Mary Combs remembers her last Mass. It was about 15 years ago, when sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in Boston, her hometown, was global news. She sat looking at the collection basket, imagining the money paying off victims. She never went back.
“Now there’s this Pennsylvania scandal,” Combs said. “Hundreds of priests abusing thousands of parishioners and a coverup that went all the way to the Vatican — again.”
Combs, a retired speech therapist in Winchester, Va., now attends Grace Lutheran Church. The Pennsylvania stories broke her heart, but she was comforted knowing she was done with Catholicism.
Then a friend brought up a startling possibility. Technically, she might still be counted by the Catholic Church as a member.
Combs researched her status, which led her to the office of the Rev. Thomas Ferguson, vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Va. After five weeks of trying to talk to the vicar general, she got a one-sentence response from Ferguson through a staffer, saying it was impossible to defect from the Catholic Church. (The Diocese of Arlington declined to discuss this subject with The Washington Post.)
Combs had struck on a frustrating piece of church bureaucracy: According to Catholic theology, there are no former Catholics.
That means I am technically Catholic, too, as I was baptized, per family tradition. But I am an atheist. I stopped considering myself affiliated with the Catholic Church long ago.
Recently, I too tried to formally split from the church. Between the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation and much of Catholic America’s apparent comfort with Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, I wanted nothing to do with it.
I was as stunned as Combs when I found out there was no way to disaffiliate.
“The claim that underlies all of this, a claim most Christian denominations share, is that baptism, once given, can’t be taken back,” said Patrick Hornbeck, chair of theology at Fordham University, a Catholic school. “When a person is baptized, the person always remains, in some way, shape or form, related to the Catholic Church.”
Formal acts of defection were introduced in the 1983 Code of Canon Law to solve a regulatory issue in some Catholic marriages. Unintentionally, that allowed defection for any reason. Pope Benedict XVI closed the loophole in 2010.
In theory, the act appended one’s baptismal record to show that the person no longer recognized church authority. But diocesan responses were inconsistent. Some honored defections, while others considered requests case by case or not at all, Hornbeck said.
Other separations exist. The church can excommunicate a member, a remedial denial of sacraments or church participation to encourage repentance for some wrong. “Notorious acts of defection” are significant public renunciations of church authority, including openly switching faiths or denominations. But neither appends the all-important baptismal record.
When voluntary defection was an option, grass-roots movements sprang up to encourage it. One website, CountMeOut.ie, launched in 2009 in response to the government of Ireland’s Ryan Report on church abuse. Visitors could simply download a Declaration of Defection form, fill in their details and send it to the relevant bishop.
“The original goal was to use the church’s own mechanism as a means of protest against it,” said Cormac Flynn, who co-founded the site with friends Grainne O’Sullivan and Paul Dunbar.
More than 12,000 forms were downloaded before Benedict nullified defections a year later and the site shuttered. Nearly 10 years later, the founders remember it as important activism for an Ireland still reevaluating its relationship with the church, Flynn said.
“Our contribution was a small one, but I do look back on that time with some pride that we added something to the national debate,” he said.
CountMeOut did not track how many downloads actually became defections. In fact, there is no churchwide record of defections, according to Mark Gray, who tracks church statistics at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown.
When Hornbeck surveyed U.S. dioceses, he found that the numbers of defection requests varied, ranging from zero to 650. Dioceses averaged about 25 defection requests over the 27-year span that they were allowed.
Far more people consider themselves “former Catholics” without formally defecting. In 2008, the Pew Research Center found that about one-third of those raised Catholic were no longer practicing, meaning about 10 percent of Americans are former Catholics. Instead of defecting, the vast majority simply stop attending Mass.
That was good enough for Combs for years, but now that she knows she’s still considered Catholic, she’s angry. She wonders whether she can join some class-action defection lawsuit. Dismissing someone who is unhappy to be tied to your organization’s criminal history just seems stunningly arrogant, she said. “How many others are dealing with this?” she asked. “If people heard they were ‘still Catholic,’ how many of them would be outraged?”
Combs and I are two. The true number could potentially be in the millions.
But if church theology does not recognize them, the law might not help. In the United States, religious organizations have the right to define their membership. Individuals also have the right to exit a religion for any reason. And in between those principles is a huge gray area, said Jessie Hill, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University.
So Catholics can pursue another faith or none, but the church can still consider them Catholic, provided it does not infringe on their rights.
“The courts won’t intervene when something has to do with the church rules,” Hill said. “They will avoid anything that requires them to make a judgment about an essentially religious issue.”
Avowed defectors of any faith might have legal standing if their former religious institution made damaging statements on their behalf, although courts might be wary of setting precedent, Hill said.
Still, Combs said formal defection would bring her peace of mind.
“It’s about my own integrity,” she said. “I truly believe they institutionalized child abuse. I just don’t want my name, my soul, my self to be in any way affiliated with them.”
Dan Waidelich is a writer and public relations professional. He lives in Richmond with his wife, Sarah, and cat, Toast.