Thou shalt not defect: baptism is forever

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CountMeOut was caught out this week amid uncertainty about whether Catholics can still defect from their church, writes KITTY HOLLAND

IT IS NO LONGER possible, it would seem, to leave the Catholic Church. Although the church in Ireland has been accepting applications to defect, many on foot of applications printed from the user-friendly CountMeOut website, it said on Tuesday that it would no longer process them. The website, which has helped disillusioned Catholics leave, has suspended offering the defection papers “until the situation has been clarified”.

In a somewhat ambiguously worded statement the Dublin archdiocese set out the situation for all dioceses: “The Holy See confirmed at the end of August that it was introducing changes to canon law and as a result it will no longer be possible to formally defect from the Catholic Church.” But, it continued: “This will not alter the fact that many people can defect from the church and continue to do so, albeit not through a formal process. This is a change that will affect the church throughout the world.”

It said the archdiocese planned to maintain a register “to note the expressed desire of those who wish to defect”. Last year, it said, 229 people had defected formally from the church through the archdiocese; the figure for this year so far is 312.

Among those who wanted to defect this year is Alan Grace, a 25-year-old from Wicklow, who sent his formal application in July. “They had all the paperwork by July 27th. They sent me a letter saying they got it, but they haven’t formally accepted the application. I’d be very angry if I now couldn’t leave.”

The reasons for canon-law changes are set out in Omnium in Mentem, an apostolic letter issued in April. It removes from the code of canon law all references to formal defection that were introduced to it in a 1983 revision. Included in that general revision was a look at the sacrament of marriage. It introduced a dispensation so that the marriages of estranged former Catholics – who had defected, it was deemed – could be considered valid. This, however, caused pastoral difficulties throughout the universal church, as it became unclear what formal defection actually entailed.

Consultations began in 1997, resulting in the Omnium in Mentem letter. What its removal of all references to formal defection means for people wishing to leave is “totally unclear”, says Paul Dunbar, a founder of CountMeOut. “Essentially, from our point of view, it looks like defection is wiped out.”

The website, which was set up last year, had an online form that applicants could fill in, print out and send to their dioceses. It claims that more than 12,000 people have filled in the form. Asked whether people who want to leave the church would care whether it recognises their defection, given that they presumably don’t believe in its teachings, Dunbar says that, in fact, many people take its teachings seriously and want nothing more to do with them.

“For many it is very important that the church recognises they have left and removes them from the baptismal register. We have several questions now for the church, which we will be hoping to have clarified next week.”

Among these are whether those who have already defected can continue to consider themselves non-Catholic, and what exactly the church means when it says people can still defect, “albeit not through a formal process”.

A spokesman said the church was clearly stating “the truth that being a baptised a member of the church cannot be undone”. While the baptismal register can be amended, the baptism cannot. “A Catholic can formally register disassociation from the church but the reality of baptism stands. Baptism leaves an indelible mark.” In other words, it would seem that though one can still decide not to participate in the Catholic way of life, the church views baptism as irrevocable.

Alan Grace believes this has implications for freedom of religion and expression, and says babies should not be baptised when they have no say in the matter. “I would never have my children baptised. I don’t believe Jesus Christ would want a church like the Catholic Church.”

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