QUAERITUR: Returning to the Church after joining another church for many years

From a reader:

If a person leaves the church and joins another faith for 10 plus years, what is required to return to good standing in the church?

This isn’t as hard as one might imagine.

Usually all a person has to do is make a sincere and complete confession of all mortal sins of commission or omission since the last confession, have whatever censures she incurred lifted (not hard), and then return to the proper life of a good Catholic!  Easy Peasy.

In the case that a person made a formal act of apostasy (e.g., in Germany in order to avoid paying the Church tax), she – once upon a time – would have had to go though other steps before returning to the sacraments.  However, in 2009 a document called Omnium in mentem was issued whereby the Church’s law about these formal acts was changed.  Now, the Church no longer considers it possible to defect from the faith by formal act.  Therefore, there are no canonical consequences from formal defection.  Were a person to film herself signing a document and then publish the photos and take out ads in the newspaper, according to the Church they would not have formally defected from the Church.

Thus, people cannot now formally defect.  They can, however, still incur a censure of excommunication – a spiritual and medicinal penalty – for heresy or schism or apostasy (cf. can 1364).  In order to incur any censure she would have had to understand the consequences of the act.  Therefore, if she joined another church without really understanding the canonical consequences (e.g., she married a Lutheran and started going to services with her spouse and then joins the Lutheran parish…) then it is likely that no excommunication is incurred.

So, in order to return to the light and grace of the Church and leave the darkness of soul endangering heresy and schism, in most cases simply going to confession and getting any censure lifted is all one has to do to.

Finally, on a slightly different but related note, the Code says in can. 1366 that parents or those who take the place of parents who have their children baptized or educated in a non-Catholic religion are to be punished with a censure or other just penalty. If we have an obligation to maintain our Catholic identity for ourselves, we also have an obligation to maintain the Catholic identity of children for whom we are responsible.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. smmclaug says:

    This suddenly ubiquitous use of the ungrammatical generic “she” among supposed linguistic conservatives is absolutely depressing. It is a self-conscious cringe to political correctness. If one cannot defy that ridiculous liberal deformation of our language, then one’s surrender to liberal orthodoxy is merely a matter of pacing. [ o{]:¬) ]

  2. Tim Ferguson says:

    or perhaps its a sign that Father has read the entire missive, and not just the portion that he’s posted, and is thus aware of the gender of the individual about whom the question is being asked. [Hey! I’m being inclusive!]

  3. jhayes says:

    Canon 1366 says:

    “Canon 1366 Parents, and those taking the place of parents, who hand over their children to be baptized or brought up in a non-Catholic religion, are to be punished with a censure or other just penalty.”

    However, I think that would not apply in a marriage where the parents disagree and one concedes to the other to preserve the marriage:

    The current policy of the Catholic Church is this: The Catholic partner must agree to two statements:

    “I reaffirm my faith in Jesus Christ and intend to continue living that faith in the Catholic Church.”

    “I promise to do all in my power to share my faith with our children by having them baptized and raised as Catholics.”

    The non-Catholic partner does not have to promise anything, but the priest arranging the marriage must certify that the non-Catholic is aware of the commitment that the Catholic spouse has made.

    This policy comports with the church’s Code of Canon Law, as it was revised in 1983, and it represents a notable change in wording from the earlier Code of 1917, which required both parties to sign written promises that their children would be baptized and brought up as Catholics.

    If the non-Catholic partner simply refuses and insists that the children will not be raised Catholic, a diocese could still grant permission for the marriage so long as the Catholic party agrees to do whatever he or she reasonably can, within the context of the marriage, to have the children be Catholic.

    Certainly the church’s primary goal is to ensure the survival and stability of the marriage itself; there are situations where the wife, for example, continues to attend Mass every Sunday and would dearly love to pass her faith on to her children, but has conceded that, for the sake of peace in the family, she cannot insist on this over her husband’s strong objection.


  4. JonPatrick says:

    I went through this process in 1999, when my family converted (reverted in my case) from the Episcopal to the Catholic faith. Technically I just had to go to confession. However given the length of time I had been away (since my teenage years) they suggested RCIA which I did along with my family. I also had never been confirmed, so received that sacrament a few months later at a beautiful Mass at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, with H.E. Cardinal Bevilacqua presiding. All in all a very straightforward process.

  5. LouiseA says:

    Fr. Z,
    If prior to the 2009 document a person could formally defect, would a baptized Catholic becoming a Protestant minister (prior to 2009) be considered a formal act of apostasy?

  6. jhayes says:

    This suddenly ubiquitous use of the ungrammatical generic “she”

    It’s not ungrammatical. “Their” would be ungrammatical, but “she” is a singular pronoun just as “he” is.

    If you want to make the argument that “he” includes females as well as males, all I can say is that that argument was lost long ago.

    For many years I was a member of a drafting committe in an organization which required that the pronouns “he” and “she” not be be used in any of its documents. Most of the time this could be avoided by restructuring a sentence but, in some cases, the only possible solution was to repeat the noun.

    In real life, some people alternate “he” and “she” from sentence to sentence, some write “he or she” or “he/she.” In the best of all worlds, they find a way to structure the sentence that doesn’t require using any of those.

  7. acricketchirps says:

    That the generic “he” includes females while “she” does not include males is not an “argument” that has been “lost long ago” or at any time; it is a simple fact that is simply ignored. I say don’t ignore it. Problem fixed!

