Ask Richard: I Want to Officially Leave the Catholic Church

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.

Dear Richard,

I was baptized Catholic when I was a baby, so obviously I had no say in the matter. As a non-believing adult, I want to remove myself from the central Catholic baptismal roster/records/big book…whatever it’s called? Would you know how to do this? Do I contact the bishop of the country I was originally born and baptized in, or do I try to contact a particular Vatican office? Any suggestions on where/how to start this process are very welcome.

Thank you,
Daniel

Dear Daniel,

Short answer:
This website, Count Me Out, was started in Ireland in part in reaction to the increasing number of child abuse scandals by various institutions of the Catholic Church, including the infamous Ryan report. They have a form that people can fill out that they say starts the process of being officially removed from the rosters of the Catholic Church with a “Declaration of Defection.” They also have a very informative FAQ section which discusses the different procedures in various countries other than Ireland. At the time of my writing, they claim to have helped more than 6,400 people to complete and send a Declaration of Defection to the proper Church authorities.

Here is an interesting six minute Irish television news report that includes Count Me Out. It’s mainly about these issues in Ireland, but it also covers issues that may be pertinent to many people.

Longer answer:
Daniel, I don’t know if this applies to you, but some people might wonder, if you’re really over your belief in gods, then why don’t you just walk away? If you no longer believe in what gives the Church its authority, what does it matter to you that some bishop officially scratches your name off a list?

Some people might even suggest that maybe you still have some lingering notion of the Church’s intrinsic power, rather than just the power that you were giving it when you were a believer, and that wanting this formal parting from the Church is actually reaffirming the power it still has over you. They might say that if you are truly free of the Church, then you should be able to follow the advice of Paul Simon’s song, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover:

You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just listen to me
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free

I can see the point that such people would be making, and I think it would be a good idea to search yourself for any sticky bits of the spell that might remain in the nooks and crannies of your mind, and clean them out.

But these arguments do not necessarily apply to everyone who wants to file a Declaration of Defection. I can understand at least two reasons why someone who is fully free of the Church’s authority in their mind would still want to have a formal, recognized separation.

The first is a political reason. In some countries, the Catholic Church is intermingled with the civil government in various ways, and they benefit from public funds for providing services such as schools. Their claim to have large numbers of members gives them more clout to ask for a larger portion of taxpayer money. If you don’t want to support that kind of church/state entanglement, or to have your name adding to the Church’s claim of its size, and therefore the power and money it can wield, then it would make sense to want your name properly taken off their books.

One problem with this is that it’s not in the Church’s financial or political interests to accurately report a shrinking membership to the government. So I would not be surprised if they are quite lax about getting around to removing names, or counting anyone as having ever left the Church. I don’t know if there’s any way the Church membership census can be independently audited, to really know how many people are actively involved, how many are Catholic in name only, and how many have formally left. It’s tempting for groups to pretend to be bigger than they are, especially when no one else does the counting.

The second reason is an emotional one, and emotional needs can be just as legitimate as any other. Some people have more than simply lost their interest in religion. Some have had difficult or painful experiences while under the control of the Church, or have been through a difficult or painful process of letting go of their beliefs. So they have a need to express their hard-won emancipation directly to the institution against which they struggled. They want the Church to actually hear their farewells or their screw you’s, and they want the Church to see, at least figuratively on an official document, their raised third digit. It’s important to them that the object of their disaffection actually see such a gesture. It’s about defiance, finality, and closure. Then their healing can continue.

Daniel, whatever is your need for this, I hope that it helps your healing to continue, and you can finally walk away “and get yourself free.” Perhaps the final stage of freedom is no longer thinking about the Church at all.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • http://infalliblefailure.blogspot.com Jeff Satterley

    I’m doing something very similar. For me, its more about the fact that the Catholic Chruch uses their numbers to legitimize themselves. They talk about there being 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, and I’m still considered one of them. I know that my single act of defection doesn’t mean much, but if more and more people do it, and make it publicly known, it can be a powerful message.

