ASK FATHER: Formal defection from Catholic Church to Orthodox Church

From a reader…


My brother, who was baptized in the Catholic Church as an infant and received the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation at the usual ages for our diocese, was received into the Greek Orthodox church by chrismation in 2003. He did that shortly before going through a Greek Orthodox marriage ceremony to a Greek Orthodox woman who was allowed to remarry in her church. The woman was divorced from her Greek Orthodox husband and had a child with him during their short marriage together. I did not attend the chrismation or the wedding ceremony.

Would my brother be considered to be defected from the Catholic Church? Also, after the chrismation ceremony would he be required to follow the Catholic laws for entering into a valid marriage? (I do realize that the woman he went through the ceremony with was not from the standpoint of the Catholic Church eligible to marry, but let’s leave that aspect of the situation aside for the moment.)

For this answer, I turned to a trusted canonist who also posts here, Fr. Tim Ferguson.  The following is his response:

This is some highly complicated canon law. When the 1983 Code of Canon Law came into effect (November 27, 1983) something never before heard of entered into our canonical system: the notion that one could, by some formal act, defect from the Catholic faith and thereby free oneself from the obligation to observe certain ecclesiastical laws, most notably, the law of canonical form for marriage. Since the Donatist controversy had been settled in the fourth century, the operational principle of the Church had been – semel Catholicus, semper Catholicus.

The 1983 Code did not, technically, allow someone to cease being Catholic, but opened up the notion that one could be free from certain ecclesiastical laws by one’s own actions – not by a dispensation given by the hierarchy (though, it could be legitimately argued that the norms of the 1983 Code themselves represent the actions of the hierarchy. That’s a great discussion for canonists, theologians, Latinists, and a 20-year old bottle of scotch).

In 2006, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified just what an act of formal defection entailed. An act of formal defection requires three things: a true decision to leave the Church, a manifest action of one’s decision in written form, and the reception of that decision by a competent ecclesiastical authority (e.g. a bishop or one who takes the place of the bishop, or at least the proper pastor of the one defecting). The prevailing understanding is that these three conditions, as they make up the definition of the formal act, are essential and apply from November 27, 1983 – any supposed formal act prior to that point did not actually free the person making such an act from the requirement to observe canonical form.

With the motu proprio Omnium in Mentem, of October 26, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI closed the loophole and has, effectively, returned the Church back to the position before November 27, 1983. While it is still possible to formally defect from the Catholic Church, such a defection has absolutely no canonical effect.

So, on to our interlocutor. Unless the gentleman in question wrote to his Latin Catholic bishop stating that he intended, by his reception of chrismation in the Greek Orthodox Church, to formally defect from the Catholic faith, and unless the bishop received that letter and accepted it as a formal act of defection (which he would have signified by ordering a notation be made in the gentleman’s baptismal record, then the gentleman in question never left the Catholic Church. His reception of chrismation was actually a simulation of a sacrament, because confirmation (the Latin equivalent of the Greek chrismation) cannot be repeated.

Now, another curve ball – while Catholics are obliged by ecclesiastical law to observe canonical form and marry before a Catholic priest or deacon with the appropriate faculties, since March 25, 1967 (by the decree Crescens matrimoniorum), Latin Catholics marry validly when they marry an Orthodox person in the Orthodox Church. Permission from the Latin bishop is only required for liceity, not validity. (Eastern Catholics could validly marry an Orthodox person in the Orthodox Church in 1965, but we don’t need to get into that here).

And the final curve – from what we know here, it does not seem that the woman this gentleman attempted to marry was actually free to do so. We’d need to know more about her first marriage, of course, but unless that first marriage lacked Orthodox canonical form, or had been declared null by a Catholic tribunal, then she wasn’t free to marry and her attempt at marriage to our still-Catholic friend appears to have been invalid.

The whole matter will need to be sorted out by the local Catholic tribunal, which, hopefully, will have some expertise in Orthodox matters, but the bottom line remains the same – the man is still Catholic, and still obliged to observe ecclesiastical law.

Moderation queue is ON.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. JabbaPapa says:

    My understanding has always been that Confirmation prevents defection in every case, given that it constitutes willing and deliberate adherence to the Catholic Faith.

