.

2. At some time later in her life, she may have deliberately and willingly confirmed the conversion to the non-Catholic sect, which had originally been the decision of her mother. This might be supposed based upon the fact that she never again thought of returning to the Catholic Church and remained faithful to the practices of a good Baptist. There is, then, the possibility that she may have demonstrated her complete separation from the Catholic Church in some formal manner.

In this case she would be considered exempt from the canonical form for the marriage contracted with Boniface Tedesco on August 9, 1987.

3. It is your Tribunal, where the case is now pending, that the question should be resolved by a thorough search for proofs either from documents or testimonies.

(N.B. It is the editor’s understanding that further attempts at interviewing the respondent in regard to her relationship with the Catholic Church and Assembly of God Churches were unsuccessful.)

PCILT and CDW, June-August 1993, Defecting from the Church by a Formal Act, RRAO (1994): 16-19.