Like many lapsed Catholics, my relationship with the church has had some spectacular ups and downs, from the triumph of playing Jesus in my primary school Easter passion play, to the nadir of watching Cardinal George Pell acquitted. It had been years since I’d had anything to do with the church, yet as George jetted back to his Vatican palazzo, I decided mere non-participation wasn’t enough. I wanted out.
Perhaps I could get a certificate, I thought, formally acknowledging that I was no longer Catholic. That I’d officially quit. I’d carry it in my wallet, and the next time my staunchly religious uncle said “I’m praying for you”, while giving me the pitying look he reserves for stray lambs, I’d whip it out and shove it in his face.
Take that, frail and elderly Catholic relative!
But where would I start? Who would I speak to? As Irish comedian Dara Ó Briain once joked, “You can’t cut up your membership card in front of a priest and go ‘feck you! I’m out of here’.”
If you Google “How do I quit the Catholic church?”, you’ll find a lot of chatter, mostly posted by angry, disaffected former Catholics. And it seems that most of them regard excommunication as the way to go. A reasonable assumption, given that excommunication is an incredibly ancient and dramatic concept, going right back to the start of the church, and evoking medieval trials, the Inquisition, and crimes that are an insult to God Himself.
Which sounds like just my kind of thing.
If you did manage to get excommunicated, you’d be in salubrious company. The pop star Madonna boasted that she’s been excommunicated three times. I can’t find any official record of this, but I know my Aunt Miranda would have supported the move, having warned me back in 1984 that Madonna’s hit single Like a Virgin was, quite literally, the work of the devil.
Martin Luther certainly was excommunicated. So was Napoleon, after he annexed Rome. But clergy also feature prominently on the list of famous excommunicants. Even Saint Mary MacKillop was excommunicated for a short time, which gives her pre-canonisation biography some frisson. Renegade nun becomes saint. The ultimate comeback story!
For those who might struggle to conquer Rome, or release blasphemous hit singles, do not despair. Because common folk can also qualify, sometimes en masse. In the 1949 Decree Against Communism, Pope Pius XII announced that any Catholics who affirmed communist dogma would be excommunicated from the church. Better still, one form of excommunication, known as latae sententiae, can occur automatically if you carry out a prohibited act, like procuring an abortion, and doesn’t even need to be noted or recorded by the church. Which suggests that there might be millions of us walking around, excommunicated without even knowing it.
Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Most legal systems are highly intricate, but canon law, which governs the internal workings of the church, boasts the added complication of having God in the mix. Which adds a thick and disorienting dollop of magic to the proceedings.
For example, to qualify for a latae sententiae, you’d have to know that your actions could attract excommunication when you committed the prohibited act. What’s more, for any specific sin, there will be circumstances that excuse you from excommunication, even if you have committed the prohibited act and you knew of the penalty. So, if you’ve had an abortion, but your boyfriend pressured you into it, you might get a reprieve. The really annoying thing is that you can’t be sure about whether a particular exemption applies in a particular case. That’s something only God knows. And He’s probably not telling.
The truth is, even if you were expressly and officially excommunicated by the church – a sanction called ferendae sententiae – you still wouldn’t be out. Because excommunication is just a punishment, intended to make you rethink your sinful ways. As such, it’s more like a suspension than an expulsion, the whole point being to get you back onto those straight and narrow Catholic tracks. Which means that, according to the church, even Luther and Henry the VIII were still Catholics. Just very, very bad ones.
The moral of this story is not that excommunication is widely misunderstood by the mainstream Catholic community (and Madonna). It’s that there’s actually no way of quitting the church. According to church doctrine, once you’ve been baptised, the bond cannot be broken. The communion is eternal. You could strip naked, paint JESUS SUCKS! on your butt and streak through the main square at St Peter’s. As far as the church is concerned, you’d still be one of them.
As the old axiom goes: semel Catholicus, semper Catholicus. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.
So, why should we worry what the church thinks? They may regard you as theirs, but if you don’t go to church, what does it matter?
If you stop going to the gym, but retain your membership, you’re only hurting yourself, and your bank balance. By contrast, when you passively let the church count you as a member, you’re doing something more insidious. Because whenever the church exerts political influence, whether it’s in opposing same-sex marriage, or fighting against abortion rights, that influence is bolstered by the huge membership it claims – 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide. A number that’s enormously inflated by the fact that they’re counting everyone who’s ever been baptised. Even though, in the west, the vast majority of those are thoroughly lapsed.
So how do we push back? Excommunication may not be an option, but speaking up loudly, and actively distancing yourself from them, is. Don’t get married in a church, or send your kids to Catholic school, or have them baptised to please grandma. The church won’t let you go, but you can tell them where to go. And for all of us angry lapsed Catholics, that’s a start.