    But yes, that situation is a serious can of worms …

    (BTW Father, AFAIK Orthodox remarriage requires a formal annulment sine qua non)

  2. dholwell says:

    I have no idea what the correct answer is to the question posed, but I love the richness of canon law as it deals with all the inventive ways humans behave.

  3. Nan says:

    My understanding is that the Orthodox have no canonical annulment process but speak to Father, who determines eligibility for remarriage and that a person may twice divorce and remarry if there’s good reason to divorce. Orthodox only recognize Orthodox marriage, thus the need to marry in the Greek Church. I don’t think conversion is a requirement but is highly recommended.

    The Greek Church won’t have cared about the Catholic canonical requirements.

  4. Matt R says:

    Father Ferguson explained it quite lucidly, but I have one question in several parts. Does the requirement for canonical form stipulated by Trent also apply to Eastern Catholics? I know that the Byzantine tradition requires a priest for the blessing, but only canon law requires the church’s form for validity as we currently understand it. Must a priest officiate at the marriage a Latin Catholic & an Eastern Catholic?

    The second part is thus: Fr. Ferguson says, “but unless that first marriage lacked Orthodox canonical form…she wasn’t free to marry.” Why would an Orthodox Christian be subject to the requirements of canonical form, notwithstanding the requirements of the priest in the Byzantine rite?

    That leads to a rabbit hole wherein one finds that canonical form makes things complicated and that the couple being the minister of the sacrament and the role of the priest in the West is more complicated… a French Dominican is writing on this topic, actually.

  5. Matt R says:

    The bishop also has a say in the matter.

  6. William Tighe says:

    “(BTW Father, AFAIK Orthodox remarriage requires a formal annulment sine qua non)”

    The Orthodox claim to reject the very concept of annulment; rather, what they require is what sometimes they themselves term “a church divorce.” The one thing necessary for ths is a notice from their bishop stating that the previous marriage has been dissolved and that the parties or a party to it are free to remarry. In some Orthodox jurisdictions there are certain specified reasons (or “offenses”) necessary to procure such a “church divorce” (it can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction) while in others it seems to rest entirely on the judgment and decision of the bishop.

  7. anilwang says:

    Canon 95 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council which is recognized by the Orthodox states that Nestorians only need a confession of faith and confession to be received into the Catholic/Orthodox Church.

    Given that no council has condemned the Catholic Church as heretical, much declared that Catholicism is worse than the Nestorian heresy, it’s clear that the chrismation of your brother, by the ecumenical council canons of the Orthodox Church itself is wrong and is a sign that the particular patriarchate that your brother has entered into is anti-Catholic.

    He really needs to be careful, especially when the children are educated in the faith. He might be forced to bad mouth both the Catholic faith and his family. It may not bother him now since he’s in the honeymoon phase, but it will eventually be burden to him and be a source of confusion in their children.

    My own suggestion is, that he needs to get his wife’s annulment so that your brother can be sure he really is married. If possible and try to convince her to attend an Eastern Catholic parish. Eastern Catholics have the same liturgy and honor both their Orthodox and Catholic roots so raising children in those Eastern Catholic parish. It’s possible for him to formally change Rites if one wishes, and I believe all she needs to do is have a profession of faith.

    Alternately, if she refuses to become Eastern Catholic, he can formally change his Rite to that of the Armenian Catholics and she can become Armenian Orthodox. There is intercommunion between these Churches, so it is possible for both of them to fulfill their obligations without repudiating their faiths or confusing their children.

    In any case, he needs to resolve the issue. A marriage based on repudiating a core aspect of who you are is a marriage built on shaky ground.

  8. JabbaPapa says:

    I see, Mr. Tighe — sort of like the Kasper “solution” then ?

  9. Regardless of defection, is it still the sin of apostasy to leave the Catholic Church? Can return be through ordinary confession? And what if children are baptized in the Orthodox Church and never confirmed in the Catholic Church? It seems to be difficult to get any sort of answers to these questions beyond bland assurances that “everything’s cool, don’t worry about it.”

