In the discussion of Fr Lucie-Smith’s excellent blog of a couple of weeks ago – reacting to the Benedict XVI Centre’s latest report (which you can, and really ought to, read in full here) – the question came up of whether, in the eyes of the Church, it is possible for a baptised Catholic to cease being one. That is, theologically speaking, is there such thing as a “former Catholic”?
The short answer is a flat no. From the Church’s perspective, such people remain part of it – and always will – by virtue of their baptism, whether they like it or not. In the words of the Catechism, “Baptism incorporates us into the Church” (# 1267), and “Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation” (#1272).
These clear-running baptismal waters are, however, muddied by a little piece of canon law (or rather, the memory of it, since it is now – with good reason, as we shall see – abrogated).
On three occasions, the 1983 Code of Canon Law cites the possibility of a baptised Catholic having made what it calls an actus formalis defectionis ab Ecclesia catholica, that is, “a formal act of defection from the Catholic Church”. All of these occur in the context of marriage, for example: “A marriage between two persons, one of whom has been baptised in the Catholic Church or received into it and has not defected from it by a formal act and the other of whom is not baptised, is invalid” (Can. 1086 §1; see also cans 1117, 1124).
The Code offers no further clue as to what such an act might entail.
Having “for quite some time received a considerable number of… questions and requests for clarification”, in 2006 the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts (PCLJ) released a statement setting out “the requirements or juridical formalities that would be necessary so that such an action would constitute a true ‘formal act’ of defection”.
While the specific, convoluted procedure need not be recounted here, its fulfilment would authorise a local bishop to have “explicit mention of the occurrence of a defectio ab Ecclesia catholica actu formali” to be formally added against that person’s name in a baptismal register.
Critically, however, the PCLJ’s statement is at pains to emphasise that such an act is a purely “juridical-administrative” one, and in no way confers a “true separation from the constitutive elements of the the life of the Church”. Hence: “It remains clear, in any event, that the sacramental bond of belonging to the Body of Christ that is the Church, conferred by the baptismal character, is an ontological and permanent bond which is not lost by reason of any act or fact of defection.”
To put it mildly, this created a very strange state of affairs. The upshot was that, like a guest at the Hotel California, being Catholic meant that “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave…”
Three years later, in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI then issued a decree simply deleting the relevant passages from the 1983 Code, unsurprisingly citing “numerous pastoral problems” thrown up by the wording.
As was then made clear in a commentary by Cardinal Coccopalmerio, the prefect of the PCLJ, one of these problems had to do with the fact that in certain central European countries, people pay a civil “worship tax” which accrues to their respective denominations unless they specifically opt out . (As they do in, say, Austria.) Naturally, it was this financial opting out that the PCLJ had meant by its reference to a “juridical-adminstrative act” in 2006, somewhat euphemistically glossed with “the removal of one’s name from a Church membership registry maintained by the government in order to produce certain civil consequences”.
While intended for a specific purpose – and, as has been noted, explicitly not conceived as actually removing a person from the Church – it is hardly surprising that a sizeable number of disaffected Catholics, not least in Ireland, sought to exploit this canonical possibility to have themselves formally removed from the Church, even if only “symbolically”.
But since 2010, this possibility now no longer exists (although one would not know from the Vatican’s own website, which, as of May 2016, still provides the unextirpated version of the 1983 Code without comment).
Of course, none of that changes the empirical fact that, in England and Wales, a huge number of cradle-Catholic adults do, in fact, regard themselves as “ex-Catholics”.
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