Those defections do not have legal effect

J P O’Malley learns that the Irish Catholic church will not let you leave.

From aged 12, I had no belief, whatsoever, in the concept of a divine being.

By the time I was in my 20s, I was a militant-atheist.

And after my close reading of the ‘Ferns’, ‘Murphy’, and ‘Ryan Reports’, I was fully convinced that this was not an organisation I wanted to be associated with in any way.

It came as a huge surprise to me, then, last October, after I wrote to Reverend Fintan Gavin, the assistant chancellor of the Dublin Dioceses, asking if I could formally leave the Catholic Church, to be told that it was impossible.

There’s this 1983 Vatican “law,” you see, that was supposed to allow members to “defect.” (To what? Why defect? Why can’t people just leave? It’s not parenthood, after all. You can’t just leave parenthood, unless you’re a Class A Shit, but you can leave groups and clubs and political parties and, yes, religions.) But then there was a new law later on.

Fintan Gavin reiterated that since canon law was changed in 2009 “those [former] defections do not have legal effect.” In other words: the Catholic Church refuses to allow its members to walk away voluntarily.

When one has no affiliation — culturally, spiritually, or otherwise — to such an organisation, it’s easy to read this letter with a dose of Father Ted-style humour. But while the Church and State are completely separate — in terms of the common law in Ireland — that relationship has never been as simple as either the Irish government, or the Catholic Church, presently define it.

Since the founding of the Irish State, in 1922, the Church has provided a free service to the Irish government: a de facto, bureaucratic invisible hand to keep the population under control. If the Soviet Union had the Cheka to enforce public morality through fear, Ireland had priests and bishops. The costumes may have been different, but the theme remained the same: unquestionable, totalitarian power.

While these methods of coercion were never legally recognised in the Irish Constitution, the country was, one could argue, unofficially a theocracy until the early 1990s.

It wasn’t an entirely a free service. The state actually paid the church for running the Industrial “schools” and the mother-baby prisons. The state paid per head, and the church made a nice little living off the payments. And the population was by god kept under control.

Helen O’Shea, the current secretary of Atheist Ireland, who was able to formally defect from the Catholic Church pre-2009 — before the law was revoked by the Vatican — says that in the interests of democratic accountability the Irish state must operate in a consistent manner for all its citizens in terms of religious freedom.

“[Many] Irish schools are almost exclusively controlled by Catholic management. And when places are limited, a baptism certificate is often required. This is unacceptable in a supposedly non-theocratic state,” she said.

“Atheist Ireland are currently investigating setting up a website, so people can document their wish to leave the Church formally. It’s very ignorant [of the Church] to insist on membership when an individual requests the opposite,” said O’Shea.

I think that should happen. It would be very good for the church to be embarrassed by a long long long list of people who have left the church but are still counted as members by that church.


  1. says

    Getting excommunicated is no use because you’re still a member, you just can’t take part in the “sacraments.” They really really really don’t want to let people leave.

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    Keep all this in mind when you read the statistics that there are more Christians in the world than any other religious group. It’s precisely this sort of “funny numbers”, “cooked membership books”, and “creative accounting” that is used (along with outright lying) to claim so many members when we all know church attendance has dropped through the floor and churches are having to close because they can’t pay their bills any more.

    One sect of Christians, the Mormons, keeps the names of everyone baptized into THEIR cult on their books until their 110th birthdays (some sources say 120th). Out of “consideration for the members”, of course – what if they come back?? THAT’s how they claim 6 million members (or whatever) worldwide, when most of their “members” are never seen again after their baptisms.

  3. zubanel says

    If you don’t have any affiliation culturally, spiritually or socially with the church, other than their getting government funds, how exactly do they have you?

