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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > A > Apostasy


(apo, from, and stasis, station, standing, or position).

The word itself in its etymological sense, signifies the desertion of a post, the giving up of a state of life; he who voluntarily embraces a definite state of life cannot leave it, therefore, without becoming an apostate. Most authors, however, distinguish with Benedict XIV (De Synodo di£cesanâ, XIII, xi, 9), between three kinds of apostasy: apostasy a Fide or perfidi£, when a Christian gives up his faith; apostasy ab ordine, when a cleric abandons the ecclesiastical state; apostasy a religione, or monachatus, when a religious leaves the religious life. The Gloss on title 9 of the fifth book of the Decretals of Gregory IX mentions two other kinds of apostasy: apostasy inobedientiæ, disobedience to a command given by lawful authority, and iteratio baptismatis, the repetition of baptism, "quoniam reiterantes baptismum videntur apostatare dum recedunt a priori baptismate". As all sin involves disobedience, the apostasy inobedientiæ does not constitute a specific offense. In the case of iteratio baptismatis, the offence falls rather under the head of heresy and irregularity than of apostasy; if the latter name has sometimes been given to it, it is due to the fact that the Decretals of Gregory IX combine into one title, under the rubric "De apostatis et reiterantibus baptisma" (V, title 9) the two distinct titles of the Justinian Code: "Ne sanctum baptisma iteretur" and "De apostatis" (I, titles 6, 7), in Corpus juris civilis ed. Krueger, (Berlin, 1888); II 60-61. See München "Das kanonische Gerichtsverfahren und Strafrecht" (Cologne, 1874), II, 362, 363. Apostasy, in its strictest sense, means apostasy a Fide (St. Thomas, Summa theologica, II-II, Q. xii a. 1).

Apostasy a fide, or perfidiæ

Perfidiæ is the complete and voluntary abandonment of the Christian religion, whether the apostate embraces another religion such as Paganism, Judaism, Mohammedanism, etc., or merely makes profession of Naturalism, Rationalism, etc. The heretic differs from the apostate in that he only denies one or more of the doctrines of revealed religion, whereas the apostate denies the religion itself, a sin which has always been looked upon as one of the most grievous. The "Shepherd" of Hermas, a work written in Rome in the middle of the second century, states positively that there is no forgiveness for those who have wilfully denied the Lord. [Similit. ix. 26, 5; Funk, Opera Patrum apostolicorum (Tübingen, 1887), I, 547]. Apostasy belonged, therefore, to the class of sins for which the Church imposed perpetual penance and excommunication without hope of pardon, leaving the forgiveness of the sin to God alone. After the Decian persecution (249, 250), however, the great numbers of Lapsi and Libellatici, and the claims of the Martyres or Confessores, who assumed the right of remitting the sin of apostasy by giving the Lapsi a letter of communion, led to a relaxation of the rigour of ecclesiastical discipline. St. Cyprian and the Council of the African Church which met at Carthage in 251 admitted the principle of the Church's right to remit the sin of apostasy, even before the hour of death. Pope Cornelius and the council which he held at Rome confirmed the decisions of the Synod of Carthage, and the discipline of forgiveness was gradually introduced into all the Churches. [Epistolæ S. Cypriani, 55 et 68; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum (Vienna, 1871), III, ii, ed. Hartel, 624, 666; Eusebius, Church History, VI, xliii, 1, 2]. Nevertheless, the Council of Elvira, held in Spain about the year 300, still refused forgiveness to apostates. [Harduin, Acta Conciliorum (Paris, 1715), I,ú Funk, Kirchen-geschichtliche Abhandlungen und Untersuchungen (Paderborn, 1897), I, 155-181; Batiffol, Etudes d'histoire et de théologie positive (Paris, 1902) 1st series, 111-144]. When the Roman Empire became Christian, apostates were punished by deprivation of all civil rights. They could not give evidence in a court of law, and could neither bequeath nor inherit property. To induce anyone to apostatize was an offence punishable with death [Theodosian Code, XVI, title 7, De apostatis; title 8, De Judæis; "Corpus juris romani ante-Justinianæi" (Bonn, 1840), 1521 - 1607; Code of Justinian I, title 7, De apostatis l. c. 60, 61]. In the Middle Ages, both civil and canon law classed apostates with heretics; so much so that title 9 of the fifth book of the Decretals of Gregory IX, which treats of apostasy, contains only a secondary provision concerning apostasy a Fide [iv, Friedberg, Corpus juris canonici (Leipzig, 1879-81), II, 790-792]. Boniface VIII however, by a provision which was amended in the sixth book of the Decretals [V, title 2, De h£reticis, 13 (Friedberg, II, 1075)], merely classes apostates with heretics in respect of the penalties which they incur. This decretal, which only mentions apostate Jews by name, was applied indifferently to all. The Inquisition could therefore proceed against them. The Spanish Inquisition was directed, at the end of the fifteenth century, chiefly against apostates, the Maranos, or new Christians, Jews converted by force rather than by conviction; while in 1609 it dealt severely with the Moriscos, or professedly-converted Moors of Spain.

