Debaptism 2.0: Fleeing the Flock Via the Net
Nicole Martinelli 06.07.07 2:00 AM
MILAN -- Disgruntled Italian Catholics are increasingly turning to the internet to leave the Church by getting "debaptized" -- but typically, the Pope isn't making the process web friendly.
Cyberspace is one of the few places lapsed Catholics can get a copy of the formal letter called "actus defectionis" that is required by Church officials to leave the faith.
One such letter, downloaded 30,000 times, is the main attraction at the Italian Union of Rationalists and Agnostics, or UAAR, website.
The 2,000-member group, which won a David-and-Goliath legal battle over debaptism in 2002, has no brick-and-mortar office. It relies on e-mail and the occasional phone call to keep things moving.
"We see a traffic spike every time the Pope says something unpopular," said UAAR site manager Raffaele Carcano, who is also a banker, adding that the site recently hit new heights during a recent fray over civil unions.
Church officials, however, view debaptism as a matter of bookkeeping. Priests are incapable of washing off the holy water that tots were dipped in for the rite.
The actus defectionis must be snail-mailed to the parish where baptism took place. Priests note in the register that the flock member has permanently strayed -- and that's one less believer to bulk up statistics.
There are no statistics on how many Italians have defected. Proponents claim thousands, the Church maintains a handful -- and according to at least one Vaticanista, Salvatore Mazza of the Catholic daily newspaper Avvenire, debaptists can, at best, "hope to become a niche phenomena."
Still, there's enough buzz around debaptism to prompt the Vatican to publish a legislative text reminding the former faithful that they are committing an act of "apostasy, heresy or schism."
The pool is a potentially large one: 90 percent of Italians are baptized but only a third are churchgoers.
Debaptists have their anti-evangelizing work cut out for them. Reaching computer-shy lapsed Catholics may be the biggest challenge -- just 31 percent of Italians regularly use (.pdf) the internet.
And, although the internet is great for disseminating information, downloading the letter doesn't absolve one from the infuriating Bel Paese bureaucracy, as Luca S. discovered.
Luca, a 28-year-old who works in sales, downloaded the letter from UAAR's site and mailed it. His parish priest in Verona, who had never debaptized anyone before, demanded a face-to-face meeting.
Describing himself as "kind of a coward and pretty lazy," but unwilling to belong to a Church that didn't represent him, Luca made an appointment. He told the priest he had never been a believer, so why belong to the flock? "A flock that included me as soon as I was born without my consent," he said.
The priest noted Luca had formally left the religion in the baptism register, then Luca signed his name and left.
For Carcano, 40, the battle continues. Judging from the e-mail he gets, Luca's experience is fairly common -- priests often insist on a face-to-face interview. UAAR recently uploaded a new letter with reinforced legal jargon to dissuade priests from requiring in-person visits or notifying relatives of the debaptism.
"My parents didn't take it well," Luca said. "They were concerned about what people would think. But they've since forgotten about the whole thing. In a lot of families this would be seen as an immense tragedy. My mother was upset because I can't get married in church now."
Though UAAR works mostly remotely, members meet offline to organize protests and other initiatives, including an upcoming group debaptism for the non-internet savvy.