Wash away your affiliation

NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday had a story about a 71-year-old atheist’s rather curious legal battle against the Catholic Church in France. Rene LeBouvier has taken the church to court over its refusal to let him “nullify” his baptism:

LeBouvier grew up in that world and says his mother once hoped he’d become a priest. 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.

“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.

That was in the year 2000. A decade later, LeBouvier wanted to go further. In between were the pedophile scandals and the pope preaching against condoms in AIDS-racked Africa, a position that LeBouvier calls “criminal.” Again, he asked the church to strike him from baptismal records. When the priest told him it wasn’t possible, he took the church to court.

Apparently a judge in Normandy ruled in his favor and the dioceses appealed. The case is pending.

OK, the story just utterly confuses me. LeBouvier has already left the church. And he doesn’t deny he was baptized. Is he asking the court to force the church to rewrite history? Again, he was baptized into the Christian faith. He has since renounced the faith. The church records both that he was baptized into the faith and that he chose to leave the church.

I’m not sure if the article simply needs to explain the oddities of French law more or if the story just fell down on the explanation of how Christian sacraments work.

The article apparently equates asking the church to strike the name from baptismal records with something called “de-baptism,” without quite explaining why it’s called that. The article quotes the dean of the School of Canon Law at Catholic University of America, Rev. Robert Kaslyn, as saying that Catholic teaching doesn’t provide for de-baptism. Certainly this is not a Christian teaching. The article doesn’t exactly dig down on why Christianity has no provision for de-baptism, although the dean explains a bit of Catholic teaching on baptism’s permanent mark on the baptized:

“One could refuse the grace offered by God, the grace offered by the sacrament, refuse to participate,” he says, “but we would believe the individual has still been marked for God through the sacrament, and that individual at any point could return to the church.”

French law states that citizens have the right to leave organizations if they wish. Loup Desmond, who has followed the case for the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, says he thinks it could set a legal precedent and open the way for more demands for de-baptism.

“If the justice confirms that the name Rene LeBouvier has to disappear from the books, if it is confirmed, it can be a kind of jurisprudence in France,” he says.

Again, I need more explanation about why this article equates leaving an organization with something we’re calling de-baptism, particularly since this case already includes the individual renouncing his membership. I’m sure it makes sense in the mind of the reporter or the litigant, but somehow something is getting lost in translation here.

Are we talking about forcing the Catholic Church to knowingly state something they know not to be true? To rewrite history? To create a new sacrament of de-baptism? To declare a particular sacrament of baptism invalid in the eyes of the church? If it is the last case, on what grounds is the atheist arguing the sacrament was invalid in the eyes of the church? If he were petitioning for an annulment of marriage, that would be what he’d be arguing, right? That the sacramental marriage was somehow invalid in the eyes of church? Is that what he’s arguing here? If that’s the sort of annulment he seeks, the argument for that annulment is missing.

Now, it’s certainly true that churches are occasionally legally forced to do something that violates their conscience and teachings. Obviously we have a major instance of this even in the United States with the recent news that the Obama administration is giving religious institutions one year before they’ll be forced to comply with provisions in the new health care laws that profoundly violate their teachings. But what’s most interesting to me is not that sometimes a judicial or executive branch will try to force a church to violate its teachings but, rather, how the church responds. This article completely failed to discuss what the Catholic Church would do if France forced it institute a new rite/rewrite history/declare a sacrament invalid this would do. How would the church respond? Isn’t that what’s most interesting? Why no mention of the theological implications at hand? My own church body’s American history began in response to a German attempt to force us to violate our doctrine. It’s certainly interesting when governments attempt to tell religious institutions how to practice their religion, but even more so how they respond to such demands.

I also wish we could have gotten a better explanation of why annulment is the preferred legal avenue being pursued by this atheist. It was certainly given to readers and listeners why he loathes his former church but not why he seeks annulment. Perhaps a bit more explanation of whether the baptism records have sway outside of the church would have helped.

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  • Susie

    The first words that pop into my brain are “like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour”.
    It’s really sad that the judge in Normandy felt the need to pass this judgment but even sadder that NPR felt the need to tacitly support the decision. The lack of further explanation about why “de-baptism” isn’t an option is proof of their bias. NPR is National Public Radio and that nation is not France. That nation is one that still at least claims that the state does not rule the church.

