What does "Formal Defection" from the Church mean?


I have read (here in this forum and in canon law) that a Catholic is not bound by the laws re: a Catholic marriage if they have formally defected from the Church. Must this exit involve actually joining another religion? A family member of mine who was baptized and brought up Catholic made a “formal” decision not to receive the sacrament of Confirmation after going through the classes (as a teen) because believed she was not Catholic. Now, 15 years later, she has never joined another religion, but states (and lives as though) she is not Catholic. Is this a formal defection? Thanks,


The New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (p. 1336; hereafter, “the commentary”) explains that a formal act of defection from the Catholic Church is, “a juridic act which can be proven in the external forum and whose intended effect is to separate oneself from the Church”. Let’s break this down.

For an act to be a “juridic act”, a person must be qualified to perform the act, must perform it freely and deliberately, and must willfully intend the consequences. (For a more complete treatment of juridic acts see Code of Canon Law Title VII, Juridic Acts.)

Next, the act “can be proven in the external forum”. Such proof requires evidence so the act of defection must be either written or witnessed by others.

Finally, the act’s “intended effect is to separate oneself from the Church”. The person defecting must know that they are defecting and intend to do so.

The commentary sites some examples of formal defection: “those who have made a public declaration of their abandonment of the Catholic faith, either in writing or orally before two witnesses, and those who have formally enrolled by some external sign in another Christian church or another religion”.

Minor children cannot formally defect from the Church. The commentary explains that, “since minors lack the full exercise of their rites… they are incapable of positing a formal act of defection for themselves, and their parents are incapable of making this act for them. Children who were baptized in the Catholic Church but whose parents subsequently enrolled them in a non-Catholic church may ratify this parental decision when they come of age, but, to do so by a formal act, they would have to be aware of their Catholic baptism”.

Also, “Lengthy participation in the worship of another church or religion without formal enrollment and a long-standing lapse in Catholic practice lack the formality required by a formal act… Even enrollment in another church may not qualify as defection by a formal act if it were done solely to appease a fiancé or future in-laws but without the intention of abandoning the Catholic Church”.

Ultimately, since freedom, deliberation, and intent are required, it may be difficult for one to determine whether another’s act qualifies as a formal defection. And keep in mind that, even if a Catholic formally defects, although not bound by certain elements of canon law effecting marriage, he or she is still a Catholic.

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