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Possible apostasy by a cleric: why we have Canon 1364

June 18, 2007

However rarely one hopes such rules will be needed, the 1983 Code of Canon Law makes provision for things like apostasy and schism, loss of ecclesiastical office, and penal procedure precisely because our divinely founded Church is inhabited by people like you and me. In any case, “canonical norms by their very nature are meant to be applied” (John Paul II, Sacrae disciplinae leges, 25) and there’s nothing like a real case to consider how law should illumine life.

According to a statement apparently issued by a Midwestern bishop (you can see it here, but the names are irrelevant), a permanent deacon notified the bishop that he had become a Mormon. The bishop in turn stated that the deacon had, among other things, lost the clerical state. Hmmm. Just like that? I wonder.

Granting the bishop’s document is six months old (perhaps it has been supplemented since), bears no signature (unsigned statements introduce pointless uncertainties), and does not relate some important facts (though several passages praise the work of the deacon), what is contained in the statement provokes questions about the application of canon law in the Church. Here are some that occur to me.

1. Given the determination by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that Mormon baptism is invalid, meaning that Mormons qua Mormons are not Christians, a Catholic who becomes Mormon has, it seems, not simply “left the Catholic Church” (sadly, many people do that), but arguably has apostatized from the Christian Faith (1983 CIC 751). Now, whatever else apostasy might be, it’s a crime under canon law (1983 CIC 1364).

2. There is an automatic penalty for the crime of apostasy: latae sententiae excommunication. Notwithstanding the numerous complications associated with l. s. penalties, the facts alleged in this case might well satisfy the requirements for such a penalty. Oddly, however, excommunication is not even mentioned in the bishop’s statement.

3. Instead, the statement indicates that the deacon has, apparently automatically (judging by the dates therein), lost the clerical state. But has he? What canon of the 1983 Code imposes automatic loss of the clerical state for any offense, apostasy or otherwise?

Besides excommunication, there are other automatic consequences for apostasy, chiefly here, loss of ecclesiastical offices (1983 CIC 194). Thus, if a deacon were, say, a parochial assistant or a member of a parish council, he would lose those offices upon apostasy; but he would not automatically be removed from the clerical state. That penalty (obviously appropriate, and envisioned in c. 1364) needs to be “legitimately” imposed (1983 CIC 18, 194, 221, 290); however, penal dismissal from the clerical state can only be imposed after a formal process, typically a trial (1983 CIC 1314, 1317, 1425).

In short, assuming the facts alleged were and still are accurate, and assuming the deacon has not in the meantime either repented of his decision or petitioned for laicization, then, it seems to me, there’s an excommunicated deacon out there who has not been informed of his status, and a diocese that still has an incardinated cleric on its rolls whom it thought was gone. For obvious pastoral and juridic reasons, neither situation should be allowed to drag on.

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Some other thoughts: (a) the bishop’s statement does, I think, effectively remove the deacon from active ministry while his status is addressed, but that fact would be clearer if the document had been worded differently from the outset; (b) one must wonder how the recent, and I think problematic, official intepretation accorded the notion of “formal defection from the Catholic Church” should be applied to a case like this; (c) An excellent book, When Mormons Call, written by a former Catholic priest (since reconciled), might be of interest to this deacon.

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