Today the temporal penalties formerly inflicted on apostates and heretics cannot be enforced, and have fallen into abeyance. The spiritual penalties are the same as those which apply to heretics. In order, however, to incur these penalties, it is necessary, in accordance with the general principles of canon law, that the apostasy should be shown in some way. Apostates, with all who receive, protect, or befriend them, incur excommunication, reserved speciali modo to the Sovereign Pontiff (Constitution Apostolicæ Sedis, 1). They incur, moreover, the note of "infamy", at least when their apostasy is notorious, and are "irregular"; an infamy and an irregularity which extend to the son and the grandson of an apostate father, and to the son of an apostate mother, should the parents die without being reconciled to the Church [Decree of Gratian, Distinction L, xxxii; V, tit. 2, ii, xv of the sixth book of the Decretals (Friedberg, I, 191, II, 1069 and 1075)]. Most authors, however, are of opinion that the irregularity affects only the children of parents who have joined some particular sect, or who have been personally condemned by ecclesiastical authority [Gasparri, De sacrâ ordinatione (Paris, 1893), II, 288 and 294; Lehmkuhl, Theologia moralis (Freiburg im Br., 1898), II, 725; Wernz, Jus decretalium (Rome, 1899), II, 200; Hollweck, Die kirchlichen Strafgesetze (Mainz, 1899), 162]. Apostates are debarred from ecclesiastical burial (Decretals of Gregory IX, Bk. V, title 7, viii, Friedberg, II, 779). Any writings of theirs, in which they uphold heresy and schism, or labour to undermine the foundations of faith, are on the Index, and those who read them incur the excommunication reserved, speciali modo to the Sovereign Pontiff [Constitution of Leo XIII, Officiorum et munerum, 25 January, 1897, i, v; Vermeersch, De prohibitione et censurâ librorum (Rome, 1901), 3d ed., 57, 112]. Apostasy constitutes an impediment to marriage, and the apostasy of husband or wife is a sufficient reason for separation a thoro et cohabitatione, which, according to many authorities, the ecclesiastical tribunal may make perpetual [Decretals of Gregory IX, IV, title 19, vi; (Friedberg, II, p. 722) ]. Others, however, maintain that this separation cannot be perpetual unless the innocent party embraces the religious state [Decretals of Gregory IX, ibidem, vii (Friedberg, II 722). See Gasparri, "Tractatus canonicus de matrimonio" (Paris, 1891), II, 283; De Becker, "De matrimonio" (Louvain, 1903), 2d ed., 424]. In the case of clerics, apostasy involves the loss of all dignities, offices, and benefices, and even of all clerical privileges (Decretals of Gregory IX. V, title 7, ix, xiii. See Hollweck, 163, 164).

