In Catholic Italy, ‘De-Baptism’ is Gaining Popularity

Photo by Josh Applegate/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Like most of his fellow Italians, Mattia Nanetti, 25, from the northern city of Bologna, grew up with the teachings and sacraments of the Catholic Church in parochial school. Even his scouting group was Catholic.

But in September 2019 he decided the time had come to leave the church behind. He filled out a form that he had found online, accompanying it with a long letter explaining his reasons, and sent everything to the parish in his hometown.

Two weeks later, a note was put next to his name in the parish baptism register, formalizing his abandonment of the Catholic Church, and Nanetti became one of an increasing, though hard to quantify, number of Italians who have been “de-baptized.” 

Every year in Italy, more and more people choose to go through the simple process, which became available two decades ago at the behest of the Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics, abbreviated in Italian as UAAR.  

A lack of data makes it difficult to establish how common the phenomenon is, but some dioceses are keeping track. The Diocese of Brescia, east of Milan, said in its diocesan newspaper in August that 75 people asked to be de-baptized in 2021, as opposed 27 in 2020.

Combining this partial data with activity on a website UAAR recently launched where people can register their de-baptisms, Roberto Grendene, national secretary of the UAAR, said the organization estimates that more than 100,000 people have been de-baptized in Italy.

The church does quibble with the word “de-baptism” — sbattezzo in Italian. Legally and theologically, experts say, this isn’t an accurate term.

The Rev. Daniele Mombelli, vice chancellor of the Diocese of Brescia and professor of religious sciences at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, said it’s not possible to “erase the baptism, because it’s a fact that historically happened, and was therefore registered.”

“What the procedure does is formalize the person’s abandonment of the church,” said Mombelli.

While agreeing that it is impossible to cancel a baptism, Italy’s Personal Data Protection Authority now states that everyone has the right to abandon the church. 

The de-baptism is finalized once an applicant declares the intention to abandon the church and the decision is registered by the church authorities, normally the local bishop.

But according to canon law, anyone who goes through the procedure is committing the crime of apostasy, which, Mombelli said, comes with “severe consequences.”

An apostate immediately faces excommunication from the church, without need of a trial. This means that the person is excluded from the sacraments, may not become a godparent and will be deprived of a Catholic funeral.

“There’s a substantial difference between the sin of apostasy and the crime of apostasy,” Mombelli said. “An atheist commits the sin because it’s an internal decision, and they can be forgiven if they repent. An apostate, instead, manifests their will to formally abandon the church externally, so they face legal consequences for their decision.”

De-baptism is not exclusive to Italy, Grendene said, and the UAAR website includes a section monitoring how the procedure is being carried out abroad, but only very few countries regulate it. In the rest of the world, humanist and atheist organizations, such as Humanists International, pay more attention to apostasy than governments do.

The reasons behind de-baptism vary from person to person. But many of the de-baptized described their choice as a matter of “coherence.”

Pietro Groppi, a 23-year-old from Piacenza who got de-baptized in May 2021, said that the first question he asked himself before sending his form was “Do I believe or not?” and the answer was simply, “No.”

But for many, abandoning the church is a statement against its positions on LGBTQ rights, euthanasia and abortion.

Nanetti said that being de-baptized helped him affirm his own identity as bisexual. “I had to get distance from some of the church’s positions on civil rights matters,” he said.

The church’s stance on sexuality helped pushed Groppi to seek out de-baptism as well, though he’s not affected personally. He finds the Vatican’s position on these matters “absurd,” and he’s unhappy with how the church meddles with Italian politics.

Francesco Faillace, 22, now going through the de-baptism procedure, said: “I’ve been an atheist since basically forever. For the church, being baptized means that you’re a Catholic, but that’s not the case. I’ve personally been baptized for cultural reasons more than religious, because that’s how it goes in Italy.”

Faillace believes that if all the people who don’t truly identify as Catholics were to be de-baptized, official percentages of Italian Catholics would be significantly lower.

The latest data seems to back him up. In 2020, sociologist Francesco Garelli conducted a large study financed by the Italian Catholic Bishops Conference that concluded that 30% of the Italian population is atheist — around 18 million people.

