NPR reported this weekend about Rene LeBouvier, an elderly Frenchman (71) who wants to leave the Catholic Church by having his baptism nullified. A noble effort in which he is far from alone: apparently over a thousand of his countrymen ask every year for the same thing, and twice that number want out in neighboring Belgium. The reasons the article cites are: exposure to free thought, the pedophile scandals, and the pope’s stand against condoms to prevent AIDS, which LeBouvier called “criminal”.
So he demanded to be struck from the parish register, and was told by the priest, “No can do.” So Citizen LeBouvier went to court. Though the judge ruled in his favor, the diocese’s appeal is pending.
The thing is, no matter what the law decides, the Church is right. By their own theory, baptism imparts a “spiritual and indelible mark” on the soul, which St. Augustine compared to the mark received by legionnaires in the imperial service. It is a seal, mark of membership (or, some might say, slavery), given by the smearing of sacred chrism on the head during the ceremony. Since it’s a theological thing, it’s impervious to any mere secular legal posturing. The best the French or any court can do is to say the Church has no claim on him in this world.
In fact, the Catholic Church can’t let people out completely even if it wanted to. “One can’t be de-baptized,” says Rev. Robert Kaslyn, who as dean of the School of Canon Law at the Catholic University of America, should know. “One could refuse the grace offered by God, the grace offered by the sacrament, refuse to participate,” he says, “but we would believe the individual has still been marked for God through the sacrament, and that individual at any point could return to the church.”
The “best” the Church can do is to excommunicate the person – totally cut the individual off from the rites and sacraments, even Knights of Columbus spaghetti dinners.
Of course, back in the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church held supreme power over the minds of humanity, in the hands of the Inquisition, excommunication also the prelude to a literal death sentence. Heresy was treason; when declared a heretic and excommunicated, a person became an outlaw and the hands of all were raised against him or her. Not all excommunications were so severe; there were major and minor forms, and it happened a lot for all kinds of offenses. Even entire countries could be cut off from the Church’s ministrations by interdict.
People could be completely outlawed or their presence tolerated; excommunication could be public or secret, by the law or by an act in itself. Forgiveness had to be obtained from the one who excommunicated, or his superior; the most grievous offenses being reserved to the pope or his representative alone to forgive. But even then, anybody can come back on their deathbed and be forgiven by any priest – even a priest who has been defrocked (because by being branded by God at ordination, priests are always priests).
Those days, fortunately are long past and excommunications can be had be all and sundry, though probably a curse is still quietly affixed to it. Because although the principle is the worst thing the Church can do (all that burning and torture was actually done by the State as a favor, you see), pissed-off popes have been known to curse their enemies.
You won’t find any mention of papal curses in the Catholic Encyclopedia, but one incident is actually recorded in one of the very few memoirs ever written by a pontiff. Aeneas Sylvius, a Renaissance Humanist who became Pope Pius II, had a severe falling-out with one of his generals, Sigismondo Malatesta, a wonderfully-named brute, truly as sinister as his name suggests. Although his main crime seems to have neglecting to pay tribute to Rome, according to Pius,
He was such a slave to avarice that he was ready not only to plunder but to steal. His lust was so unbridled that he violated his daughters and his sons-in-law. He outdid all barbarians in cruelty. His bloody hand inflicted terrible punishments on innocent and guilty alike… Wealth or a beautiful wife or handsome children were enough to cause a man to be accused of crime. He hated priests and despised religion… Nevertheless he built at Rimini a splendid church…[and] filled it so full of pagan works of art that it seemed… a temple of heathen devil-worshippers. In it he erected for his mistress a tomb… with an inscription in the pagan style as follows, “Sacred to the deified Isotta.” The two wives he had married before he took Isotta as his mistress he killed… Of all men who have ever lived or ever will live he was the worst scoundrel, the disgrace of Italy and the infamy of our times. (From the abridged version of Pius II’s “Secret Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope”, p. 110, 111)
Someone that utterly vile deserved special treatment, and when Pius had finally had enough, he delivered a truly pontifical whammy. At a public consistory in Rome a few days after Christmas in 1460, Malatesta was accused of “robberies, arson, massacres, debauchery, adultery, incest, murders, sacrilege, betrayals, treason, and heresy.” (p. 184)
So Pius stood up and formally canonized Sigismondo Malatesta to Hell. He declared that:
Sigismondo’s crimes are manifest and evident, and not to one or two individuals only, but they are notorious to almost all the world. Let him then take precedence… let him be enrolled a citizen of Hell. Sigismondo’s crimes, unprecedented in our age, call for new and unprecedented procedure. No mortal heretofore has descended into Hell with the ceremony of canonization. Sigismondo shall be the first to be deemed worthy of such honor. By an edict of the Pope, he shall be enrolled in the company of Hell as comrade of the devils and the damned. Nor shall we wait for his death, if haply he may come to his senses, since he has left no hope of his conversion. (p. 185)
Sigismondo Malatesta was then ceremoniously burnt in effigy on the steps of St. Peter’s and a crusading alliance joined against him. Once surrounded, he finally capitulated but Pius was merciful, depriving him of his lands and then restoring to him the town of Rimini as the pope’s vassal. Sigismondo died in his castle; peacefully, one assumes, in 1468.
Thankfully, when my turn came, I hadn’t been quite so naughty as all that. However, I was fairly confident that my past as a pretend and later schismatic cleric, I could easily make a case. And I figured that as annoying as I had earnestly been to the hierarchy since my memories of clergy abuse surfaced, they would be more than happy to show me the door. I was not disappointed.
I got excommunicated simply by writing to the local archbishop and asking him, with a little list of all that I’d been up to (helpfully citing Canon Law for each offense), and it worked. Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan sent me a nice letter back and that was that.
It’s a win-win situation all the way around. I won’t go into church, they won’t bother me, and there’s a toasty seat waiting for me in the heretic’s circle in Hell, which is where most the people I’d like to spend eternity with most likely are anyway.
Having successfully gotten over the wall, I encourage anyone who wishes to get out of the Church to go ahead and request to be excommunicated. As a formal statement that you would rather risk the fires of Hell than tolerate their lies, there are not many more protests more powerful.
Those with tender consciences should take comfort in that excommunication is only for offenses against the Church. It’s considered dire punishment because it supposedly cuts one off from all means of grace. But according to their own rules, it cannot separate a human being from the Divine Source of grace. And all it takes to make it into Heaven is that you feel properly sorry at the end.
So if you get excommunicated, it’s all good. If you’re not a believer, you’re free. But if you still are, congratulations anyway! You just cut out the middleman!