    If it were not such a pathetic story it would be ludicrous. Unfortunately we are seeing more and more of this type of judgment.

  • michael henry

    The entire “incident”, if you will, is all about “how dare someone deny my self-designated manufactured right to do, say or proceed in any manner I choose”, and an ordinary media response to just lap it up.
    The lack of depth beyond just the “rights” of someone being denied is actually quite consistent with most of reporting nowadays.

  • Matt

    The Church is being theologically deliberate in its response to Mr. LeBouvier. His baptism took place and irrevocably placed him under God’s care in a certain way. They properly note that he now renounces that care, but that does not change the previous event.

    If the subject’s consent were considered theologically relevant, then the Church would not baptize infants. In fact, there are many Protestant churches who believe and practice exactly that. For the rest of us, baptism is about placing the subject in God’s hands. Though my (Reformed) view of infant baptism is somewhat different, I believe I can speak thusly for the Church: Mr. LeBouvier may wish that God would leave him alone, but no one gets to choose that.

    The quote from Rev. Kaslyn gets this point across adequately, especially considering the length of the story. However, there is still a logical disconnect. Sure, “French law states that citizens have the right to leave organizations if they wish,” but the story is equating that with a supposed right to expunge any evidence that the citizen belonged to the organization in the first place.

  • Matt

    I also wish we could have gotten a better explanation of why annulment is the preferred legal avenue being pursued by this atheist. It was certainly given to readers and listeners why he loathes his former church but not why he seeks annulment.

    I think this is all about the high value that modern culture places on personal autonomy, which is opposed to Christianity’s teaching that we are profoundly dependent on God and interdependent on each other (particularly within the Church). The problem is that this idea of autonomy is so foundational to the reporter’s worldview that she cannot see it as the source of the clash.

    But what’s most interesting to me is not that sometimes a judicial or executive branch will try to force a church to violate its teachings but, rather, how the church responds.

    Very true. This is really the heart of the matter.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Matt – LDS have a theology of posthumous, proxy baptism. This has caused controversy before:


    Is it understandable that, say, a descendant of a Holocaust survivor might object to someone ‘baptizing’ their ancestor into the LDS faith, regardless of LDS theology on the matter? If so, is it comprehensible that someone could object to their own baptism, particularly if they disagree with the theology involved?

    I wonder if the article should have referenced that other case? It seems of more than passing relevance to me.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Even more relevant – in 2008 the Vatican instructed parishes to withhold registries from the LDS specifically to prevent posthumous baptisms of Catholics: http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0802443.htm

    So it would seem that more people than just LeBouvier object to baptismal record that they disagree with on theological grounds.

  • Dave

    M LeBouvier, though atheistic, evidently believes the rite of baptism has the power to confer some status on the baptized that he wishes to abrogate in his case. This is parallel enough to the church’s position, though negative, that the church obviously declines to accommodate him.

  • Matt

    Ray, of course, our purpose is not to determine whether Catholics (or Mormons) are right or wrong in what they do, but whether the media has properly described the situation.

    Yes, of course I can comprehend the reasoning of a person who might object to religious acts that disregard the subject’s consent, and it is entirely appropriate for such reasoning (as well as the response of people who participate in such religious acts) to be clearly described.

    But it would furthermore be good, I think, to have a description of how such objects are rooted in a modernist worldview. And this is the hard part, because it is hard for a modernist reporter to see his/her own worldview as anything other than self-evident. But relevant aspects here include not only the modernist doctrine of individual autonomy but (as the Mormon/Jewish example particularly illustrates) the doctrine that all religions are competitors on equal footing. The important point is that religious defenders of the practice in question are really objecting to these doctrines that underlie the criticism. Specifically, I believe that both Christians performing infant baptism and Mormons performing posthumous baptism see the purpose as a particular form of communion with God, and that other religions practiced by the subject in the future/past are not negated but simply irrelevant.

  • Matt

    I wonder if the article should have referenced that other case? It seems of more than passing relevance to me.