    Jim Gardner over at How Good is That gave me the idea to do it (<a href="http://howgoodisthat.wordpress.com/2009/03/20/a-formal-act-of-defection-part-2/">here).

  • http://infalliblefailure.blogspot.com Jeff Satterley

    I’m doing something very similar. For me, its more about the fact that the Catholic Chruch uses their numbers to legitimize themselves. They talk about there being 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, and I’m still considered one of them. I know that my single act of defection doesn’t mean much, but if more and more people do it, and make it publicly known, it can be a powerful message.

    Jim Gardner over at How Good is That gave me the idea to do it (here).

  • Nikki

    I’d never really thought about it – I stopped attending church so many years ago that it never occured to me to formally remove myself from the roster. In addition, I think I was ex-communicated latae sententiae (basically, automatically, as soon as the event took place) when I worked for an abortion clinic. I only recently found out that I am STILL considered a catholic despite this. How annoying.

  • Loulou

    I disagree with Richard on this one. As a former Catholic, without officially removing yourself from the Catholic count board, your family can still arrange your funeral as a Catholic one.

  • Stephen (Math Teacher)

    When I stopped attending church, one of the first things I did was get my name removed from their “lists”. The reason behind this was to not have me counted as one of their minions. If more people did this, I’m betting we would see percentages of believers drop dramatically.

  • liz

    Yea…i had always heard that if you don’t participate in going to church then you are automatically out of the church…then i realized that they had no way of knowing that i didn’t go to church anymore.

    it actually has bothered me for some time that i’m still considered catholic. i don’t agree with a majority of catholic views and i honestly have always felt like it was something pushed onto by my family.

    I’m glad someone asked this question. thanks for the info!

  • Derek

    for any ex-mormons this is a good resource
    http://mormoncensus.com/

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    If “the catholic membership” list is meaningless since the Catholics never take a name off (on their own), then it would also seem that the act of taking your name off the list would also be somewhat meaningless. Of course, you can provide your own meaning to the removal act and feel good about doing so…

  • http://lagunatic.wordpress.com/ Lagunatic

    I don’t see anything wrong with getting your name taken off the record.
    Personally, I equate it with washing your hands after a bathroom break.

  • http://www.inebriateddiscourse.com Max

    I would recommend requesting excommunication by your local archdiocese. I’ve had some back and forth with mine on this front. Here’s is the letter I sent. Feel free to use it as a template.

    http://www.inebriateddiscourse.com/2009/08/excommunication.html

  • http://twitter.com/j_spencer Jeff

    I have never officially pulled myself from the Mormon records. It’s mainly because I have no respect for the church, so why should I give them the courtesy? If they want to waste stamps sending me info about goings-on and waste their missionaries’ time trying to get in touch with me, that’s their business. It’s what Jeff Satterly says that bothers me. The Mormon church claims their huge growth and membership numbers, and I have to admit that knowing I’m one of those irks me a little bit.

    I still haven’t figured out what I think is the right answer.

  • Jerry Priori

    I don’t think there is a master record of Catholics. Unless someone is giving money to the church in your name, I doubt very much the church as an institution cares a whit about you. Going through the bother of removing yourself from a master record that doesn’t even exist won’t make them inflate their membership numbers any less than they already do.

    When I decided I wanted to do something to demonstrate that I was no longer part of the Catholic church, I took my certificates of baptism, communion, and confirmation and ran them through the paper shredder. I don’t follow the Catholic church. I define myself. I am not a Catholic because I say so. The opinion of church dogma is irrelevant and the membership numbers they claim don’t mean anything–nobody is keeping a tally.

  • paula

    I was raised a Catholic and stopped going to church as soon as I moved out of home and went to Uni. I thought that was that until i ‘came out’ as an atheist to my mum when she was ranting about our first child going to hell because he wasnt going to be baptised . She then very snarkily told me that I can call myself whatever I want, but I will always be a Catholic because i was baptised. that was a shock – but i just ignore it because dealing with it will expend more energy on the church than I want to- and I dont think it would make her change her mind, so pointless.