Apostasy ab ordine

This, according to the present discipline of the Church, is the abandonment of the clerical dress and state by clerics who have received major orders. Such, at least, is the definition given of it by most authorities. The ancient discipline of the Church, though it did not forbid the marriage of clerics, did not allow them to abandon the ecclesiastical state of their own will, even if they had only received minor orders. The Council of Chalcedon threatens with excommunication all deserting clerics without distinction (Hardouin II, 603). This discipline, often infringed indeed, endured throughout a great part of the Middle Ages. Pope Leo IX decreed, at the Council of Reims (1049): "Ne quis monachus vel clericus a suo gradu apostataret", all monks and clerks are forbidden to abandon their state (Hardouin VI, 1007). The Decretals of Gregory IX, published in 1234, preserve traces of the older discipline under the title De apostatis, which forbids all clerks, without distinction, to abandon their state [V, title 9, i, iii (Friedberg, II, 790-791) ]. Innocent III had however, at an earlier date, given permission to clerks in minor orders to quit the ecclesiastical state of their own will (Decretals of Gregory IX, III, title 3, vii; see also x, Friedberg, II, 458-460). The Council of Trent did not restore the ancient discipline of the Church, but deemed it sufficient to command the bishops to exercise great prudence in bestowing the tonsure, and only laid the obligations involved in the clerical state on clerks who have received major orders and on those who enjoy an ecclesiastical benefice (Session XXIII, De Reformatione, iv, vi). Whence it follows that all other clerks can quit their state, but, by the very fact of doing so, lose all the privileges of the clergy. Even the clerk in minor orders who enjoys an ecclesiastical benefice, should he wish to be laicized, loses his benefice by the very fact of his laicization, a loss which is to be regarded not as the penalty, but as the consequence, of his having abandoned the ecclesiastical state. These considerations suffice, it would seem, to refute the opinion maintained by some writers [Hinschius, System des Katholischen Kirchenrechts (Berlin, 1895), V, 905], who think that a clerk in minor orders can, even at the present day, be an apostate ab ordine. This opinion is rejected, among others, by Scherer, [Handbuch des Kirchenrechtes (Gratz, 1886), I, 313; Wernz, II, 338, note 24; Hollweck, 299].

Today, after three ineffectual notices, the apostate clerk loses, ipso facto, the privileges of clergy [Decretals of Gregory IX, V, title 9, i; title 39, xxiii, xxv (Friedberg, II, 790 and 897)]. By the very fact of apostasy he incurs infamy, which, however is only an infamy of fact, not one of law imposed by canonical legislation. Infamy involves irregularity, and is an offense punishable by the loss of ecclesiastical benefices. Finally, should the apostate persist in his apostasy, the bishop may excommunicate him [Constit. of Benedict XIII, Apostolicæ ecclesiæ regimine, 2 May, 1725, in Bullarum amplissima collectio (Rome, 1736), XI, ii, 400].

Apostasy a religione, or monachatus

Monachatus is the culpable departure of a religious from his monastery with the intention of not returning to it and of withdrawing himself from the obligations of the religious life. A monk, therefore, who leaves his monastery with the intention of returning is not an apostate, but a runaway, and so is the one who leaves it intending to enter another religious order. The monks and hermits of the early Church made no vow always continuing to live the ascetic life upon which they had entered. The rule of St. Pachomius, the father of the c£nobitical life, allowed the religious to leave his monastery [Ladenze, Histoire du cénobitisme pakhomien (Louvain, 1898), 285]. But from the fourth century onwards the religious state became perpetual, and in 385 Pope Siricius, in his letter to Himerius, expresses indignation against religious men or women who were unfaithful to their propositum sanctitatis (Hardouin I, 848, 849). The Council of Chalcedon decreed that the religious who desired to return to the world should be excommunicated, and the Second Council of Arles called him an apostate (Hardouin II, 602, 603, 775). Throughout the Middle Ages numerous councils and papal decretals insisted on this perpetuity of the religious life, of which Peter Damian was one of the great champions (Migne, P.L., CXLV, 674-678). Paul IV, at the time of the Council of Trent, instituted very strict legislation against apostates by his Bull Postquam., dated 20 July, 1558. These provisions were, however, recalled, two years later, by Pius IV, in the Constitution, Sedis apostolicæ, of 3 April, 1560 (Bullarum amplissima collectio [Rome, 1745], IV, i, 343, and IV, ii, 10).