  8. meippoliti says:

    Perfect timing for this article. I’ve been noticing a watering down and combining of Christian faiths when it comes to vacation bible schools and family camps in the area we moved to . Families in our new town allow their children to attend Protestant VBS and family camps. I value these new friendships, but I wonder why there is this mentality that when children are young that the basics of our faith are just the same as Protestants? In fact, our Parish is giving families the option (their VBS is being held at a Protestant Church) of attending a morning VBS or an alternate evening with the Protestant VBS. What are everyone’s thoughts on this? What is the best way to bring this in up in conversation with these new friends without, umm, being blunt? Or should I just be, well, blunt?

  9. dustman says:

    How would this change if a catholic received orders from another group while he was outside the RC Church. (old catholic, Anglican, etc). Would they simply renounce their clerical status and make a good confession and can return to life as a lay person quietly, or must they go through diocesean channels and consult with the bishop. [That is more complicated. They would definitely do well to be in direct contact with the local diocesan bishop, who would at some point need to involve also the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. There are more steps, but they are doable. And in most cases censures would be lifted and the the man would be reconciled “ut laicus” even if he had been validly but illicitly ordained. Each case is particular.]

  10. jhayes says:

    Meippoliti, if “your parish” is offering this choice, it sounds as if your pastor is satisfied that what will be covered will not contradict Catholic teaching.

    My impression is that children’s bible classes stick pretty closely to a literal reading of the bible text as stories, rather than any deep theological analysis.

  11. PaterAugustinus says:

    So, does Catholicism now believe that only the Church can formally denounce and anathematize one of the faithful? Or, does it now believe that there can be no kind of true break with the church at all? [NB: There may be be special juridical hoops to jump through because of an attempt formally to defect, but you still incur censures.]

    In the Orthodox Church, we would regard joining another church and embracing its teachings, as apostasy. We would have to receive that person back by another act of chrismation/confirmation… though, in the case of churches, whose teachings did not deviate very far from the Apostolic tradition on the most important points of dogma (like, from our point of view, Catholicism), sometimes mere confession was enough to be received again.

    And to those above, complaining about the gender-specific or -neutral pronouns… Fr. Z. is doing what many irritated sane people have begun to do: if leftists and feminists insist on portraying the gender-generic “he” pronoun as “sexist,” we’ll start showing them what real sexism in pronouns would look like. And so, whenever the generic person in the example is doing something bad or stupid, we use gender-“neutral” she, and when the person in the example is doing something good, smart, pious or even just morally neutral, we use gender neutral “he.” Then, perhaps, they can begin to understand how pronouns could *actually* be used to insinuate sexist views in casual speech, and understand how the former gender neutral “he,” for examples good, bad and indifferent, was not really sexist at all. Serves ’em right!

  12. wolfeken says:

    Concerning current events and the lovely Miss Holmes, I wonder if there is much of a difference from Scientology to the parish of Saint Francis Xavier in New York with respect to Church teachings.

  13. dans0622 says:

    I agree with the substance of your practical advice, Father, but I wouldn’t say that it is impossible to formally defect from the Church. A person could still go through the steps as outlined in March 2006 by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, if a local ordinary or pastor received and acknowledged the defection. Also, there are still passages in the Code referring to “notorious/public defection” (cf., e.g., cc. 171, 194, 694, 1071). A formal defection would be one example of a public defection. That being said, Omnium in mentem makes it clear that defection of any sort no longer has any impact on the requirements of the canonical form of marriage.

  14. ajbasso says:

    Out of curiosity, what is the difference between apostasy, which is possible, and defection, which is not? I understood them to be synonymous and that apostasy was an impediment to holy orders. Any clarification would be appreciated.

  15. Tim Ferguson says:


    I would say that apostasy is a theological matter with canonical consequences, and formal defection is merely a canonical construct. In addition, formal defection would not require apostasy (the post-baptismal repudiation of the faith) but could be accomplished through heresy (the obstinate denial of a dogmatic truth), or schism (the refusal of submission to the Pope or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him)

    The 1983 Code introduced the notion of formal defection to solve a perceived problem with the issue of the canonical form of marriage (that’s a loooong discussion topic there, one that I’d prefer to have with Dr. Ed Peters in the room!). By the time Pope Benedict was elected, it was apparent that the construct of formal defection did not quite solve the problem and created more problems.

  16. Robbie J says:

    Concerning the faith formation of our children, I think it’s up to us (baptised Catholics) to uphold what our holy Catholic church teaches.
    When I was considering “tying the knot” with my (then) non-Catholic girlfriend, I made it clear to her that our children would HAVE to be baptised and raised Catholic. If she could not, or would not agree to this, then the intended marriage would not take place. It was as simple as that.
    Praise be to God! How we have been blessed. She got the calling and converted to Catholicism after our first child was born some three years later.

  17. George Walker says:

    Unfortunately, I can speak from personal experience on this issue. In the mid-70’s my wife and I entered the Episcopal church, and in 1985 I was ordained as a priest in the Diocese of Chicago. To make a long story short, I realized my error and two years ago, after 25 years as an Episcopal priest, we returned to the folds of the Catholic Church. It was accomplished through discussions over several months with the pastor of our local parish and the diocesan bishop. There were no formalities other than a sincere confession and absolution. In retrospect I have mixed feeling and thoughts about my years in the Anglican ministry, but my most serious regret is the extent to which I misled others in ways large and small through my ministry.

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