  • http://struckbyenlightning.wordpress.com LinzeeBinzee

    Is there a way of checking if you’re on some kind of list kept by the Catholic Church? I was baptized and confirmed in a Catholic Church, so I’m assuming I’m on a list somewhere but I have a hard time believing my church keeps such records…I spent a lot of time in that place and saw no file room!

    …I guess they’re probably kept in that archdiocese building…

  • Andrew Morgan

    If I’m on a list somewhere, I wouldn’t mind going through a process to get off of it. And even if there isn’t a physical list, telling them I’ve left would be nice in and of itself. I was raised Catholic, baptized, made Communion, all that stuff, and given that I think they’re not a nice organization, it would be refreshing to officially not be a part of that anymore.

    I didn’t have a choice whether I would go through all of that, but I would feel like taking control at this point, even if it’s symbolic, is important.

  • beckster

    Catholics may not have any sort of official list, but the mormons certainly do and it is a pain in the ass to get taken off of it. You basically have to threaten them with legal action in a few different ways.

  • liz

    i don’t know why any of you are saying that this ‘list’ probably doesnt exist. I mean most high schools keep records of every student they have had, they don’t just throw the information away when you graduate. And I know i’m on some list as a girl scout too. Organizations keep that kind of stuff and it isnt at all suprising that the Catholic church would…and does.

    It’s official business to them, you know. It may be some guy dipping your head in water to you…but the Catholic church takes it seriously…and as weird as it is that they would keep you on record…it happens.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    Someone should do a comedy skit about an atheist who was once a catholic (or Mormon) who dies and to his surprise finds himself at the pearly gates facing St. Peter.

    St. Peter then says that since the person is “on the membership list” they can proceed through the pearly gates into heaven. The atheist protests and says that they are and have been an atheist for years. St. Peter then says, “Sorry, you are on the official membership list. You must go through”. ;)

  • http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~edmin/Pamphlets/ Cyberguy

    Having been christened and confirmed into the Anglican Church here in New Zealand, I felt that there was no equivalent public renunciation for religion that compared in any way to those prior public affirmations. The whole thing was unbalanced, and I wanted the church to have to do some work related to a request to be removed from their lists (if any).

    I emailed a few people about getting removed from any Anglican lists, including an Anglican Bishop. In particular I wanted to be removed from any lists related to my confirmation. But it was like fighting a blancmange – most replies gave no resistance, and were sickly sweet.

    e.g. Bishop: “I will arrange for your name to be removed from the register at — Chapel as requested. You asked whether the Anglican church performs baptisms and confirmations for people who do not have an awareness of the meaning of these things or freedom of choice for themselves. Please be assured that this is not our policy; for older children and teenagers and adults these are important principles which we seek to uphold.”

    Me: “Just to clarify, are you saying that the Anglican Church no longer performs baptisms on babies? I am surprised at that, if I understand correctly.”

    Bishop: “Yes we do still offer baptism for babies, on the understanding that they will be introduced to and nurtured in the faith by their parent and or godparent”.

    He didn’t seem to stand for anything, nor was he consistent or clear on any particular topic. I don’t actually think he took me off any register, as I had previously contacted the chapel and they knew nothing about any registers. So much for the Anglican church taking these ceremonies seriously.

    I have nothing but contempt for them.

  • http://www.frommormontoatheist.blogspot.com Leilani

    I found that writing my formal resignation from the Mormon church was very liberating. I didn’t want to be counted as one of them.

    I could have just left well enough alone by never going back, but it just wasn’t good enough for me. I had to cut my last worthless connection.

    It’s like when you move and you call the phone company to turn off your phone. I moved on and wrote the Mormon church to tell them to take me off their roster. Tying loose ends feels good. :)

    To each their own, but sometimes it helps the healing process when you formally leave. I know it’s helped me.

  • liz

    @ Jeff P

    I love it!!! =]

  • Zoe

    It is important to de-register or whatever: statistics. The church uses these registers you know! You should very much advocate that everybody who’s been baptised and stopped believing, leave their church officially.

