EWTN Catholic Q&A
how to leave the church
Question from chuck on 09-25-2004:

I had read your responses concerning an individual leaving the church.

Until your forum opened I had never heard the term "defect" used, growing up in the 70's and 80's I remember the word defect and it meant someone was escaping from the communists.

Now if I understood correctly, if one wishes to formally and properly separate from the catholic church he/she whould send a letter to their bishop.

what should that letter include or what statements should it contain?

I'll assume it would need to be witnessed, would that need to be by a member of the clergy? or need it be a Notary or other civil official competent in swearing oaths or authenticating signatures?

Thanks for all your hard work.

Answer by Rev. Mark J. Gantley, JCL on 09-25-2004:

There is no canonically outlined way of leaving the Catholic Church. The Church recognizes that someone may be guilty of the schism (separation from communion with the Roman Pontiff), heresy (denial of some aspect of the faith), or apostacy (total renunciation of the faith), and it has excommunications that may be imposed in these situations. But even a person excommunicated is still a Catholic, although one not permitted to receive the sacraments or hold an office or fulfill any function in the Church. The goal of the excommunication is to bring a person to repentance, and if a person does repent, then the excommunication must be remitted.

This is distinct from the idea of joining a non-Catholic group. For example, if a Catholic joins a group not in communion with the Pope, such as the SSPX, then they are in schism, as that is NOT a Catholic group, no matter what they might say or think. Such a person might be in schism and might be subject to excommunication.

In terms of the word "defect," it is used in the sense of the leaving or escaping from the Church in canons 171, 194, 316, and 694.1,1, and with regard to marriage in canons 1086.1, 1117, and 1124.

A person who defects from the Church may be guilty of apostasy, heresy, or schism, or some combination of those or something similar. The purpose of canons 171, 194, 316, and 694.1,1 are to prevent people who have defected from the communion of the Catholic Church from serving in ecclesiastical offices or having membership or voting rights in Catholic associations or institutes.

The three canons relating to marriage are meant to allow Catholics who have left the Church by a formal act to marry validly.

However, all that said, just because the Church recognizes people's attempts to defect, it does not mean that the Church considers defectors to be non-Catholics. Perhaps they are not qualified to fill certain Church offices or join certain Catholic groups. Perhaps they are not required to get married in the Catholic Church for their marriage to be valid. But they are still considered Catholics.

This is important for reconciliation. If a person has defect from the Catholic Church and goes over to the practice of another religion, then after a few years realizes that he or she has abandoned the truth faith and wants to return to the Catholic faith, that person does not need to go through the RCIA program to become Catholic again. That person is still Catholic and merely needs to go to confession. (If the person went into formal schism and met the requirements of an excommunication, then maybe he or she would also need to have the excommunication remitted. But remember that even an excommunicated Catholic is still a Catholic, just one not permitted to receive the sacraments, fulfill offices in the Church, or derive other benefits from the Church.)