, a Website That Showed Irish Catholics How to Formally Leave the Church, to Shut Down

In 2009, Cormac Flynn, Paul Dunbar and Gráinne O’Sullivan began a website called which gave step-by-step directions for how to formally leave the Catholic Church:

They published a sample “declaration of defection” (PDF) that you could download. You just had to get it signed, witnessed, and sent to the Church where you got baptized, and that was it! You could finally wash your hands free of Catholicism.

Obviously, if you were already a former-Catholic (like the three guys starting the site), this sounded like just a mere formality. But it made a strong statement, and more than 12,000 people downloaded the form. More importantly, it removed your name from the Church’s roster, a list the Church frequently touted as it got involved in government-run things like education and health care.

You would think the Church would support such a declaration of defection — why keep people who are no longer Catholic on your rolls? Wouldn’t you want an accurate count of how many people were truly in your Church? Wouldn’t it be deceptive to inflate those numbers with people who really wanted nothing to do with you?

Well, it’s not like the Church is known for taking the ethical high road…

A year after the website was created, the Vatican modified the Code of Canon Law to remove all references to defection. The declaration no longer had any impact and there was no formal way to leave the Church.

Our own Richard Wade suggested there were three reasons for this change:

  • It saved the Church a lot of embarrassment.
  • It saved the Church a lot of work.
  • it saved the Church a lot of money.

Since then, the co-founders have been trying to figure out what options there are for people who want to officially leave the Catholic Church. They contacted Church leaders in Ireland and the Vatican but nobody’s responding.

It’s almost like they don’t want to give anyone an easy way out…

There is another option, of course — Declaring that you’re not a Catholic on the official Census — but I suspect that anyone willing to download the defection form would already be doing that. Furthermore, telling people you’re not a Catholic isn’t the same as getting your name permanently stricken from the Church registry.

In any case, since the declaration of defection is meaningless now and Church leaders won’t respond to their inquiries, the founders of CountMeOut are shutting down the site for good:

The campaign proved very successful in the early stages and generated a lot of debate. As a group, we felt it was important for people to reflect on their relationship with the church and decide whether they could remain as a member. very much regrets having to cease operations. We continue to receive emails regularly from people who wish to leave the church and it is clear that there are large numbers counted as Catholic who no longer regard themselves as adherents to the faith. The failure of the church to allow people to exercise their religious freedom is contrary to the most basic understanding of human rights and religious expression. Furthermore, the church’s decision to ignore repeated requests for clarity and provide alternatives to defection is deeply regrettable.

I don’t know that it’s a violation of human rights and religious expression, but it is a dick move on the Church’s part. And it’s really too bad. The atheists were offering a service that would have allowed for more honesty within the Church walls — and the Church refuses to cooperate. There’s still no easy way to get your name off their lists even if you no longer attend Church and even if you actively campaign against Catholic beliefs.

Then again, the Church has rarely ever done the right thing when it involved bad publicity. Why start now?

(via The Irish Times)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Isn’t the mafia sort of like this? Once you’re in, you can never leave. Sort of like Hotel California, only crueler.

    • A3Kr0n

      Ya beat me to it!

      • baal

        I was going to go there too.

    • dorcheat

      Maybe someone could write new lyrics to “Hotel California” and change the song name slightly to “Hotel Catholic-fornia.”
      I guess the final lyrics of the song, “You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave!” really do apply these days to the roman catholic church.

    • SeniorSkeptik

      More like the old commercial for Roach Motels.

    • UWIR

      I’m pretty sure one has to be an adult to join the mafia.

      • The Other Weirdo

        You mean mafia kids don’t get involved in any family business until they reach whatever age of maturity in their country is and they don’t benefit in any way from living in mafioso families?

        • UWIR

          I’m pretty sure that the Mafia doesn’t allow middle school students, let alone infants, to become Made Men.

    • Rain

      I was going to say the same thing too.

  • GeraardSpergen

    Well this seems to be sort of a win for the church then; they dug in their heels and now they won’t have an organized effort against their baptism baloney.
    I wonder if someone could set up a new web service for officially renouncing baptism and then it could be referenced whenever the church cites their numbers.

    Edit – I checked on my own ex-church the Methodists and although they keep a record somewhere, they apparently don’t keep track of numbers of baptisms… just numbers of members.

    • allein

      I was apparently stricken from the membership of my church at some point. I got a warning first after I hadn’t gone in several years.

  • C Peterson

    Why does the Church care at all? It isn’t like anybody can look at their records and deduce an actual membership. They can say whatever they like, and it need have no connection to reality. If they perceive marketing value in numbers, all they need to do is make up whatever works for them.