  • Atom Jack

    Interestingly enough, I have been considering this recently. I have a couple of observations-

    1. The choice of words- “Defection”? Sheeit, every totalitarian country in the world uses that term for a “citizen’s” rejection of the status quo…you know, the ones where they put up borders to keep you IN.

    2. I’ll have to do something soon to make sure I don’t end up sprinkled with holy water and have to smell holy smoke (I’d be dead, that’s a joke) during the celebration of my sorry life.

    Besides, if I end up in the superstition building, my atheist spawn will refuse to attend. I’m going to donate my carcass to medical science for some posthumous admiration.

  • http://lagunatic.wordpress.com/ Lagunatic

    Atom Jack,
    I hear rigor mortis does a body good…if it’s admiration you’re after.

  • Richard Wade

    Loulou, you said:

    I disagree with Richard on this one. As a former Catholic, without officially removing yourself from the Catholic count board, your family can still arrange your funeral as a Catholic one.

    Disagree with what? I didn’t advocate that he not do it.

    I presented Daniel with a method of formally defecting, some reasons that some people have expressed for just leaving it alone, and my own reasons for why defecting might be the appropriate thing for some people to do. Then I told Daniel that I hope that whatever he decides helps him.

    I agree with you that a person should have control over the particulars of their after-death arrangements, and if formally defecting from the Church can reinforce that, along with a will, a codicil and prior arrangements with a funeral home, then they should defect.

  • Colin

    My experience is in the Lutheran church, but during my walking away process, I received letters for a few years saying that if I failed to “communion” (used as a verb) with them, I would be removed from their membership list.

    I never returned, so I hope I’m off their list!

  • Erp

    I suspect how easy it is to get off depends on how much power an ordinary member has. If the ordinary member has a vote and/or other power then it is fairly easy to be removed (or if the local church is suppose to send money to the central organization depending on number of members, if the member isn’t paying drop them quickly). If the ordinary member is just useful to add to the advertised count, then it is difficult to get off the list.
    My understanding is that even excommunicated Catholics are still Catholics though bad ones. Apostates might be a different matter though even they aren’t rebaptized or reconfirmed if they return to Catholicism.

  • http://www.twitter.com/lafleurdelys Mareike

    In Germany, as long as you are a member of the catholic or evangelic church, you pay a church tax, which for many is the best reason to leave the church. I never realised it’s different in other countries.

    Regarding registers: I would assume that all churches have at least some sort of registries for baptisms. (Well, that’s often a clue in movies and tv shows if people are looking for informations.)

  • Emily

    Slightly off topic, does anyone know the name of the comedian in the Irish news clip (about two minutes in)?

  • Helen

    The catholic church does keep a proper register of anyone who’s ever been baptised. You can’t get off the list (the act of baptism has been performed on you), but you can request that they add your defection.

    In some countries (as Germany, Austria, Switzerland), also the tax office keeps a record on your religion, because they collect taxes on behalf of the churches.

    The catholic church is a highly centralised organsiation and has central rules on defection (actus defectionis).
    Basically you will have to turn to the church where you have been baptised and convince them that you do not believe (since according to their belief this entails your eternal damnation, they of course want to be totally sure for your sake :-)).

    Do check countmeout.ie , it will be very helpful (both for reasons on why to have the record adjusted and on how to technically do it).
    Practically, you just have to write a letter.

  • Petey

    I’m in the UK and I filled out the Declaration of Defection last summer, but I never received any acknowledgment. I wonder if I should just contact the diocese and check I’m no longer a Catholic.

  • Eoin

    I would like to thank this website for providing this facility.

    I have just found this news going through links.

    “In April of this year, the Catholic Church modified the Code of Canon Law to remove all references to the act of formal defection, the process used by those who wish to formally renounce their membership of the Church.”

    To follow what is going on please refer to this site: http://www.countmeout.ie/suspension/

  • Richard Wade

    Thank you Eoin for bringing this to our attention. I’ve published a post about it.


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