In some places, the demand for debaptisms has been going up, which could be rather surprising.
“What’s a debaptism?” you might ask. “Is that even a thing? How can you un-pour water on someone?”
The short answer is that No, debaptism isn’t a thing, but that hasn’t stopped people from asking for it. And yes, “debaptism” is the language they use. The Pillar explains:
The Catholic Church in Belgium reported on Wednesday a sharp rise in the number of people asking for their names to be removed from baptismal registers.
The Church’s latest annual report, published on Nov. 30, said there were 5,237 such requests in 2021, compared to 1,261 in 2020 and 1,800 in 2019. …
Nevertheless, a rising movement in Europe promoting ‘debaptism’ has encouraged Catholics to write to Church authorities asking to be removed from parish baptismal records. The movement is a consortium of several political and philosophical factions among European secularists.
A Movement With Some History
This movement has been around for a while. For example, in 2012, NPR reported:
In France, an elderly man is fighting to make a formal break with the Catholic Church. He’s taken the Church to court over its refusal to let him nullify his baptism, in a case that could have far-reaching effects.
Seventy-one-year-old Rene LeBouvier’s parents and his brother are buried in a churchyard in the tiny village of Fleury in northwest France. He himself was baptized in the Romanesque stone church and attended Mass here as a boy. …
But his views began to change in the 1970s, when he was introduced to free thinkers. As he didn’t believe in God anymore, he thought it would be more honest to leave the Church. So he wrote to his diocese and asked to be un-baptized.
Problems for the Debaptizers
There are problems with what the debaptizers are asking for.
It’s not possible to un-pour water on someone after it has been poured on them. This makes debaptism physically impossible (though some atheist organizations have used tongue-in-cheek ceremonies with hairdryers).
However, it’s also not theologically possible to reverse all the effects of baptism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
Incorporated into Christ by baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation. Given once for all, baptism cannot be repeated. (1272)
So, when you get baptized, an indelible spiritual mark is put on your soul, and nothing can remove this.
You can commit sins that will remove the sanctifying grace that baptism gave you, but the mark remains.
And — if you change your mind and repent — you can return to grace and resume life as a Christian.
You don’t need to get baptized again. In fact, you can’t get baptized again, because the spiritual mark remains.
What Happens in “Debaptisms”?
What happens when a person decides he doesn’t want to be a Christian anymore and sends in a “debaptism” request? The Pillar explains:
A spokesman for the Belgian bishops’ conference told The Pillar on Dec. 1 that when the Church received a ‘debaptism’ request, ‘it is noted in the register in the margin that the person has requested to be de-registered.’
‘You are not allowed to cross out or delete an entry in an official register,’ he explained.
That makes sense, because there needs to be a record of the fact the person was baptized. Suppose that they later change their mind and decide they want to live as a Christian again. There needs to be a record of the fact that they were baptized in order to show that they shouldn’t be baptized again.
What happened in the case of Monsieur LeBouvier? NPR reports:
‘They sent me a copy of my records, and in the margins next to my name, they wrote that I had chosen to leave the Church,’ he says.
Specifically, the revised record said that he “has renounced his baptism.” But that wasn’t enough for Lebouvier, and he sued the Church to have his name removed from the records.
A Parallel Case
Why would he do that? Let’s consider a parallel case — getting civilly married.
People sometimes go before a government official, get hitched, and then later change their minds and decide they don’t want to be married to each other after all.
When that happens, they get a divorce, and they seem to be happy with that. They don’t demand that the state go back and erase all records of them ever having been married.
There are good reasons the state doesn’t do that. Various legal matters may turn on the fact that the two people were married at one time (taxes, child custody cases, inheritances, lawsuits, etc.), and the state needs to have a record of the marriage — even if the state now regards it as dissolved.
Um … Why?
So why would someone like LeBouvier want his baptismal record obliterated?
Part of it could be confusion caused by poor catechesis. He might think that the existence of a physical record of his baptism itself makes him a Christian.
This would be a case of magical thinking, however, as it isn’t writing on a piece of paper that does this.
On the other hand, it could be cantankerousness. LeBouvier could have simply resented the Church and wanted to be difficult.
Instead of being satisfied with the fact that his parish noted in the records that he had renounced his baptism, he wanted to be a jerk and make a demand that he knew could not be granted, giving him a pretext to take the Church to court.
A Case Resolved
Whatever his motives, he ultimately lost. In 2014, the French Supreme Court ruled against LeBouvier, which is as it should be.
It’s a simple matter of historical fact that LeBouvier was baptized. That’s true regardless of what the effects of baptism are, and as an unbeliever, LeBouvier presumably wouldn’t even believe in the indelible mark it left on his soul.
It’s just true that — on a certain date — he was baptized in a certain parish, and there can be records of that fact occurring, just like there can be records of any other historical event taking place. Shy of having a flux capacitor-equipped DeLorean, there’s no way to go back in time and undo the event.
Just as the state can keep records of things that happened — like marriages — even if their effects are regarded as now neutralized (or not, from a religious perspective), so can the Church.
The Effect of a Document
There is a reason that people like LeBouvier might not be satisfied with the Church simply noting in the baptismal records that they no longer consider themselves Christian.
When people get a divorce, they get a court decree — a piece of paper that says they’re no longer legally married — and even though the state hasn’t gone back and erased all records of their marriage, the decree seems to satisfy them.
But the Church doesn’t have an equivalent of this when someone abandons the Faith.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law did envision the possibility of someone defecting from the Church “by a formal act.” This had certain canonical effects, such as no longer being required to have a Catholic wedding.
Defections and the German Kirchensteuer
But the German church tax system (Kirchensteuer) complicated matters. Under this system, the German government automatically takes a portion of an individual’s income and gives it to the church they are a member of.
Consequently, some Germans began defecting from the Church and claiming they no longer needed to pay the tax.
Apparently in response to the German situation, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts in 2006 instituted a cumbersome process that made it harder to formally defect. The process involved things like meeting personally with your bishop and convincing him that you really, most sincerely, did not consider yourself a Catholic anymore.
Unsatisfied with the results of this, in 2009 Pope Benedict XVI decided to eliminate the concept of formal defection from canon law entirely.
This had serious unintended consequences, as it meant that people who had been baptized but not raised Catholic — many of whom might not even know that they had been baptized — were now legally unable to contract valid marriages (because of the obligation to observe “canonical form”) and were condemned to the state of perpetual, objective fornication.
To my mind, the cure was worse than the disease caused by the German tax situation, but it meant that one no longer even got a letter from one’s bishop saying that he believed you no longer regarded yourself as Catholic.
Looking to the Future
As the secularization of Europe progresses, it remains to be seen whether future Church leaders will deem it appropriate to create a document certifying that “We recognize that you no longer consider yourself or wish to live as a Catholic.”
Hopefully, such a document will not be needed — and God forbid that anyone should want one.
But while the French courts ruled against LeBouvier, we can’t count on this remaining the case in the future.
Anti-Catholic and anti-Christian animus continues to spread in the legal system, and just as there are cantankerous litigants who may just want to “stick it to the Church,” there may be cantankerous judges who wish to do the same thing.
To head off the legal collision that could result from activist judges demanding that the Church mutilate its baptismal records, it could one day be prudent to create a way of formally acknowledging the sad reality of people who no longer consider themselves Christian.
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