  10. JabbaPapa says:

    The following is found in Dignitas Connubii —

    Given that the Church accepts as authentic only those declarations of nullity that are issued by an ecclesiastical tribunal of the Catholic Church, should other tribunals or institutions declare the invalidity of a marriage the Church would not recognize the substantive outcome of that decision. This holds not only for Catholics who approach a tribunal, but also for those subject to other non-Catholic jurisdictions, secular and religious, from which a declaration of nullity might have been obtained. The declaration issued by an illegitimate forum would be without effect for the purposes of establishing the freedom of the spouses to exchange consent. The cause would have to be submitted anew to a legitimate ecclesiastical tribunal for consideration.

  11. Fr. Timothy Ferguson says:

    It would be imprecise to say that the Orthodox reject the concept of annulment – I have personally seen annulment decrees signed by the Patriarch of Constantinople. It also gets on dangerous ground to even say “The Orthodox teach X…” Within the Orthodox communion – even within specific Orthodox Churches themselves, there is a wide range of canonical practice and theory.

    In general, the Orthodox do not see the necessity of annulment before remarriage. A second marriage can be obtained after a divorce under certain circumstances, but the Orthodox also do not consider a second marriage to be sacramental. Even if the first spouse dies, a second marriage is not considered (by most jurisdictions) to have the sacramental character.

  12. Fr. Timothy Ferguson says:

    In reply to Matt R’s questions:

    Eastern Catholics are bound to observe the canonical form required by their Church sui iuris – which is similar to the Orthodox form in that it requires the blessing of a priest (only in exceptional circumstances, with the permission of the Pope or the Patriarch, could an Eastern Catholic be married before a deacon, CCEO c. 835). If an Eastern Catholic married a Latin Catholic, the marriage can take place in the Latin Church, but the officiant must be a priest.

    the Orthodox are obliged to observe Orthodox canonical form because their Church requires it, and the Catholic Church recognizes their ability to bind their faithful legislatively.

  13. Fr. Timothy Ferguson says:

    St. Corbinian’s Bear –

    The Catechism and the Code of Canon Law define apostasy as “the total repudiation of the Christian faith,” so a Catholic who starts attending the Orthodox Church, or even one of the Protestant ecclesial communions, would not necessarily be committing the sin of apostasy. He or she would be committing the sin of schism – the post-baptismal refusal to be subject to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him. He or she would also likely be committing the sin of heresy, the “obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith.”

    (See canon 751, or CCC paragraph 2089)

    Depending on how public the act of heresy, apostasy, or schism is, the person would need to have an excommunication lifted. This may be able to be handled in the confessional, again, depending on how public the act is and whether an excommunication was declared or not.

    If there are children born to this union and they are baptized (and chrismated – normally Confirmation is given at the same time in the Orthodox Church, and, since it is given validly in that Church, it cannot be later repeated in the Catholic Church) in the Orthodox Church, then those children are considered Orthodox. If they later wish to become Catholic, they would need to do so by making a profession of faith.

  14. Matt R says:

    Whereas there is no such requirement for a Protestant. It’s ecclesiological, then. Thanks.

    I wonder how canonical form influences the Eastern view of marriage; it has really altered in the West due to the requirement, even as it reinforces the importance of being married in the church.

  15. Nan says:

    Matt R, the East and West have different thought processes entirely. A lot of Eastern Catholics are raised in the Latin Rite and have no idea it isn’t their canonical rite. In my diocese, contra canon law, Eastern Catholics are told they can’t change their rite. Latin Catholics are allowed to.