  4. sc_709009ff2f02ae5fbd2b267d1da83cee says

    whenever i hear statistics about religious groups, things like this always come to mind. My husband is one of 6 and all kids were baptized Catholic. Not one of them belongs anymore, but they are still counted. I was a Mormon and am still on the rolls, so I am part of that statistic. Phrases like “Muslim country” make me gag–how many people in these so-called Muslim countries are free to walk away and keep their heads? Mosques are not like churches–they keep no number of adherents and you never really ‘join’ a mosque, you just attend if you are near and many times women never ever go to the mosque, so how does anyone really know how many Muslims there are? I would guess that when we see those hundreds of Muslim men all dropping and giving Allah 5 there are quite a few who are thinking, “I can’t believe I have to do this shit every day.”

  5. David Jacob says

    I’m from Dublin and I used to defect from the Catholic Church. I sent the letter to the Archbishop and even talked to his secretary on the phone to confirm my defection, but I have no idea whether I am actually still counted as a member or not. I doubt I’d be able to get a straight answer from them.

    P.S.: don’t tell my mammy! She’d be raging.

  6. says

    As I understand it, when you could “defect” the RCC still counted you as a member but agreed to remove your name from parish records etc., so there was no record of you being a member. The official doctrine, as I understand it, is that baptism puts an “ontological mark” – whatever that may be – on your soul making you a member of the “mystical body of Christ” and that this can only be removed if you are officially declared anathema – i.e. cursed by God – or die and go to Hell.


    Actually the RCC hasn’t had much to do with anathemas for a while but the Byzantine Catholic Church is not so bashful as can be seen here:

  7. kieran says

    If you live outside any of the large urban areas in Ireland it is impossible to find schools that aren’t run by the church either the RCC or church of Ireland.
    We still get the 84% are catholics waved since the 2011 census yet there are only 35% going to mass every week but that was back in 2008.
    You can’t leave but you can stop giving money, stop going and make sure you don’t bow to your parents pressure and make sure you’re kids don’t get baptised but the issue with that is some schools do use that as an excuse to refuse children entry when there is over crowding

  8. chrislawson says


    Imagine your parents once voted Republican in local election 30 years ago. Imagine their vote is counted in a way that marks you as Republican. Imagine that you ask to be removed from the Republican roll but are refused because it’s “politically ontological”.

    Now imagine that your parents’ vote from 30 years ago in a local election is counted towards public funding of Republican think tanks. Imagine that you are named as part of the popular political mandate to keep gay sex on the criminal law books, regardless of what you believe. Imagine that the police in your state have a veto policy that prevents them investigating criminal complaints against Republicans, justified by that one vote 30 years ago.

    This, my friend, is how they have you.

  9. says

    They really really really don’t want to let people leave.

    Who’d want to be in a club like that? A club that never throws people out and doesn’t let people leave is going to be literally filled with the dregs of society. .. … um…

  10. Decker says

    I left The Church years ago…no problem whatsoever.

    You just leave…goodbye…you don’t need any ‘Formal Permission’.

    However this article mentions ‘The Irish Church’

    Just leave.

  11. angharad says

    You should only be counted as Catholic in the Census if you actually put on the form that you are Catholic (unless censuses work very differently in Ireland to other places). Many people do so because they grew up in that religion, but aren’t actually practicing it. Here in Australia it’s claimed that only 10% of those who say they are Catholic actually go to mass with any degree of regularity (for the record about 25% of the total population here claim to be Catholic in the Census).

    The Church can only count people in two ways – using its registers of those who are baptised and confirmed and so on, and estimating attendance at services (this latter is where the 10% mentioned above comes from). Obviously if you don’t go to church then you won’t show up in the latter numbers. It would be nice if you could register as leaving too, if only to put yourself on a ‘do not call’ type of list. I know my old parish used to use baptismal registers to look for older kids to recruit into youth groups.
    I think there was a push in UK around their most recent Census for non – religious people to actually put that in their Census return. This would be a good thing for atheists and other ‘nones’ to drive a bit more, to reduce that ‘this is an X country’ effect. It would be very different to be able to say ‘2.5% of Australia is Catholic’ instead of 25%.

  12. nothere says

    He should just nail his resignation to the church door. They tend to notice things like that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *