How do you become, formally, not-a-Catholic? You take the law into your own hands

The Guardian

Sebastian Tesoriero

Sat 11 Apr 2020

The church has tried to make it so it can’t be divorced. Yet people do want to leave. In droves

 Sebastian Tesoriero, who has formally left the Catholic church. Photograph: Supplied

“Are you a Catholic?”

The question eventually surfaces over dinner or drinks in so many conversations: about the child sex abuse royal commission, marriage equality, religious freedom, legalising abortion and euthanasia. About George Pell.

Many of us baptised Catholic have drifted – through boredom, scepticism, disbelief or outright disgust with the Roman church – from Christmas Catholic to census Catholic to lapsed Catholic. Over the decades I’ve been outside the church I’ve also used ex-Catholic, non-practising Catholic and mis-Catholic.

In his statement after being acquitted of child sexual abuse charges by the high court, Pell said his trial was not a referendum on the church. But when you’ve come to realise you’re not identifiably any sort of Catholic and that the church running the show has made itself contemptible to you, how do you cast your vote? How do you become, formally, not-a-Catholic?

The answer isn’t in the help menu of the Vatican’s website.

In fact, the church has moved to close the few openings by which the disaffected could officially register having renounced the faith. In 2006 the Vatican established rules to accommodate the growing number of defectors – as they call them there. Oddly for such a slow-moving institution, the rules were aborted just three years later. Unlike a state with its citizens or a football club with its members, the Vatican would no longer facilitate the initiated leaving its ranks.

For many parents, baptising a child is a bit of cheap soul insurance or done blithely for the benefit of devout grandparents. But for the Catholic church, it’s the door to membership and salvation. A one-way door. Baptism “imprints on the soul an indelible spiritual sign” and creates an “ontological and permanent bond” with Jesus and the church. And this contract is recorded on a parish baptismal register, forever.

Over time and with much tumult the church has been made to accept that a marriage might end in divorce. But not a baptism. There can be no divorcing the church. And it battles the modern world to maintain the purity of this doctrine.

Yet people do want to leave. In droves. These days the church can’t burn heretics or ignore the estranged who continue to write renouncing their Catholicism. Some of these ex-Catholics have shared their experiences online.

It seems dioceses around the world have been responding – when they respond – in accordance with the abolished 2006 rules on “defection”. On written advice of defection to your diocese of baptism, the local archbishop deliberates – apparently applying the church’s criteria for the extreme measure of excommunication. If satisfied, he replies that it is sad to receive your request but a note of your desire to leave will be made on the baptismal register.

The only barely acknowledged way out of this global institution – if that’s how you can characterise such a note – is by an informal, decentralised, subterranean convention.

I wrote to the Sydney archdiocese in the week a jury would convict Pell as a choirboy rapist. Over five carefully considered A4 pages I condemned the church as cruel on abortion, euthanasia and suicide; as malign on contraception; recalcitrant on women; degenerate and prurient on gays and sex; and as criminal on child sex abuse. I wasn’t a Catholic and wanted any relevant records amended to protect me from the church, and to protect its members from ever mistaking me for a Catholic.

And then … nothing. It took two more chase-up letters over three months to rouse any response. When it came I was presented – without consultation – with that familiar vague undertaking to formally note on the baptismal register my desire to leave.

“Desire to leave” is a slippery formula – a small nod to an intention that preserves the church’s position: yes, you’d like to leave but actually … you can’t. It sidesteps the facts: you have left and you are not Catholic.

I wanted more than “desire to leave”. I demanded my own form of words on the baptismal register.

Demands on the Sydney archdiocese are best made with the backing of secular law. Under federal privacy law Australian privacy principle 13 requires entities like the Catholic church to correct personal information that is inaccurate, out of date, incomplete, irrelevant or misleading. An old baptismal entry ticks at least four of those five boxes.

Faced with the threat of a civil complaint and being hauled before the office of the Australian information commissioner, the archdiocese suddenly – after 10 months and 10 letters – relented. A photocopy of my baptismal register entry arrived with a handwritten inscription of my own little prayer of disassociation: “Considers himself not a Catholic and wants not to be dealt with as one.”

Is it worth the effort to counter a symbol to which you ascribe no meaning? That’s not the question, really. The questions are for the Catholic church.

Why does an archdiocese archive its sacraments and give up microfilm copies of its registers to posterity – in Sydney’s case its website says to the National Library of Australia, State Library of NSW and the Society of Australian Genealogists? Why does it obscure, obstruct and resist proper correction of its records? Why doesn’t it move to establish a simple, transparent process of correction? Why is it for non-believers to drift off silently? Why won’t the church let go?

The answer to each question is the same: power. The church’s business model is sin and salvation. It says you’re a sinner yet can be saved. But only if you’re one of us; only if you do as we say.

Renunciation forces the Catholic church to listen to what it refuses to hear: I reject your claim of authority over me. You cannot tell me what to do or think, how to live, whom I love or marry, what I do with my body. I am gone and you will do me this courtesy: stay the hell out of my life.

To those who want to record their vote in a referendum on the Catholic church, here’s my Easter advice. Write to the archbishop of the diocese of your baptism. Give your name, date of birth, parents’ names, location of baptism and its estimated date – enough for the foundation document, your baptismal entry, to be identified.

Reference Australian privacy principle 13 and demand the record be corrected. Specify the correction you want. My formulation sets a precedent for what the church will accept beyond “desire to leave”. Feel free to use it or try taking it further. Demand that evidence of the amendment be provided within 30 days. After then you might be in a position, if necessary, to lodge a complaint to the information commissioner.

Still, the challenge remains for the Catholic church to do so much better. I call on the church to introduce an official mechanism to fully, formally record renunciations; a register of renunciation cross-referenced to baptismal records. The mechanism should be accessible through all archdiocesan websites.

A Finnish website has automated more than 730,000 resignations from Finland’s two state churches since new freedom of religion laws were introduced in 2003. The same can be done everywhere.

Good luck to the many wonderful believing Catholics who insist it’s their church, not the bishops’, and continue to operate from within a toxic institution; fighting the good fight, doing their various good works. I love the sinner, hate the sin.

But am I a Catholic?


  • Sebastian Tesoriero was baptised in the Catholic church as an infant and has no religion

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