  16. William Tighe says:

    Anilwang’s comment above is correct in general, but one has to note that when representatives of the four Eastern Patriarchs met in Constantinople in 1484 to repudiate the Council of Florence and its Union decree of 1439, they also decreed that Catholics (“Latins”) wishing to enter the Orthodox Church were to be received by repudiation of their errors (notably, the Filioque), confession, and chrismation. In Russia, by contrast, from at least the 15th Century all non-Orthodox Christians were received into the Orthodox Church by (re)baptism, pure and simple, the idea being that all non-Orthodox baptisms were ipso facto invalid. Under Peter the Great (d. 1725) the Russian Church adopted the practice of reception by repudiation of their errors (notably, the Filioque, but also papal supremacy), confession, and chrismation. However, in 1751, Constantinople itself switched to requiring rebaptism, partly in response to half of the faithful and bishops of the Patriarchate of Antioch coming into union with Rome in the 1720s – a practice which Constantinople ended, returning to its previous practice, only in the 1960s. However, there are hard-line Orthodox, both Greeks and Russians (they are particularly strong in Greece) who insist that Catholics ought to be rebaptized, both to underline the belief that sacramental grace does not exist, and cannot be conferred, outside the visible boundaries of the (Orthodox) Church, and that the Catholic Church is, in their view, no more a church than the Baptist Church or the Unitarian Church. Such “hard-line” Orthodox commonly accuse those Orthodox who take a more lenient view on these matters as having fallen into the “pan-heresy of ecumenism.”

  17. AnthonyJ says:

    It would be a schismatic act to leave the Catholic Church for the Orthodox. Apostasy is when one who is Christian denies the Divinity of Christ. If a Catholic left the Church to become Jewish or Muslim, that would be apostasy.

  18. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Lord knows Fr. Ferguson is one of the sharpest canonists around and I regularly take his analysis of tough issues as definitive. But, as Fr. Tim said above, this whole area is hotly contested, and I’m happy to contest at least parts of his position. Sadly, tho, not here, and not now (although I think we will come out with the same bottom-line answer on this one). Just one thought: I dispute the maxim Semel Catholicus semper Catholicus. I think this error has arisen from a misunderstanding of the undoubtedly true maxim Semel baptizatus semper baptizatus. Those are different statements! Consider (and this is not my main argument, but consider), if no one CAN leave the Catholic Church, then there IS NO ORTHODOX CHURCH, or Lutheran communion, or Methodist congregation, etc., etc., for a wayward Catholic to join, and the question that Frs. Z and Tim were asked CANNOT exist.

  19. The Masked Chicken says:

    Forgive me, if the status of current marriage law/practice makes my head hurt.

    On top of the whole annulment matter from a Canonical standpoint, there is, from what I understand, the whole, internal forum initiative presented in, Amoris laetitia, where some clergy, basically, pronounce permission to receive the Eucharist for divorced/remarried people, which is tantamount to declaring a marriage, de facto, annulled without a declaration. Now, if such an internal forum solution suffices for reception of one sacrament – the Eucharist, why can’t some priest claim that it suffices for remarriage, without an actual declaration, based simply on a private meeting with the spouse?

    Suppose a Catholic man wanted to marry a divorced but not yet annulled Protestant woman. Could a priest, invoking the internal forum, tell the man to proceed based on the priest’s certainty that an anullment would be granted? I mean, doesn’t this internal forum mess apply to any sacrament touching marriage, in theory? I’ll bet it doesn’t, but it surely can confuse the faithful to the point where even if the man in this post had stayed in the Church, he might, still, think he could get married to the woman without a Tribunal decree based on the internal forum.

    I always thought that without a declaration of nullity, one were forbidden to marry a civilly divorced person in the Church, if the divorced person were, originally, in a presumptively valid sacramental marriage (say, between two Protestants) – that a purely internal forum, private judgment, did not suffice – although it seems like that is sort of what the Orthodox do.

    Can anyone provide clarification?

    As for, “Semel Catholicus semper Catholicus,” at exactly the moment of baptism, one must become Catholic, because there is no other form of valid baptism. If it were, then, impossible to formally defect from the Church, then it must logically follow that all such validly baptized people are, in fact, still Catholic, whether they want to claim themselves something else, or not. Such is the logic of absolutes. Therefore, either Protestants are really Catholics who refuse to acknowledge the fact, or there must be a way to defect from the Church.

    What I can’t see is separating baptism from Catholicism, however. Perhaps, my ecclesiology is weak, however.

    The Chicken

  20. CatholicMD says:

    I don’t know Father. These sure sound like small minded rules. Not very merciful.

  21. JabbaPapa says:

    As for, “Semel Catholicus semper Catholicus,” at exactly the moment of baptism, one must become Catholic, because there is no other form of valid baptism. If it were, then, impossible to formally defect from the Church, then it must logically follow that all such validly baptized people are, in fact, still Catholic, whether they want to claim themselves something else, or not. Such is the logic of absolutes. Therefore, either Protestants are really Catholics who refuse to acknowledge the fact, or there must be a way to defect from the Church.

