De-Baptism: Is That Even Possible?

Increasing numbers of Europeans are asking to be “de-baptized,” says a report in the Huffington Post, and Church officials are concerned.

Say what?  Doesn’t Baptism change you ontologically, leaving an indelible mark on your soul, just as ordination does for the priest?

Well, yes.  No matter how hard you scrub, you really can’t wash that mark off. 

But apparently, people—lots of people!—are trying.  Some estimate the number of “de-baptisms” requested in Europe has reached the tens of thousands.  Both Protestant and Catholic churches have been affected.

There are different reasons: 

  • Financial Incentives – In countries like Germany, Austria and Belgium, governments levy “church taxes”; and if non-practicing Catholics claim to be “de-baptized,” they will get to keep the share of their taxes that has been levied for the Church.
  • Anger Over the Church Sex Scandals – In Belgium, which has been deeply affected by the scandal of clergy sex abuse, the Brussels Federation of Friends of Secular Morality reports that there has been a sharp increase in the number of requests—with more than 2,000 people requesting “de-baptism” in 2010 in the French-speaking region of Belgium alone.
  • Secularism – As many Europeans have turned away from the church, some want their disbelief to be officially recognized.

A case pending in Normandy, France, involves Rene Lebouvier, a 71-year-old retiree from Fleury, near the D-Day beaches.  Lebouvier was raised by devout Catholic parents, attending Catholic schools and even considering the priesthood.  As the years passed, however, Lebouvier fell away—eventually completely losing his faith in God.  About ten years ago, Lebouvier contacted the parish where he was born, and requested that his name be removed from their baptismal records.  The parish, in response, wrote a note in the margin, indicating that he had removed himself from membership.  However, this was not satisfactory for the atheist Lebouvier; he filed suit, asking that the church remove all evidence of his ever having been initiated into the Catholic religion.  The case is currently working its way through the French courts.

In Britain, tens of thousands of people downloaded a “de-baptism certificate” offered as a joke by the National Secular Society.

In countries like Germany, Austria and Belgium, the cost to the Church may be severe.  Governments of those countries levy “church taxes”; and if non-practicing Catholics claim to be “de-baptized,” the churches will see a decline in tax benefits.

But more important than the financial hardship, the “de-baptism” craze warns of an increased secularism throughout the Continent.  In Germany, some 181,000 Catholics left the Catholic Church in 2011.  (Rather than seeking “de-baptism,” German citizens simply complete government paperwork indicating that they no longer wish to pay church taxes.)

Adding to the Church’s concern for souls is a decline in the number of children who are baptized in infancy.  Fifty years ago, more than 90 percent of French children were baptized; today, roughly one in three receives the sacrament.

Focusing on the positive, some Catholics rejoice at the reduction in merely cultural Christianity, noting that those who want to be Christian really do believe in the Gospel of Christ.

I invited my husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, to comment on the “de-baptism” phenomenon.  Here is his reflection.

 Have You Ever Wished You’d Never Been Born?

A reflection by Deacon Jerry Schiffer

Encountering some of life’s more trying moments, many of us have heard (and maybe even used) the phrase “I wish I’d never been born!” I’m sure those words are not always intended to be taken literally, and yet, I’m just as sure that at times they are. While one may be uncertain of the intent of the words, one can be certain that using them cannot and will not change the circumstances or reality of one’s birth.

The same is true of baptism.

In certain parts of the world, individuals are now seeking to relieve themselves of the “burden” of ever having been baptized. At least, that is the idea that has been adopted in areas of an increasingly secularized Europe.

Many who are unhappy with their traditional initiation into the church of their parent’s choice – Catholic and Protestant alike – are apparently seeking to be “unbaptized.” A notation next to their names in church records that they have officially renounced their faith is apparently not enough. Only removal of their names from the records – a denial that the baptism had ever even occurred – will satisfy some of those who are unhappy with any connection with a church.

Fueling this anti-baptism mind-set are several factors: unhappiness with the child abuse scandals of recent years, a general rejection of religion and/or belief in God, and taxes that are levied by some European countries for the support of churches. While it is true that some advocates of “unbaptism” are no longer believers and wish to be totally “disassociated” from the church of their baptism for that reason, others remain believers but want no association with a formal church. (For more on this phenomen, click here.)

Whatever the desire of the individual seeking to be “unbaptized’” the truth must still prevail. Even a court-ordered removal of a person’s name from a church’s baptism records cannot remove the reality of that event any more than an official of Iran can erase the reality of the holocaust by saying that it never happened.

The fact is that the baptism really occurred. Those repudiating their baptisms can say “I wish I was never re-born” all they want. Wishing, however, will not make it so.” They can, however, renounce their faith and they may even be able to convince a court to require that their baptism be removed from church records.

The true tragedy in all of this is not the denial of the baptism’s existence, but the denial of its meaning – a denial of the eternal relationship, the spiritual re-birth that each baptism offers to the person receiving the sacrament. Let us pray for our brothers and sisters who have not seen this truth.

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