It’s my sacred right to leave the Catholic Church

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By JP O’Malley

Between 1914 and 1915, the Jewish Czech writer, Franz Kafka, wrote the mesmerising novel, The Trial.

Today, 100 years later, it illuminates the connection between bureaucracy and power.

In The Trial, a young bank official, Joseph K, is arrested for a crime that doesn’t seem to exist. He is taken to a quarry outside of his town and killed.

The word ‘Kafkaesque’ is overused by journalists, but it is appropriate in describing my experience when attempting to ‘excommunicate’ myself from the Catholic Church. Attempting to leave this immensely powerful organisation is like being locked in a crystal maze with no exit sign in sight.

Ostensibly, my official attempt to depart from Catholicism started last October. But the philosophical quest began 18 years ago. As a young boy, the Catholic Church was vital in shaping my cultural and intellectual identity.

There was a picture of the Sacred Heart in my bedroom. Every night, until I was eight years old, my brother and I would kneel and say prayers before sleep.

A decade of the rosary was said in the family when someone got sick or when there was a crisis. As a small child, one Lent I attended mass every single morning. My uncle is a practicing Catholic priest in Limerick City. And my father still has many close friends who are priests. All of them are good, decent, honest men, with strong moral convictions.

Historically, even for all its failings, the Catholic Church played a positive role in people’s lives.

The rhythms and rituals of prayer divided the day into sections that gave people meaning. The introspective space of a building provided a place to seek spiritual comfort, to create community networks, and to enable people to believe in the idea of a cohesive society with a shared sense of purpose, rather than a cluster of random individuals.

I recall these positive outcomes, because it’s insulting to the generation that came before my own to somehow believe that their value system, which derived from Catholicism, can now, rather facetiously, be seen as farcical.

However, these positive traits, were, over time, supplanted by an obsession with power.

18 COMMENTS

  1. What’s so difficult about leaving the Catholic Church?

    You just stop attending the rituals, and if asked about your religion, answer something different from “Catholic”.

    They are not coming for you to force you to resume waffle-eating at gun point.

    • Hi Luis Henrique,

      I hear you. I left a church by doing exactly as you suggest.

      However …

      If you read the full sory it becomes clear what is being discussed. Some of us – including an increasing number of Catholics, as outlined in the full story – are becoming aware of a great many evils done in religions’ name and wish to register our protest. In addiition, we’re concerned about official records. This may sound a bit odd, but bear with me for few more moments.

      If you went through any rite-of-passage ceremony as a member of a religion then that is usually recorded. For Christians this can include baptisms, confirmations, a wedding and may also include (though I’m much less clear on the details) informal records of attendance at confession and communion and being named as a God Parent – though I’m pretty certain that being read the last rites probably isn’t recorded.

      It is unlikely but, of course, these records could be misused by the religion’s bureaucracy to boost some of their figures. But even if the records are not being misused the fact remains that many people will know from among their neighbours who was baptised, etc..

      If there is no way to formal way leave a religion then the default setting, so to speak, is that we assume someone retains some semblance of faith.

      Repeated across a whole society (in this case Eire) an assumption – many atheists, agnostics and humanists would claim a false assumption – is created: People see and hear a few private conversations that confirm some very broad-based statistics that might appear in the Media, but they are generally left with an impression that change is happening slowly. People may question their faith more often, but the Church still seems central to everyday life.

      In addition, by not allowing people to leave the Church creates yet another false impression; it tends to dampen criticism. Without a ready means to demonstrate their changed ideas about what the Church is and what they think of it people are being denied their free expression.

      The Catholic Church in this story reminds me of a speech that President Putin gave very early on in his political career – if I remember correctly when he was Prime Minister under Yeltsin. He said: “There is no such thing as an ex-KGB man”

      In other words; there is no escape. If we need you, you will be called on to serve again, and if you protest or resist expect no mercy.

      The assumption, by an institution, of rights over the lives of people that trumps all their choices is the very essence of totalitarianism.

      The Catholic position sounds like a clear echo of the increasingly popular Muslim theology of apostasy – all those who deny the faith must die. It is a clear remnant of the Inquisition, here, now, in the 21st Century.

      The key point here is that all three of these political movements are ideological, dogmatic and encourage their followers to believe the otherwise unbelievable.

      If one or two brave people can stand up and be counted others will follow. That’s how, history teaches us, all real political change happens.

      It’s time to remove the levers of power and influence from the hands of religious leaders. But the main story gets it wrong.

      As Bill Maher did when he un-baptised Mitt Romney’s Father-in-Law and brought him ‘back to the realm of the dead atheist’ we don’t need to wait for religions to help out with a lot of this – we can just go ahead and do it.

      The records remain a sticking point.

      Peace.

  2. The problem is is that the catholic church can count you as a member and therefore effectively represent you when lobbying for more entitlements from the government. The sheer weight of numbers on their books makes them almost like a ready made petition whenever they want to influence decisions. The fact that they say the census is the way you can opt out of the church (but every 10 years or so!) shows that they probably refer to the census to prove the numbers of active catholics and the endorsement by those members of whatever the church is wanting to do.

    This is why it matters that you should be able to leave the church easily and have it as matter of official record by both the government and the church.

  3. Unbelievable! who gives a flying F__k to the moon about religion. just come to your senses and quit… as soon as I was physically able to resist my abusive mother i stopped and never looked back, life changed to much for the better immediately. Bureaucracy’s only have power over you if you let them, ignore them and they can’t do anything.