    What I can’t see is separating baptism from Catholicism, however. Perhaps, my ecclesiology is weak, however.

    “Semel Catholicus semper Catholicus” is absolutely true in what is still technically the ordinary Baptism, which is the adult one.

    Though, again, here the Orthodox and Catholic theology differ on the question of infant Baptism …

    Infant Baptism began very early in History, but it had its origins as a form of emergency Baptism, as infant mortality was extremely elevated by today’s standards. Because the Baptism is received prior to the age of reason though, there is a “conditional” element — NOT in the Graces which are most certainly granted, including the remission from all Sin including the Original — which manifests in our times in the promise that the parents and godparents make to raise the child in Catholic Faith ; without such a promise, such a condition, no Baptism is possible except for an actual Emergency one. This is the origin of the Sacrament of Confirmation — which provides the fullness of the Graces of Baptism when the age of reason is attained, or is provided automatically to the adult Baptised, often in the very same Mass as that of their Baptism.

    So you see, defection is only possible, in cases for example where the promises of Baptism were either false or unfulfilled or outright denied during the person’s childhood, and if the person has never received the Sacrament of Confirmation, and provided the person was not Baptised as an adult.

    Baptism, even infant Baptism, requires the condition of deliberate and willful acceptance of Catholic Religion, Faith in God, in His Trinity, and Saints and Angels, of the Credo, and implicitly at the very least of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and all that it teaches. The Catholic duty to provide the infant Baptised with all these great treasures insofar as we can, and to pray for the bestowal of Graces that are beyond our abilities is a requirement of the baptismal initiation – received after Baptism by infants, and before Baptism by adults.

    Defects in these initiatory requirements are formal defects in the bestowal of the Sacrament.

  22. The Masked Chicken says:

    Dear JabbaPapa,

    You wrote:

    “Baptism, even infant Baptism, requires the condition of deliberate and willful acceptance of Catholic Religion, Faith in God, in His Trinity, and Saints and Angels, of the Credo, and implicitly at the very least of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and all that it teaches.”

    I do not think that this is completely correct, since Protestants do not deliberately and willfully accept all of the aspects of the Catholic Faith, but their baptisms are valid. They are valid because they intend to do what the Church intends to do by the sacramental rite, which, unbeknownst to them, undercuts their non-acceptance of certain Catholic teachings. It is as if, during the rite, they accept what the rite does, even if they don’t understand that this may not be what they think they actually believe (during the baptism, they accept the Church’s teaching on baptism). If they did not intend to do what the Church intends by the sacrament because of some theological disagreement, then the baptism would not be a Catholic baptism, because the connection to the Church’s understanding of the sacrament would be explicitly rejected and this would, also, make the baptism, invalid.

    There is no such thing as a conditional baptism where there has not been a previous attempt, since, otherwise, it would be unclear whether or not the indelible mark on the soul had been given. One does not wait until adult acceptance of the baptismal promise to receive that mark and that mark is the sign of baptism. One can, of course, deny the graces of baptism and go to Hell as a result. The denial is made through adult decisions.

    Also, the triple poring of water over the head of a baby was from the emergency ritual, but actual infant baptism, through immersion, probably goes back to Biblical times.

    You, also, wrote:

    “This is the origin of the Sacrament of Confirmation — which provides the fullness of the Graces of Baptism when the age of reason is attained, or is provided automatically to the adult Baptised, often in the very same Mass as that of their Baptism.”

    The fullness of Baptismal Graces is given at (the infused virtues). Confirmation is a strengthening of the person to better cooperate with the graces. This was the mistake that Kilian McDonnell and George Montague made in their book, Fanning the Flame: What Does Baptism in the Holy Spirit Have to Do with Christian Initiation, which many charismatics like to quote from. They link the baptism in the Holy Spirit with an increase in the graces of baptism given at confirmation (which they take to be the same in-filling of the Holy Spirit that occurred when hands were placed on people in the Bible – it is not, but such a discussion is beyond this comment), but this is totally unsupported, historically. They make several very weak arguments from out-of-context historical sources to prove their point, but a broad reading of the Church Fathers shows that Confirmation is a strengthening sacrament.

