Follow usTwitterFacebook


31 Dec 2015 Q&A Comments (2)

Was I wrong to take the host back to my pew?

Full Question I sit in the first row at Mass because I am hearing-impaired. When visiting a church recently, the usher gestured for me to go up for Communi…

Read more

31 Aug 2016 Uncategorized No comments

Baghdad patriarch urges international community to do more to stop ISIS

Patriarch Sako said Christians are waiting for governments and religious authorities to work together to 'confront and dismantle terrorism' A Patriarch of the …

Read more

23 Oct 2014 USA Comments (1)

We're 'just touching the surface' of St John Paul II's teachings

Washington D.C., Oct 23, 2014 / 05:02 pm .- St. John Paul II's life and teachings offer a witness to love that is so profound it is only beginning to be be mine…

Read more

08 Nov 2014 Q&A Comments (5)

Does the Sunday observance begin on Saturday evening, in imitation of the Jewish sabbath?

Full Question In ancient Judaism the sabbath was from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. If Sunday is the Christian sabbath, should we celebrate it …

Read more

10 Sep 2015 News Vatican No comments

Church’s mission is not political, says Coptic pope

As Egypt prepares for parliamentary elections, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, to which most of the nation’s Christians belong, emphasized that the “Cop…

Read more

27 Jan 2015 Articles Comments (2)

Catholics! Keep Your Trees Up!

New Year’s Day promises two certainties: college football bowl games and Christmas trees on the curb. To Catholics, of course, January 1 is the Solemnity …

Read more

17 Sep 2014 Vatican No comments

Pope Asks for Prayers for Upcoming Trip to Albania

At the end of today's general audience, Pope Francis greeted those present in various languages. In his greetings in Arabic, he addressed the faithful of the Ho…

Read more

08 Apr 2015 Q&A Comments (1)

Why was it necessary for Jesus to have been born of a woman?

Full Question Why was it necessary for Jesus to have been born of a woman? Answer Vatican II responds: The Father of mercies willed that the Inc…

Read more

16 Sep 2014 Vatican No comments

2015 World Meeting of Families Will Help Synod on the Family

The 8th World Day of Families, to be held in Philadelphia from September 22-27, 2015, was presented today in the Holy See Press Office. The theme of the event w…

Read more
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Is it actually possible to become an ‘ex-Catholic’?

  • Written by:
  • 1 Reply

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 wayconfers 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”.

About 2.4 million of them.

by Stephen Bullivant


1 comment

  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    What this article tells us is that we cannot trust the RCC to accurately report how many people are Catholics today. Whatever number they report must be a vastly overstated number. We know that people are leaving the Church in droves, by their own report:
    “A report released Tuesday by the Pew Forum finds that the total number of Catholics in the United States dropped by 3 million since 2007, now comprising about 20 percent – or one-fifth – of the total population. And perhaps more troubling for the church, for every one Catholic convert, more than six Catholics leave the church. Taken a step further, Catholicism loses more members than it gains at a higher rate than any other denomination, with nearly 13 percent of all Americans describing themselves as “former Catholics.””
    However, I tend to agree that like alcoholism, one never really leaves the RCC. For that reason, I consider myself, as do so many others, as a “recovering Catholic.” There’s just no way to go back in time and prevent those synapses from firing when I was indoctrinated into the Church of fear and self loathing. That psychological child abuse, will always be with me and so many others; but a lot of us have stopped passing those “sins of the father” along to our offspring.

Leave a Reply

  1. most read post
  2. Most Commented
  3. Choose Categories