    I certainly agree that it’s a relevant parallel. On the other hand, the story is pretty short.

  • Heautontimorouménos

    France prides himself to be a secular state and to maintain a strict separation between religion and the public square. It’s thus rather puzzling to see justice intervene into doctrinal matters.

  • Will

    It is not just a matter of “rewriting history”. It is a demand that a nebulous entity called “churchauthorities” declare formally that they believe something that they do not believe — that it is possible to “reverse” the effects of baptism.
    In other words, They are being charged with thoughtcrime.

  • http://www.redletterbelievers.com David Rupert

    Sounds like we need an ‘unbaptism’ service, to reverse the act.

  • Julia

    Re: “the Vatican” objecting to LDS postmortem sealing of Catholics in the Temple. I think they call it “sealing”. I don’t think they are baptizing them.

    It’s one thing to say don’t do that any more because we find it offensive, and entirely different to insist on another party undoing something already recorded – especially if you don’t even believe it had any effect. A notation on the records that the person officially quit the church should be enough or perhaps that they have renounced their baptism.

    he asked the church to strike him from baptismal records. When the priest told him it wasn’t possible, he took the church to court.

    Can you ask the Boy Scouts to strike the record that you were once a member? How about the Masons?

    Looks like the guy is wanting the courts to force the Church to say that there is no permanent mark on the soul from Baptism. Why should he care if he doesn’t believe in God any way? It’s not like the church is taking out newspaper ads claiming that he still has the mark of baptism on him.

    There are comments after the report saying the church won’t do it b/c it bases its reported membership numbers on baptism records. I don’t believe this is true. After all, converts’ baptisms are recognized. To my knowledge, membership numbers are based on parish registries – most people do eventually move from where they were baptized.

    In any case, there are times when 3rd parties may need to show proof that a parent or spouse was baptised in the church – regardless of whether they later renounced it.

  • Will

    This seems a good time to reread the Straight Dope on “How do I get excommunicated?”

    There’s also a practical problem. You can’t have your name stricken from the Catholic membership rolls, because there aren’t any such rolls. Sure, some records may be kept at the parish level, and if you’re the determined type I suppose you could get your name crossed off those. But the church maintains no central registry. They figure God can keep track.

  • Stan

    Clearly this article fails to answer some crucial questions. What I would most be interested in knowing is if and how baptismal records are used for secular purposes. Perhaps the plaintiff in this case feels that the Church that he despises gets some benefit from having his name on its rolls. Or perhaps he feels that he is deprived some benefit from the Church having his name on its rolls. In any case, we need more information about the relationship between church and state, or at least the relevance of baptismal certificates to secular affairs in France. (I know that in some US states baptismal can–or at least, used to–serve as proof of birth in lieu of a birth certificate.)

    Heautontimorouménos says:

    France prides himself to be a secular state and to maintain a strict separation between religion and the public square. It’s thus rather puzzling to see justice intervene into doctrinal matters.

    Perhaps the plaintiff sees the Church using his baptismal record as somehow injecting itself into state affairs?

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    I agree that the article is incomplete, in this case on both sides. It’s more incomplete in its reporting of the church’s position even, with the quote from Fr. Kaslyn. But it’s also incomplete in explaining exactly why leaving the church isn’t sufficient for Mr. LeBouvier and why he wishes the church to take this Orwellian step. Maybe he doesn’t have an answer — these quotes here don’t indicate careful thought about the matter but they may be incomplete — but that could be information that would help the story as well.

  • Julia

    In many European countries citizens can register as a member of a particular religion and then a tax is collected from them. The government then pays the salaries of the ministers and the upkeep of the churches.

    For instance, in France, the government owns the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, not the church. It was Napoleon who took over all the church’s property in France and other parts of Europe, much like Henry VIII did in England. So France’s claim to have laicite – a secular society – is not like our separation of church and state. I think France means more that the state has some control over the church and nothing vice versa.

  • Matt

    Indeed, “separation of church and state” is an American concept that was invented here by minority churches in response to the tendency of European governments to meddle in church affairs. The First Amendment enshrines not only disestablishment (church stays out of government) but free exercise (government stays out of church). Europe, on the other hand, has historically rejected the idea that church and state are separable, holding rather that one must have the upper hand and (at least in recent centuries) contending that it should be the state.