As the law stands today, the canonical penalties are inflected only upon apostates in the strict sense, that is, those professed with solemn vows, with whom Jesuit scholastics are classed by privilege. Religious belonging to congregations with only simple vows, therefore, and those with simple vows in orders which also take solemn vows, do not incur these penalties. 1. Apostasy is a grave sin, the absolution of which the superior may reserve to himself [Decree "Sanctissimus" of Clement VIII, 26 May, 1593, "Bullarum ampl. Collectio" (Rome, 1756), V, v, 254]. 2. The religious is suspended from the exercise of all orders which he may have received during the period of his apostasy, nor is this penalty removed by his return to his monastery [Decretals of Gregory IX, V, title 9, vi (Friedberg, II, 792)]. 3. He is bound by all the obligations laid on him by his vows and the constitutions of his order, but if he has laid aside the religious habit, and if a judicial sentence has pronounced his deposition, he loses all the privileges of his order, in particular that of exemption from the jurisdiction of the ordinary and the right of being supported at the expense of his community (Council of Trent, Session XXV, de regularibus, xix). 4. The fact of laving aside the religious habit involves the penalty of excommunication [III tit. 24, ii, of the sixth book of Decretals (Friedberg II, 1065)]. 5. In several religious orders apostates incur the penalty of excommunication, even when they have not laid aside the religious habit, in virtue of special privileges granted to the order. 6. The apostate is bound to return to his monastery as soon as possible, and the Council of Trent enjoins bishops to punish religious who shall have left their monasteries without the permission of their superiors, as deserters (Session XXV, de regularibus, iv). Moreover, the bishop is bound to take possession of the person of the apostate monk and to send him back to his superior [Decree of the Congregation of the Council, 21 September, 1624, in "Bullarum amplissima collectio" (Rome, 1756), V, v, 248]. In the case of an apostate nun who leaves a convent enjoying pontifical cloister, she incurs the excommunication reserved simpliciter to the Sovereign Pontiff [Constitution Apostolicæ Sedis, 6. See Vermeersch, "De religiosis institutis et personis" (Rome, 1902), I, 200; Hollweck, 299; Scherer, II, 838. See also HERESY, IRREGULARITY, CLERIC, RELIGIOUS ORDERS].


In addition to the works already referred to, the older canonists may be consulted, especially SCHMALZGRÜBER and REIFFENSTUEL, who in their commentaries follow the order of the Decretals, at Book V, title 9. As modern canonists no longer treat of apostasy under a special heading, they must be consulted where they refer to ordinations and irregularities, the duties of the clerical state, the obligations of religious offenses and penalties, and, chiefly, when they write concerning heresy. See also FERRARIS, Bibliotheca Canonica (Rome, 1889), s.v. Apostasia, BEUGNET, in Dict. de théol. cath (Paris, 1901), AMTHOR, De Apostasia Liber Singularis (Coburg, 1833), FEJÉR, Jus Ecclesiæ Catholicæ adversus Apostatas (Pesth, 1847); SCHMIDT, Der Austritt aus der Kirche (Leipzig, 1893); SCOTUS PLACENTINUS, De Obligatione Regularis extra regularem domum commorantis, de Apostatis et Fugitivis (Cologne, 1647); THOMASIUS, De Desertione Ordinis Ecclesiastici (Halle, 1707), SCHMID, Apostasia vom Ordenstande (Studien und Mittheilungen aus dem Benediktiner und dem Cistercienser Orden (1886, VII, 29-42).

About this page

APA citation. Van Hove, A. (1907). Apostasy. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Van Hove, Alphonse. "Apostasy." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Vernon Bremberg. Dedicated to the Cloistered Dominican Nuns of the Monastery of the Infant Jesus, Lufkin, Texas.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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