PARIS — A decade ago, Rene Lebouvier requested that his local Catholic church erase his name from the baptismal register. The church noted his demands on the margins of its records and the chapter was closed.
But the clergy abuse scandals rocking Europe, coupled with Pope Benedict XVI’s conservative stances on contraception, hardened Lebouvier’s views. Last October, a court in Normandy ruled in favor of his lawsuit to have his name permanently deleted from church records — making the 71-year-old retiree the first Frenchman to be officially “de-baptized.”
“I took the judicial route to get myself de-baptized because of the church’s excesses,” said Lebouvier, speaking by telephone from his village of Fleury, near the D-Day beaches. “It’s a sort of honesty toward the church because they have a guy on their register who doesn’t believe in God.”
Lebouvier’s case is among a growing wave of de-baptisms in Europe, one of the most visible manifestations of the continent’s secular drift. Websites offering informal de-baptism certificates have mushroomed. Other Christians are formally breaking from the church by opting out of state church taxes.
“The movement is happening across Europe,” said Anne Morelli, who heads a center studying religion and secularity at the Free University of Brussels. “It was very apparent during 2011 — in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Austria. It is obviously related to the scandals of pedophile priests, but it has been going on for some time.” While there are no official statistics, experts and secular activists count the numbers of de-baptisms in the tens of thousands. It’s a phenomenon that has touched Protestant as well as Catholic communities.
In France, the de-baptism drive affects a relatively tiny proportion of Christians, experts say. Still, Lebouvier’s case may create a precedent.The local bishop of Coutances, Stanislas Lalanne, has appealed the court ruling, a process that could take years. “Baptism is a spiritual gift, it’s bigger than we are,” said Bernard Podvin, spokesman for the French Bishops Confederation, who would not comment on the specifics of the Normandy case. “It can’t be confined to a purely administrative framework.”