  • http://gottagetgoing.blogspot.com Kunoichi

    For me, this line popped out.

    “…when he was introduced to free thinkers. ”

    Do they mean people who think freely (which can be anybody), or Freethinkers (specific chapters of atheists), and if Freethinkers, which group? Who are they and what do they claim to represent? What was their influence on his decision to push for this “de-baptism?”

    I have the dubious pleasure of knowing some Homeschool Freethinkers, and it has been my experience that the term should have the word “from” in the middle of it. A most dogmatic bunch. Membership is such groups seems to attract the most virulent anti-Christians (for all their atheism, it is Christianity that is their target of choice). It would not be a surprise to me that such a group would heavily, even gleefully, encourage and support someone to take the RC Church to court over something like this. This makes me want to know just how active he is with Freethinkers.

  • Matt

    Yes, I think “people who think freely” is meant to be the antithesis of “religious people”. The article basically takes Mr. LeBouvier’s point of view throughout, and this is another place where that leads to a flaw.

  • Jerry

    I too was puzzled by the story and looked around. http://www.voanews.com/english/news/religion/Voluntary-De-Baptism-Rising-in-Europe-137592823.html has a related story to this one and one that gives a bit of perspective on “de-baptism”. But that story leaves out what to me is a critical point.

    But “de-baptisms”, a church’s deletion of one’s name from the official baptismal registry at a parishioner’s request, are a recent phenomenon, and they are taking place in both Protestant and Catholic communities.

  • Jerry

    I hope I don’t get put into “jail” again, but I hit ‘submit’ by accident last time so I waited a bit to try again. Oh, for an ‘edit’ option on posts.

    What I was going to write was to ask if churches are really deleting people’s names from baptismal registries? The VOA story does not clear up this question.

  • JWB

    I assume there are a bunch of stories on this in the French press that might provide more information and give different perspectives (although I don’t read French so googling won’t do me any good). But for whatever reason all the English-language versions of the story seem to have a common source. I.e., only one journalist writing in English has done any reporting on the story (which for all I know was just summarizing stuff from the French press and translating quotes given to French reporters rather than speaking directly to their sources), and everyone else in the English-speaking world is at his or mer mercy.

  • Passing By

    Mollie -

    You asked a series of logical, analytical questions. This story, however is not about logic. This poor man never left the Catholic Church, not really. To go to such lengths to re-write history says a about rage and desperati

    If I were going to try and write the ”inner” story here, I would not be asking about the technicalities of baptism. I would be looking for the psychology, the needs this man is expressing. After all, if he gets ”de-baptised”, his hate will remain. What will he do next to escape the Church?

  • Julia

    It appears that in the US you don’t wash away Baptism, you use a hair dryer to get de-Baptized.


  • Matt

    Julia, that is quite a fine story. The story of the “de-baptizers” is told, but I also count four full paragraphs of sound Christian theology giving the context from the other side.

    I don’t know the name of this reporter, G. Jeffrey MacDonald, but apparently a USA Today colleague of Grossman’s (or perhaps former colleague, as the article is dated July 2009). I say “well done”.

  • Asshur

    A few years ago, someone (with the backing of an official agency) tried the same stunt in Spain, using the LOPD (Data Privacy and Protection Act) as excuse
    The case was finally dismissed in court, in a fit of common sense rather than strict reading of the law (IMHO)


  • Tom B

    I think “freethinker” may be a mis-translation from whatever term was used in French. Free-thinker has a fairly specific meaning in English, refering to a 19th Century philosophical movement which hardly still exists today.

  • Asshur

    @Tom B
    “librepenseur” in French (and its equivalent in other latin languages or German) is an (euphemistic) synonym for atheist. There is hardly a misunterstanding possible. And it’s a fairly common usage in the european Continent

    Might be the meaning it is not as common in English, but AFAIK not unknown

  • Pattymelt

    It seems to me that the Church has replied to the court’s sentence by appealing it to a higher court. It remains to be seen if the press will report more fully on the reasons why the Church appealed the ruling.