Let My Person Go!

Tom Flynn

I must have a weak spot for quixotic undertakings. That, or a taste for ramming my head against the wall. Why else would I champion strict church-state separation in a country whose new Democratic president wants to modify, not abolish, his predecessor’s initiative to channel public funds to faith-based charities? Why else spend the last twenty-four years boycotting Christmas? Clearly, what I need in my life is one more unfeasible quest. So here goes: I’m trying to get myself ex­communicated from the Roman Catholic Church.

As longtime readers know, I grew up Catholic and spent nine sometimes-difficult years thinking my way to secular humanism. Yet the old saying goes, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” Because I was once baptized, and be­cause I’m still young enough that actuaries expect me to be alive, whenever a researcher or journalist contacts the Vatican to ask how many Roman Catholics there are in the world, they count me. Of course, there are more substantive reasons to formalize one’s break from this church. It’s an unmistakable way to register reproach for an institution whose offenses include (to name just a few) oppression of women and gays, support for reactionary politics, and a system of clerical celibacy that all but guarantees the sexual abuse of children. Though I left the church intellectually and emotionally circa 1977, I’d still like to see the break officially authenticated.

Under canon law, excommunication is the most severe form of ecclesiastical censure. There are two principal types of excommunication: ferendae setentiae excommunication is imposed by an ecclesiastical judge, while latae sententiae or “automatic” excommunication be­comes effective when a ranking church official declares it.

I’ve been thinking about seeking excommunication for a long time. It was in the early 1990s that French-Cana­dian humanist activist Greg Erwin, now deceased, shared with me his research on the subject. (This led to Erwin’s article, “Excommun­ication: A User’s Guide,” Secular Humanist Bulletin, Fall 1993.) Erwin found that there are nine principal excommunicable offenses: how many could I hope to commit? The most serious of them—consecrating a bishop without papal mandate—can only be perpetrated by another bishop, so I crossed that off my list. Several others can only be committed by clergy, notably violating the secrecy of the confessional and absolving one’s partner in a sexual sin. Ex­communication opportunities for lay­people are of three principal types, four if you count physically attacking the pope (I haven’t). Canon Law 1398 imposes an automatic excommunication for procuring or participating in an abortion. As I lack either a uterus or a medical license, that one was out of reach; writing pro-choice editorials or having engaged in clinic defense wouldn’t suffice. Canon 1367 provides for the automatic excommunication of anyone who abuses or discards a consecrated communion wafer. This is a biggie; once applied, it can only be reversed by the Vatican.

I was beginning to think there was no path to excommunication for me—until I found Canon 1364, which prescribes automatic excommunication in cases of schism, heresy, or apostasy. In this context, schism is a five-dollar word for leaving Catholicism and joining some other church. That wouldn’t help me. Heresy occurs when a baptized Catholic “obstinately denies” a well-defined church doctrine—now we’re getting somewhere. And apostasy means the thoroughgoing renunciation of Christ and the Church.

To borrow a word from church: Bingo! Any reasonable observer would have to score me “two out of three” when it comes to violating Canon 1364. This heretic/apostate’s path to excommunication seemed assured.

On February 26, 2008, I visited the offices of the Archdiocese of Buffalo, where I left a package for the attention of the Reverend Msgr. David S. Slubecky, Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia (yes, that’s his actual title). It included a copy of my baptismal certificate, some copies of my work, and my CV as a secular humanist, atheist, and all-around denier of the faith. There was also a letter requesting excommunication under Canon 1364. I gave assurances that in my heresy/apostasy I had met ecclesiastical requirements that I be (these are the exact words) active, persistent, and contumacious. (Contu­macious—what a great word. Erwin defined it memorably: “I am firm, you are contumacious, he is pig-headed.”) I further affirmed that I was aware of the seriousness of my offenses.

There! I’d proven that I met the criteria for latae sententiae excommunication. In theory, I already was excommunicated, simply by virtue of being such a heretic and apostate. But having the penalty publicly declared by church officials would close the circle and bring my quest to an end.

I should have known those wily church officials would have a counterstrategy. The simplest way to avoid the prospect of even accidentally declaring a latae sententiae excommunication is to say nothing at all.

Which is to say that the Reverend Msgr. Slubecky did not reply.

Well, no one as contumacious as I would take that lying down. I sent follow-up letters to Msgr. Slubecky and to the diocesan office in Erie, Pennsyl­vania, where I’d been baptized. Refer­ring to a March 13, 2006, declaration by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Legis­lative Texts, I added the assurance that my apostasy met the emerging standard of actus formalis defectionis ab ecclesia catholica—that is, that it constituted a knowing and formal act of defection from the church.

By this stratagem, I intrepidly proved that the “Don’t answer and maybe he’ll go away” maneuver is as well known in the Diocese of Erie as it is in the larger and more cosmopolitan Arch­diocese of Buffalo.

I’m not entirely surprised—I know of women radicals who’ve had abortions and publicly dared the church to excommunicate them, and they’ve uniformly met with a strategic silence. (Indeed, some Catholic conservatives are so dismayed by the church’s reticence in enforcing Canon 1398 that they launched a Web site, excommunication.net, that seeks to pressure the hierarchy to impose the penalty more vigorously.) Clearly, church officials recognize that throwing people out of your church draws bad press.

Still, I feel frustrated. I am about as thoroughly out of communion with the church of Rome as a recovering Cath­olic can be, yet they keep me on their rolls. Sometimes I imagine myself standing before the pope and demanding, “Let my person go!” (Without physically attacking him, of course; my contumacity has limits.)

So what’s next? Next is throwing this issue open to Free Inquiry’s community of readers. Has anyone had better luck than I in bringing about a desired ex­communication? (Come to think of it, has anyone had better luck in getting a letter answered?) If you have guidance to offer, please get in touch.

Meanwhile, I’m pondering my options. If excommunication on grounds of apostasy continues to elude me, there remains the nuclear option: what the church colorfully calls “desecrating the Sacred Species.” Catholic dogma holds that after being consecrated by a priest during Mass, each Communion wafer literally, if mysteriously, becomes the body of Christ. It would be simple enough to obtain a Communion wafer—churches give them away, after all. Simply dropping it into a wastebasket would qualify as desecration, though it’s tempting to follow the example of biologist-blogger P.Z. Myers (interviewed about another subject in this issue) and pound a nail through the thing. That choice was not accidental; for centuries European Cath­olics falsely accused Jews of purloining consecrated hosts and hammering nails into them. (We moderns can tell the accusations were false because it was usually claimed that once pierced, the hosts bled.)

Or maybe there’s some way I haven’t thought of yet to get due ecclesiastical attention for my heresy/apostasy claim. Someone as quixotic as I am is sure to think of something.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

I must have a weak spot for quixotic undertakings. That, or a taste for ramming my head against the wall. Why else would I champion strict church-state separation in a country whose new Democratic president wants to modify, not abolish, his predecessor’s initiative to channel public funds to faith-based charities? Why else spend the last …

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