  4. I’m sure I’m still technically a member of the Church of England and the Man from Uncle fan club. I also suspect, along with virtually everyone else on the planet, past and present, that I am a member of the Church of Scientology as they have been christening lists of people for decades now. As I don’t believe in any of it (though I still fancy myself as Napoleon Solo) I don’t get sleepless nights worrying whether the Archbishop of Canterbury has me listed in a book that he keeps by his bedside. This seems like a non-problem to me.

    • I don’t get sleepless nights worrying whether the Archbishop of Canterbury has me listed in a book that he keeps by his bedside. This seems like a non-problem to me.

      Unfortunately it becomes a problem when he includes you and millions of others, in the figures of church membership, in support of his bishops’ presence in the House of Lords, – and their “right” to pretend to represent you when pushing their dogmas into legislation!

    • There have been a couple of national censuses in the UK in the past few decades. As long as you didn’t tick the C of E box in the religion category on either of these documents I’m fairly certain you can consider your membership of that august body to have lapsed. I wouldn’t worry about having to spend eternity in the company of Bono, her majesty the Queen, Cliff Richard et al.

      A hundred trillion years from now, however, you may be sick to the back teeth of the sight of Illya Kuryakin and Mr Waverly. I don’t know what the terms and conditions of your Man from Uncle fan club membership were; if you promised NBC your immortal soul back when you joined, I’m afraid you have no one but yourself to blame.

      I think you’re in the clear vis-a-vis your Scientology membership too. As a girl, I don’t have to worry about being chased around Scientologist heaven in a Benny Hill stylee by Tom Cruise and John Travolta until the universe collapses back in on itself, so you have my apologies if I’m wrong about this.

      • Katy Cordeth Aug 23, 2014 at 5:53 am

        There have been a couple of national censuses in the UK in the past few decades. As long as you didn’t tick the C of E box in the religion category on either of these documents I’m fairly certain you can consider your membership of that august body to have lapsed.

        it is not quite that simple, because there is no clear distinction in the initial questions as to the level of participation which is being claimed:-
        http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/measuring-equality/equality/ethnic-nat-identity-religion/religion/index.html#6

        Recommended religious affiliation question for England
        What is your religion?
        Interviewer to read options

        No religion
        Christian (including Church of England, Catholic, Protestant and all other Christian denominations)
        Buddhist
        Hindu
        Jewish
        Muslim
        Sikh
        Any other religion, please describe

        http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/measuring-equality/equality/ethnic-nat-identity-religion/religion/index.html#12
        How to avoid misinterpretation of religion data by users?

        Because there are several dimensions to religion, talking and reading about religion or specific religions without qualification can be confusing and lead to misinterpretation by data users. Therefore, if presenting data from the harmonised religion question it is important to be explicit and refer to the specific ‘concept’ being measured and that is ‘affiliation’. It is also recommended that when presenting data on religious affiliation it should be accompanied by a short note, such as:

        Respondents were asked the question, ‘What is your religion?’ which measures affiliation – that is the identification with a religion irrespective of actual practice or belief.

        There should also be caution when using inappropriate terminology which can lead to confusion, for example:

        The term faith should not be used as an alternative to religion when referring to statistics as this may imply a stronger connection to a religion than is actually meant. In this instance it would be misleading to say that a ‘percentage of people have a faith’.

        Writing about people ‘being religious’ rather than ‘having a religious affiliation’ may be inferred as a reference to levels of practice or belief.

  5. Once baptised a catholic always a catholic according to their doctrine unless you are adolf hitler or pol pot then you are by default atheist scum. Since only 2 people fall into this not a real catholic category you have to resort to devious means. You could marry a protestant like Joe Goebbels and get your self ex-communicated (a wee bit drastic) or you could become a freemason and be excommed by papal bull (probably more drastic but the divorce process is less costly). Then get kicked out of the freemasons – financial irregularity is always a good ploy or simply resign. The masons won’t hound you.

  6. I think people like this author are comical. So he’s upset because the process that the Catholic church has to excommunicate yourself isn’t user friendly? I’m shocked Louie! Next he’s going to tell me that there’s pedophilia going on in the establishment or that it was also hard to cancel his membership in the Columbia record club (you have to be old and American to get that).

    What a joke. I “excommunicated myself” from the Catholic church when I was 12. Actually, I kept going to church for a while because it took me a few years to work up the courage to tell my parents but from 12 I thought it was bullshit and really haven’t changed my opinion since. And a few years later I stopped going to church. I never worried about any official process or getting some acknowledgement from the church that I was officially no longer Catholic. I was an altar boy, I knew the rules, you stop going to communion and church and in the eyes of the church you are going to hell. I didn’t care about any more official recognition than their own dogma and it baffles me why anyone who wanted to quit would waste their time getting official “Yeah we quit you too” recognition from the group that they no longer believe in. It’s either a symptom of someone who hasn’t really understood that the dogma and all the rules that say “stand when you say this, kneel when you say that, and cross yourself when you say this” are just nonsense and irrelevant. Or, which is what I suspect, it’s yet another “New Atheist” who has nothing interesting to say and instead makes up a faux story about his “sacred right to leave the Catholic Church”.

  7. Since it seems unlikely that the Catholic church will accommodate those who wish to state their protest by formally resigning, it might be worth the while of some enterprising, like-minded ex-Catholic to start an official, legal registry for his comrades. If successfully recognized as an official document that must be politically accepted in countries where the church acquires privilege due to its claimed numbers, a “counter list” might undo that privilege. (The church claims 10 million, the ex-Catholic document claims 6 million, therefore the church can only claim 4 million.) Why even trust the Catholic church to actually excommunicate you, if it could possibly use statistical data to its advantage? It’s safer to keep your own numbers.

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