The Rev. Alfredo Scaroni, pastor in a town of 9,000 in northern Italy, has noticed an increasing number of people distancing themselves from the church. If more than 15% of the population appear at Sunday Mass, he said, it is an achievement.

“The church is having a large conversation on atheism, and, from our side, we need to practice more acceptance and attention,” Scaroni said.

Grendene, of the UAAR, said many Italians are still unaware of de-baptism as an option. In the past, the association would organize “de-baptism days” to advertise it, he said, but it turns out that the church itself is de-baptism’s best promoter.

“Whenever the Vatican is at the center of a controversy, we see the access to our website grows dramatically,” said Grendene, pointing out that on two days in June, traffic on the UAAR website went from a daily average of 120 visitors to more than 6,000.

Not coincidentally, perhaps, a few days earlier the Vatican sent a note to the Italian government, asking to change some of the language in a proposed law aimed at criminalizing discrimination based on sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

This article was produced as part of the RNS/IFYC Religious Journalism Fellowship Program.

This article was originally published on November 16, 2021.

#Interfaith is a self-paced, online learning opportunity designed to equip a new generation of leaders with the awareness and skills to promote interfaith cooperation online. The curriculum is free to Interfaith America readers; please use the scholarship code #Interfaith100. #Interfaith is presented by IFYC in collaboration with ReligionAndPublicLife.org.

 

more from IFYC

Many content creators use their platforms to build community beyond their brick-and-mortar congregations, to dispel myths, break stereotypes and invite people from diverse faiths to get a glimpse into their lives.
IFYC's innovative online learning experience, #Interfaith: Engaging Religious Diversity Online, offers lessons on how to approach others online in a way that leads to building bridges.
Lessons from Thich Nhat Hanh, the person who nominated Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize and encouraged King to speak out against the war in Vietnam.
What Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh taught me about the power of mindful breathing through art.
A scholar of democratic virtues explains why Dominican monk Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts on hope are relevant today.
From covering spirituality in Silicon Valley to writing an online newsletter about her own journey to Judaism, reporter Nellie Bowles keeps finding innovative ways to reflect on religion and technology.
Six ways religious and spiritual leaders can help the internet serve their communities right now.
At the request of his editors at Religion News Service, Omar Suleiman writes about waiting with hostages’ families.
Regardless of what happens on Capitol Hill, the PNBC leaders said they plan to lobby Congress in March and register voters weekly in their congregations and communities.
King’s exasperation at self-satisfied white Christians holds up a mirror that is still painfully accurate today.
A day before the U.S. Senate was expected to take up significant legislation on voting rights that is looking likely to fail, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eldest son condemned federal lawmakers over their inaction.
The congregation’s rabbi, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, is particularly well connected to the larger interfaith community and on good terms with many Muslim leaders.
For Martin Luther King Day, an interfaith panel reflects on the sacredness of the vote and the legacy of Reverend King.
In his new book, Princeton historian Julian E. Zelizer reexamines the life of Abraham Joshua Heschel and finds lessons for interfaith political activism today.
King drew criticism from Billy Graham, who told journalists that he thought King was wrong to link anti-war efforts with the civil rights movement.
Some are calling out historical injustices the church has carried out against Native Americans, even as others find their faith empowering.
IFYC’s Vote is Sacred campaign launched on January 13. Faith leaders, public intellectuals, activists, and organizers are joining to advocate for an inclusive, nonpartisan interfaith approach to restoring and protecting our democracy.
One out of five Muslims is in an interfaith relationship, surveys suggest. But few imams are willing to conform the traditional Muslim wedding ceremony to their needs, couples say.
In her popular podcast series, Corrigan invites guests to wonder about 'the elephant in America's living room': belief and religion. 'I hope I have a hundred more conversations like these in 2022 and beyond,' she says.
In his annual address to the Vatican's diplomatic corps, the pope stressed the individual's responsibility 'to care for ourself and our health, and this translates into respect for the health of those around us.'
The very people who have been subject to the worst of the United States have embodied its best.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.