    • The Other Weirdo

      If the Pope and all those Cardinals wearing the gilded dresses and their funny hats and sitting on their gold thrones, they’ll look mighty silly–well, okay, sillier–if they just the one fanatic left actually going to church on a regular basis. Desiring at any expense a large number of followers, even fake ones, predates Twitter and Facebook by thousands of years.

  • sam

    After weeks of coercive brainwashing, signing away your legal right to litigate, & paying substantial amounts of money, even the Church of Scientology allows its sheep to “route out” of their particular pyramid scheme.
    If the Church of Scientology makes your church look bad in comparison (even if you ignore all the child rape), you know there’s a problem.

  • el Brando

    Catholicism – Not even once.

    • Gus Snarp

      Yes, Catholicism is just like cocaine. I like it.

  • Jeff

    Maybe one could make the argument that since most of these people were forcibly baptized as children, they never consented to joining the church and thus were never actually members in the first place…

  • TBJ

    Maybe this is a good thing since the Mormons would just happen along and re-baptise them post humorously. (typo intended)

    • The Other Weirdo

      Let the pruning commence.

    • JET

      The Mormons and the Catholics are probably all counting the same people.

  • Darren

    I wonder about the trespass laws in Ireland. If one is a member of a particular church, can that church bar you from entry, or prosecute you for, say, “topping off the Holy Water basin”?

  • Librepensadora

    In other words, I could do all sorts of egregious atheist, humanist, and liberal acts–the kind that get you on the local news–and then tell the reporters I was doing it as a Catholic because I was baptized in the city where I live over 60 years ago. I decamped to atheism from the Protestant denomination I joined 30 years later. Guess in Ireland that would make me both a Catholic and a “Protestant Atheist.”

    In case you don’t know the joke: a man driving in Northern Ireland was stopped by men armed with automatic rifles demanding to know if he were a Catholic or a Protestant. “I’m an atheist,” he answered. “Yes,” came the reply, “but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?”

    • Tor

      Good one!

  • Scott_Lumry

    I propose that these individuals publish their revocation in the local paper of membership, then sue the church for using their membership if it should publish or use any membership numbers in any public way. We realize the church only understand the wallet being affected and could care less about what their book says about lying.

  • the moother

    Just paint “No Catho” with lambs blood over your door and you’re out.

  • viaten

    I would think a notarized document would supersede any earlier Church records, but I don’t see how there could be any difference in any legal issue if the Church has your name on a list. I’d like to know if there is any. The Church can now only look stupid if it tries to make claims based on the numbers of their membership.

  • Matt Potter

    I am a former Mormon who has resigned. In my active days in the church I never knew that someone could resign to begin with. It wasn’t until I left the church and visited some post mormon websites that I learned of such a process. It’s essentially the same thing. There’s a form letter that states you want your name to be removed from church records and it gets sent to church headquarters in Salt Lake City. There is court precedent set in at least two cases here in the US, Gunn V The Church of Christ of Collinsville and the Norman Hancock lawsuit (Mesa AZ 19885), that gives a person the right to resign from a church. I’m not sure if this just pertains to Ireland but it appears a former Catholic member here in the states would be allowed to resign with the law behind them and the Catholic church would have to allow it.

  • kenofken

    I took advantage of that process before it was shut down and I have a letter somewhere from the summer of 2009 in which some archdiocese official acknowledged my formal resignation from the RCC (I had actually left many many years ago, but I thought it was cool to get it done in writing.) At any rate, I had corresponded via email with the Countmeout folks, and I was kicking around the idea of starting a U.S. based site similar to theirs.

    I have a lot of respect for the work they did, but I feel like they gave up a little too easily. Just because the church stonewalled and played games with their procedures is no reason to give up. It’s a reason to keep pressing. The point of formal defection was not the legalism. The declaration of defection was always “meaningless” to the church even when they had a formal defection process. All it ever did was acknowledge that you wanted out of the earthly organization. They still counted you as Catholic forever by virtue of baptism, and for those who cared about legalisms, it exempted you from only one church law concerning marriage. All they did, in theory, was to file your defection someplace alongside your baptism records. They never really struck your name from any registry.

    The Irish team got flustered because the church wouldn’t give them a straight answer to a question “will you let us out?” But defection isn’t asking permission to leave, it’s telling them you left and forcing them to acknowledge, even if only to themselves, that their organization no longer speaks for you and cannot count you among them. With no one to press the matter or help organize defectors, there is no pressure for them to do the right thing.

