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The Catholics Fighting to Defect from the Church

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A group of disaffected Catholics in Malta have been forced to resort to civil law after they were unable to terminate their membership of the Church earlier this year. They join a string of organisations set up in recent years to push for the right to formally defect from the Catholicism.

Not In Our Name was founded earlier this year as a response to the abysmal behaviour of the Maltese Church during the referendum campaign to introduce divorce, which included refusing absolution to parishioners intending to vote for divorce and pressurising the elderly and vulnerable to vote against it.

In response, hundreds of enraged citizens organised themselves online and more than 40 people began official proceedings to formally defect from the Church, which involves having the baptismal register annotated to show that the individual has renounced their faith. The Curia's Chancellor, however, demanded a one-to-one interview with each applicant and, when members asked that they might attend in groups of three, they were refused.

Not In Our Name are now seeking a resolution using their right to freedom of association under Maltese law.

Theoretically, an individual has been able to formally defect from Catholicism since 1983 but a procedure for this was not put in place until 2006, after decades of campaigning by the Italian Union of Atheists and Rational Agnostics (UAAR). Essentially, an individual simply had to send a Declaration of Defection to their diocese and the baptismal register would be annotated accordingly.

But just three years later, at the end of 2009, the Vatican introduced a new document examining the effect of defection on marriage. The exact implications of the "Omnium in Mentem" are unclear, however, as one canon lawyer interpreted it at the time: "Whether we want to be a Catholic is not germane to the question of whether or not we are a Catholic." In Ireland, where over 12,000 people completed a Declaration of Defection through the secular campaign group Count Me Out, the Archdiocese of Dublin has suspended all defections indefinitely as a result.

This is a strange way of thinking: whether or not we believe in a religion would appear to be extremely germane to the question of whether we belong to that religion, but it is a mentality endemic to the Catholic Church. For centuries the baptismal register has been used to define who is a Catholic - right up until the 20th century, concerned Christian nannies of Jewish children would have them secretly baptised and, on occasion, Papal guards were sent out to kidnap them on the grounds that it wasn't appropriate for a Catholic child to be raised by Jewish parents.

Clearly this is unlikely to happen today, but there are still important reasons why it should be possible to formally renounce your faith. It is no coincidence that these campaign groups have arisen in countries where Catholicism still holds significant influence: Italy, Ireland and Malta. Frequently quoted figures - such as the statistic that 98% of the Maltese population is Catholic - are used by politicians to promote certain policies but, as they are based on the baptismal register, they do not reflect the numbers of people actually practicing the religion.

The motivations of Not In Our Name are overtly political:

"Since dissident voices against Church meddling in State matters are rarely heard, and since we were convinced that there would be an effort to hush everything up after the divorce referendum... we decided to take a stand and ask to formally leave the Church. This would put in doubt the veracity of the 98% statistic, and we hoped that it would spark a discussion about Church/State separation."

No wonder this is a movement the Church is not eager to co-operate with.

On an economic level, a 'church tax' in countries such as Germany and Austria means that baptised Catholics are automatically subject to. The UAAR claims this tax can be up to €60 a month on a salary of €2000.

Finally, of course, there are legitimate personal reasons why a person might want to defect. Particularly in the wake of the child abuse revelations and other scandals, individuals may feel the need to disassociate themselves formerly from the actions of the Church.

Preventing them from doing so only creates more scandal and adverse feeling towards an organisation that most people do not voluntarily choose to join in the first place.