Wash away your affiliation

NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday had a story about a 71-year-old atheist's rather curious legal battle against the Catholic Church in France. Rene LeBouvier has taken the church to court over its refusal to let him "nullify" his baptism:

LeBouvier grew up in that world and says his mother once hoped he'd become a priest. But his views began to change in the 1970s, when he was introduced to free thinkers. As he didn't believe in God anymore, he thought it would be more honest to leave the church. So he wrote to his diocese and asked to be un-baptized.

"They sent me a copy of my records, and in the margins next to my name, they wrote that I had chosen to leave the church," he says.

That was in the year 2000. A decade later, LeBouvier wanted to go further. In between were the pedophile scandals and the pope preaching against condoms in AIDS-racked Africa, a position that LeBouvier calls "criminal." Again, he asked the church to strike him from baptismal records. When the priest told him it wasn't possible, he took the church to court.

Apparently a judge in Normandy ruled in his favor and the dioceses appealed. The case is pending.

OK, the story just utterly confuses me. LeBouvier has already left the church. And he doesn't deny he was baptized. Is he asking the court to force the church to rewrite history? Again, he was baptized into the Christian faith. He has since renounced the faith. The church records both that he was baptized into the faith and that he chose to leave the church.

I'm not sure if the article simply needs to explain the oddities of French law more or if the story just fell down on the explanation of how Christian sacraments work.

The article apparently equates asking the church to strike the name from baptismal records with something called "de-baptism," without quite explaining why it's called that. The article quotes the dean of the School of Canon Law at Catholic University of America, Rev. Robert Kaslyn, as saying that Catholic teaching doesn't provide for de-baptism. Certainly this is not a Christian teaching. The article doesn't exactly dig down on why Christianity has no provision for de-baptism, although the dean explains a bit of Catholic teaching on baptism's permanent mark on the baptized:

"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."

French law states that citizens have the right to leave organizations if they wish. Loup Desmond, who has followed the case for the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, says he thinks it could set a legal precedent and open the way for more demands for de-baptism.

"If the justice confirms that the name Rene LeBouvier has to disappear from the books, if it is confirmed, it can be a kind of jurisprudence in France," he says.

Again, I need more explanation about why this article equates leaving an organization with something we're calling de-baptism, particularly since this case already includes the individual renouncing his membership. I'm sure it makes sense in the mind of the reporter or the litigant, but somehow something is getting lost in translation here.

Are we talking about forcing the Catholic Church to knowingly state something they know not to be true? To rewrite history? To create a new sacrament of de-baptism? To declare a particular sacrament of baptism invalid in the eyes of the church? If it is the last case, on what grounds is the atheist arguing the sacrament was invalid in the eyes of the church? If he were petitioning for an annulment of marriage, that would be what he'd be arguing, right? That the sacramental marriage was somehow invalid in the eyes of church? Is that what he's arguing here? If that's the sort of annulment he seeks, the argument for that annulment is missing.

Now, it's certainly true that churches are occasionally legally forced to do something that violates their conscience and teachings. Obviously we have a major instance of this even in the United States with the recent news that the Obama administration is giving religious institutions one year before they'll be forced to comply with provisions in the new health care laws that profoundly violate their teachings. But what's most interesting to me is not that sometimes a judicial or executive branch will try to force a church to violate its teachings but, rather, how the church responds. This article completely failed to discuss what the Catholic Church would do if France forced it institute a new rite/rewrite history/declare a sacrament invalid this would do. How would the church respond? Isn't that what's most interesting? Why no mention of the theological implications at hand? My own church body's American history began in response to a German attempt to force us to violate our doctrine. It's certainly interesting when governments attempt to tell religious institutions how to practice their religion, but even more so how they respond to such demands.

I also wish we could have gotten a better explanation of why annulment is the preferred legal avenue being pursued by this atheist. It was certainly given to readers and listeners why he loathes his former church but not why he seeks annulment. Perhaps a bit more explanation of whether the baptism records have sway outside of the church would have helped.

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