    Suppose one has a 1.5 volt battery connected to a small light bulb by thin wires. The thin wires are given at baptism. They are enough to carry the voltage, but not really very strong. At confirmation, those thin wires are replaced with thicker wires, so that if resistance is applied to the circuit (from persecution, for example), the wires will be able to carry the extra current without disintegrating.

    At least, such is my understanding of the sacraments. Of course, I stand to be corrected by those more knowledgeable than I.

    The Chicken

  23. JabbaPapa says:

    I do not think that this is completely correct, since Protestants do not deliberately and willfully accept all of the aspects of the Catholic Faith, but their baptisms are valid

    True — but remember, the fullness of the Baptismal Graces is granted only in adult Baptism or in Catholic Confirmation ; and BTW haven’t you just argued against the suggestion that Baptism is sufficient to make one Catholic, given that Baptism is validly given by Protestants ?

    The fullness of Baptismal Graces is given at (the infused virtues)

    I spoke of the historical origin of Confirmation, not of its nature or essence, to help illustrate my points about Baptism.

    There is no such thing as a conditional baptism where there has not been a previous attempt

    I deliberately made sure to spell out as plainly as possible that the particular Graces of Baptism are granted by the Sacrament even in the most otherwise defective cases.

    You have mistaken what I intended in my use of the word “conditional” — there are conditions wherein a Minister of Baptism is prevented from providing the Sacrament.

    If the person being baptized is under 7 years old, she doesn’t have to take catechism classes (classes that teach what the Roman Catholic church believes). However, parents and godparents are required to take instruction, as are individuals being baptized who are more than 7 years old. If the parents and godparents already are practicing Catholics who have been baptized and who have had communion, then the instruction may be limited to baptismal responsibilities and beliefs only and is very brief (usually only a few hours). If the parents and godparents are not Catholic, they must take regular catechism courses over several months to become members of the Catholic church (not registered with the individual parish). This is because the parents and godparents act as sponsors for the person to be baptized and are expected to guide the baptized person in the Catholic tradition and faith. You usually don’t have to attend this instruction if you’ve done it recently (within the past three years). If you wish a non-Catholic who hasn’t received instruction to stand up with you at a baptism, you may, but they’ll be witnesses only. At least one godparent must be Catholic.

    I wasn’t talking about “conditional Baptism”, I was talking about the conditions required for Baptism to be possible.

  24. William Tighe, Is there a confusion with the term ‘rebaptise’ and ‘conditional baptism’?
    I found your use of the term ‘rebaptize’ and the historical sequence interesting. Is the understanding of ‘rebaptize’ incorrect? Perhaps what is meant is ‘conditional baptism’ which the Church has always practiced – and others may copy. [Yes I know that some churches call it rebaptism because no other baptism is recognized, such as the Mormons.]

    The Church used to conditionally baptize incoming converts up until the 1960s. If the form or matter was incorrect, it would be proved that a baptism did not occur. Intention to ‘intend as the Church intends’ cannot usually be proved, and is intrinsic to baptism. As we know, Catholic baptism is the only real baptism – if a real baptism is done by a non-Catholic, that baptism ‘takes’ only because the baptizer gives a Catholic baptism.
    Therefore the Church would always baptize conditionally, just in case. This was not to say that a baptism done by a non-Catholic could never be effective, but to say just in likely case that something was done incorrectly, the Church would baptize ‘on the condition that you are not baptized’. Afterall, baptism is crucial – the Church in its mercy wants to ensure that baptism is really done.

    As an example, I found a late 1800s catechism written for Protestant converts in England, describing in great detail how a Catholic priest would proceed with a conditional baptism as they are received into the Church. This was really the case.

  25. Michael_Thoma says:

    Mentioning confirmation (chrismation) is further muddying the waters (of baptism), since Eastern Catholics, Orthodox, and early on Latin Rite Catholics all confirmed/chrismated immediately after baptism, as Easterners continue to do. In fact, the East chrismates and immediately gives the Holy Eucharist to the child (Precious blood).

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