  • Houndentenor

    I’m pretty sure that the Southern Baptist Convention still counts me as a member even though they received a letter from an Episcopal Church that I had been confirmed there. (I did that in my 20s. My road to nonbelief had a few detours. LOL) Of course churches inflate their numbers. Their claims to authority are based on the number of supposed believers.

  • pagansister

    Maybe you can’t “formally leave” but if you’re not attending or giving money then in essence you’re out. Unfortunately they can still claim you as a number—-

  • Tor

    In some countries, churches collect government subsidies based on their membership numbers. You figure it out.

    • Georgina

      Yes, and in some countries you have to march into their office and threaten to sue if they tithe your wages!
      An astonishing number of people are so used to having ‘church membership’ deducted from their wages at source (same as Tax & SocSec) that they don’t even notice it anymore. Others keep paying so that they can enjoy a church wedding, or get their children into a church school.
      But at least in those countries you can officially opt-out.

      • kenofken

        Europe has some very strong laws pertaining to a person’s right to access information collected about them and to have it kept accurately.

  • freddieknows

    On the bright side, it makes for a stronger case Hitler was always a catholic.

  • Pofarmer

    Duplicitous bastards,

  • Ted Thompson

    I suppose you could fuck on the steps to the popes house. That might get you the boot you crave.

  • Robster

    Catlik blokes not wanting to be catlik anymore should simply bonk another bloke, same for the ladies, and then be kicked out, name off the roster, no more baby jesus crackers with a jesus juice chasers on Sundays, no more money flying off to Rome, no more silly hats or booties, no more anything to do with kid fiddling creepy clerics, no more mary outlines on toast, no more of the rest of its insidious silliness. No wonder these people want out, even the ever so slightly modern pope Frank makes fails to make the charade any tastier.

  • Jonathan West

    To the best of my knowledge, there is no way to leave the Church of England either. So on my profile for commenting on the Guardian website, I describe myself as “an atheist and confirmed member of the Church of England.

    The atheists mostly get the joke. Occasionally a religious person asks me why I am still a member of the church when I’m an atheist.

    • Gus Snarp

      I suppose technically I’m a confirmed Methodist, but I guess they just don’t make as big a deal of their official membership numbers or really attempt to have much to do with government, so I’ve never bothered to find out if I could do anything about it…

      • allein

        Hey, me too! I have my confirmation certificate tucked into the Bible they gave me in 3rd grade. I know my church eventually removed me from their membership list but I don’t know about the denomination as a whole.

  • chris turner

    Its a shame Dawkins or Hitchens wernt Catholics, they could actually sue for libel and almost claim with a straight face some kind of hurt!
    No they should keep up the website, then when the Catholics claim x million members, we can confidently say “minus x thousand”

  • Gus Snarp

    I suppose you could still get yourself excommunicated. Not sure how one would go about that. I once had a professor who managed to get enough divorces that he got himself formally excommunicated, or so he said, but he apparently had to work at it.

    Isn’t abortion grounds for automatic excommunication? Seems like an extreme path toward an obvious end, but maybe if you got a lot of abortions and blogged about being a Catholic abortion recipient or became an ob/gyn, specialized in performing abortions, and blogged about being the Catholic abortion provider and got a wide following, they might excommunicate you. There’s go to be an easier way.

    • Paul Reed

      Well, if they don’t accept Declarations of Defection, couldn’t you send them a Request for Excommunication instead?
      Surely, a formal statement of non-faith (or defamation of the church) is a grounds for ex-communication…?

    • DavidMHart

      Have you tried ordaining a woman as a priest?

    • kenofken

      An excommunication is not technically getting kicked out. It’s a “medicinal penalty” intended to scare the Hell out of you into obedience. They don’t consider an excommunicated person an ex-Catholic, just a very bad one. It used to mean that others were not supposed to associate with you in most ways and was a fairly severe form of internal exile at one time. These days, they won’t usually formally or publicly excommunicate people anyway. They sort of weasel it and say “if you’ve done x,y or z, you’ve placed yourself in a state of excommunication.” They reserve the formal penalty for bishops who ordain women, breakaway religious orders etc. I would suggest to people to keep sending in the old defection forms. If they don’t recognize them, that’s on them, not you.

      • allein

        Isn’t it more like scaring the hell into you?

    • Jim Jones

      Go around telling everyone you’re a Catholic bishop. Then ordain some women as priests. You’ll be out so fast your cassock will catch fire.

  • Paul Reed

    Dara O’Briain is an Irish “Catholic” atheist.
    Wonder what he’d say about this…

  • Kris

    Only two of the “guys” who started the website are guys… “Grainne” is a woman’s name.

    • allein

      How would you pronounce that?

      • meridian

        Roughly, “groin ya”