The (officially) lapsed Catholics

Wed, Nov 18, 2009, 00:00

Thanks to a website, it has never been easier to defect from the Catholic church, and people are beginning to take up the option. Some of those who have opted out speak to KATE HOLMQUIST

FOR ORLAITH FINNEGAN, a 29-year-old atheist from Cork, defecting from the Catholic church took only a week. She used the website Countmeout.ie to apply and sent her letter on August 25th to the Cork diocese, providing the parish and year of her baptism, and received confirmation of her defection on August 31st. A note was made on her baptismal record stating that she had officially left the church.

“That was very fast when you think of how they used bureaucracy to explain the length of time it took them to respond to the child-abuse scandals,” she says.

When her family heard the news, one of her sisters feared that Orlaith would no longer be considered godmother to her child, while another sister feared Orlaith would be barred from her new baby’s baptism. “I told them that the defection is symbolic. Of course I will continue to be godmother and I will be at the next Christening – I won’t be standing outside the church or going up in a puff of smoke,” she says.

Defecting has given her “a feeling of satisfaction”. She was “disgusted” by the church’s response to the Ryan report. “I have a feeling of having asserted my own voice in my own way.” When she posted on Twitter that she had defected, some friends said they would do the same only for the need to remain Catholic and baptise their children to get places in schools. Others said their parents’ hearts would be broken if they found out.

But perhaps devout parents wouldn’t be quite so upset if they knew that officially defecting from the Catholic church does not mean going to hell, and you may even find yourself in an afterlife that encompasses you. “From the perspective of world religions, we are part of a bigger picture . . . I don’t presume to play God. We would not categorise or condemn people. God is so big and so great that it is beyond our capacity to understand,” says Fr Fintan Gavin of the Dublin Archdiocese.

Recently a Chinese woman, one of 32 Irish and “new Irish” who have met with him this year in the process of joining the church, expressed fears that her non-Christian parents back home in China would be condemned to eternal suffering. Fr Gavin replied that the God he knows is more loving than that.

If you change your mind you can reapply with a “profession of faith”. On your deathbed, if you have second thoughts and want the last rites, you will get them. When you die and your family ask for a funeral Mass from a priest who doesn’t know you have defected, since he’d have to look at the records of your original parish to find out, your family’s wishes may prevail. Or if an atheist falls madly in love with a practising Catholic who wants a church wedding and wants your children together to be baptised, you and your partner will be treated in the same way as any “mixed” couple.

So while the word “defection” seems definitive, the church keeps the door open. Once you have been baptised a Catholic, you remain baptised, even if you defect, Fr Gavin explains.

So why bother to defect at all? Since 2006, Catholics have been able to officially “defect”, but numbers in Ireland didn’t rise above a handful every year until Countmeout.ie was launched in August, in reaction to the Ryan report on child abuse within Catholic institutions.

There has been a flurry of defections since, with 72 people defecting in the Dublin diocese and 99 in Dublin in the process of doing so. Additional defectors have applied to other dioceses, but figures for all dioceses combined are not available.

Fr Gavin has met many of the new defectors, most of whom are in the 20-40 age group. “These people are not drifters. They are very conscientious about their lives,” he says. “There are huge implications. People are putting themselves outside a belief system and a community, and there’s a loneliness to this. You are on your own. If you are a lapsed Catholic, there is the security of moving in and out,” he says.

ONE 34-YEAR-OLD defector, an atheist who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of stigma affecting his business, says that his main motivation was that he does not want to be counted as a statistic among the 1.3 billion members that the Catholic church uses to justify its power.

Self-employed musician and atheist defector Dave Flynn (30), from Wexford, says: “It’s something I felt quite strongly about. I don’t consider myself a militant atheist. What I do have a problem with is where religious organisations exert a lot of influence in social and political life. The fact that my baptism meant that I was being counted as a Catholic meant that I was one of those statistics used to maintain that power. I was saying: ‘I don’t want you guys thinking I’m a member of your club’.”

Most of his family are “not very religious” and have been accepting, but “my dad is extremely upset. He is quite devout and he is concerned for my eternal soul. Aside from that, the response has been more: ‘What will the neighbours think? This is not the done thing’.” Flynn has told his family that should he predecease them, there are crematoriums in Dublin and Cork, “but when I’m dead, I’m dead. I’m not going to haunt somebody if they don’t respect my wishes.”

Fr Gavin advises potential defectors who take up the invitation of a meeting to talk to their families about their funeral arrangements. There could be awkward situations where families want a Catholic Mass despite the defector’s wishes, “with a priest stuck in the middle”, he says.

Defector Adam Dinan (20), who is studying microbiology at UCC, says his family baptised him and sent him to Catholic schools due to social convention. “They respect [my decision]. They might think I’m being a bit awkward purely to take a stand.”

His reasons for defecting include the prohibition on contraceptives, which he believes has contributed to the spread of Aids among Catholics in Africa; the condemnation of homosexuality; and the baptism of children at an age when they are not capable of choosing. He has no fear of living the rest of his life outside the “loving community” of the Catholic church, because he sees secular organisations doing good works.

Marriage and children are so far in his future that he hasn’t really thought about the implications, but when he marries, he thinks it couldn’t be to a woman who was devoutly Catholic.

He won’t baptise his children, he says, but will send them to Educate Together schools. As for his funeral arrangements, he doesn’t mind. “I’ll be dead at that stage.”

"The church has been brainwashing me since I was six days old"

Defecting from the Catholic Church was “remarkably simple”, says Jonathan Hession (55) a photographer from Dublin. “I felt there was a weight off my shoulders. I was liberated.” He learned that official defection was possible when he heard about the Countmeout.ie website. “The church has been brainwashing me since I was six days old.”

In primary school, his doubts began “with the nuns describing the heathens in Africa”, and he would ask, “how do you know we are right and they are wrong?” The nuns would reply “because we’re right”, he recalls.

He “deeply resented” and still feels angry about his education in Catholic boarding school from the age of 13, which involved going to Mass in the dark six nights a week and worshipping “plaster saints”. He formed the opinion that “from a religious point of view this is rubbish”. His own experience of living in a Catholic institution did not include abuse, “but I did not like the puerile levels they descended to to look after us. I hated the iconography and saw no sense in worshipping in front of plaster statues.

“The idea of the Holy Eucharist and transubstantiation was illogical rubbish, as was their conceit that they were the only true religion.” He says he would have happily gone on being a lapsed Catholic and that a lot of his friends think he’s “humouring” the church and “giving them credibility” in making the effort to defect, but the publication of the Ryan Report confirmed his desire to take a stand. “I didn’t want to be counted among that number.” He wrote a brief polite letter stating that he did not share the church’s beliefs to the Archbishop, Dr Martin, and the reaction he received was “understanding”. He was offered a meeting to discuss his decision, but felt that “if they did not ask me why I wanted to join them when I was baptised, then I should not have to explain why I wanted to leave”.

He next had to find out where he was baptised and in what year so the church could amend the parish records. He then received a copy of his baptismal certificate stating in the margins, “officially defected from the Church”. Dr Martin wrote a final letter stating: “While I fully respect your decision I am always personally saddened when somebody chooses to leave the Church. It causes us to reflect on the reasons and motivations and to wonder if there is something we as a church can learn from it. If there is anything I can do for you in the future please do not hesitate to contact me.” His wife’s reaction was, “what will I do about the funeral?” Hession has decided he wants a ceremony conducted by the Humanist Association, which he describes as “being nice for the sake of being nice without wanting payback in the next world. Humanism, I think, is a better motivation for moral behaviour.”