Maciej Psyk talks with Raffaele Carcano, secretary of the Italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics (UAAR) about leaving the Catholic Church.

Maciej Psyk: When did people first attempt to leave the Church in Italy?

Raffaele Carcano: First attempts to leave the Catholic Church go back to the early 20th century, when Trieste was under the Habsburgs. The law known as “Kirchenaustritt” was introduced on 30 March 1847 by Friedrich Wilhelm IV. Even then under that law people were permitted to officially leave the Church, and some citizens took the opportunity! In 1958 there was an important event: the Florence Appeal Court acquitted the bishop of Prato Pietro Fiordelli on a charge that he had defamed a couple – Mauro and Loriana Benelli – who had chosen a civil marriage, which had been introduced in Italy in 1956. The bishop was acquitted not because there was no defamation (in fact, there was defamation), but because the newlyweds had been baptized, and as such they were “subject” to Episcopal authority, despite their worldview by then being secular. This ruling, in effect, meant that virtually all Italians could be legally defamed by the Catholic hierarchy for variety of reasons, from having an affair through their political stance to their sinful reading of books by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Honoré de Balzac, Emil Zola and Jean Paul Sartre, who were all on the last edition of Index of Prohibited Books, finally scrapped eight years later, in 1966. No wonder that after that ruling some citizens began to ask to leave the Church in an official way. The parishes however almost always replied that baptism was “an indelible mark”, or else ignored them completely.

MP: Then in 1995 European Parliament issued a directive 95/46/EC on personal data. Did that give you fresh support?

RC: Italy was one of the first EC Member States which adopted this directive, on the last day of 1996. From 1997 UAAR members tried unsuccessfully to obtain the right to leave the Church by sending letters quoting the relevant Italian legislation. Catholic parishes managed to ignore us for as long as they could. After initial failures we decided to send complaints to the Guarantor of Personal Data Protection and find out his reaction. This was issued on 11 May 1999. As the directive and hence the Italian law considers information about religious affiliation to be “sensitive data” (see article 8.1 of the directive) and as the parishes keep and use such data, UAAR thought that the Guarantor should support requests to remove such data, regardless the Catholic doctrine. The time proved that we were right. The Catholic Church is unwilling to accept autonomous acts of defection: the Catholic hierarchy wants to keep to itself the privilege of excommunicating those they wish.

MP: After the summer holiday on 13 September 1999 a new decision was issued. What does it say?

RC: After the May decision the former UAAR secretary, Luciano Franceschetti, asked to have his name deleted from the register of baptisms (“Liber baptisatorum”). The Guarantor had stated that it was impossible to delete a record of an event that had really happened, but in a landmark ruling he stated that, since every citizen has the right to a “corretta rappresentazione” (“correct portrayal”) of his personality and ideas, parishes have the duty to note on the register of the baptisms or on the baptismal act that this citizen is no long a member of the Catholic Church.

MP: The Church didn’t give up, however. What happened then?

RC: That ruling forced the Italian Episcopal Conference to issue quickly, on 20 October 1999, a general decree on the subject. Curiously, they invoked Canon 220 which says “No one is permitted to harm illegitimately the good reputation which a person possesses nor to injure the right of any person to protect his or her own privacy” probably as a proof that sensitive data can be protected under the Canon Law, hence secular law should not interfere. It also said that deletion of baptismal records was not possible. For its part UAAR, after this partial success, decided to resort to the court in Padua, asking for the right to delete names from the registers, and not only to notes added. In a landmark ruling from 29 May 2000, the court essentially confirmed what was held by the Guarantor, sanctioning, however, that „it is the State which retains the power to decide on what conditions its authority supervenes over  ecclesiastical authority”. What this meant was that our request could be denied, but under the 95/46/EC directive and not under the Canon Law. This is exactly what a Spanish Supreme Court held on 19 October 2008.

MP: With this ruling was it then possible to commit a “crime” of apostasy?

RC: Apostasy, of course, still remains a crime, under Canon 1364 of the Canon Law, but the Italian State has finally recognized the right to formally abandon the Catholic Church by introducing the obligation on the Catholic Church to confirm that a former believer is no longer in its ranks. On June 2000 UAAR began informing its members and supporters that tey could leave the Catholic Church under the secular law. Parishes were unprepared to handle requests, so some removed entries about the baptism whilst other refused even to make a note of decisions to leave the Church. Our members and supporters received letters stating that “baptism is indelible” etc. despite the request not asking for deletion, but for annotation. UAAR was therefore obliged to appeal again to the Guarantor to protect the rights of such persons.

MP: So Stefano Rodotà had to take the side of Italian citizens once again. What was his decision?

RC: On 18 July 2002, faced with a complaint brought by a UAAR member against a priest in Milan, the Guarantor reiterated that parishes were obliged to act on such requests and ordered the parish to deal with the case and respond to the citizen confirming it had done so.

MP: The battle seemed to be lost. What was the Italian Episcopate’s reaction?

RC: On November 2002 the Italian Conference of Bishops, in a plenary session, had to acknowledge the legitimacy of requests sent using the form downloaded from the UAAR website, and established a process for responding to requests. This appears to be secret, as laymen don’t have access to the document. However, they tried to stop the growing number of apostasies by asking them to appear in person at the diocese to confirm their wish to be debaptised. From some evidence we deduce that this was a part of this “secret” instruction. In 2003 a new appeal was submitted by one of our supporters to the Guarantor against the claim of the Chancellery of the Vicariate of Rome of 22 October 2003 asking the applicant to appear at its offices „to demonstrate and sign your request unequivocally.” On 5 November the Guarantor decided that a photocopy of ID added to the covering letter was valid proof of the wish of the applicant. Of course, witnesses and witness statements were not required either.

MP: What of minors below the age of majority prescribed by Italian law? Can their parents decide on their behalf?

RC: Yes, priests annotate the wish of both parents in the same way as that of adults. Please note that Canon 868 para. 1 requires the consent of only one parent to baptize an infant. Yet paragraph 2 dangerously says that when at risk of death (you could say “in emergencies”) children can be baptized even without the parents consent. It’s like saying “We can tolerate mentally ill people in the society as long as they do not start brandishing knives”. This is how Canon Law sees non-Catholics.

MP: If the procedure was already set up, why is the John C. case so fundamental?

RC: This was the greatest shot in the foot of the Catholic Church in this long-lasting battle. On the 3 April 2002 John wrote a letter to Rev. Mario Manente, parish priest of Fossalta di Piave, asking him to annotate his decision to leave the Catholic Church in the baptismal records. Please note that before him at least 200 people had done the same. His case wasn’t in any way special. It was the priest who made is so special. This letter was ignored for the next four months. In August John appealed to the Guarantor who wrote a letter to the Rev. Mario Manente on 22 September 2002. He responded immediately that this was not possible under the Canon 535 which, promulgated with the Corpus in 1983, had not foreseen that those data could fall under state jurisdiction some 15 years later. So on 10 October 2002 the Guarantor ordered this recalcitrant priest to do what he already refused – annotate in the baptismal records that John C. had left the Church. In the greatest mistake of his life Rev. Mario Manente appealed to the Court against the Guarantor! He hired very experienced lawyers and scholars in a last attempt to blunt the Guarantor’s jurisdiction over the baptismal records. To stop him making the situation worse he was quietly told by his superiors to drop the case, as it was clear that he would lose. When the trial was about to start on 12 February 2003 in Venice noone from the Church side appeared in the Court. John received his confirmation letter in June 2003.

MP: So the Italian Episcopate recognized your rights in November 2002 and a year later this was secured by winning a right to have one’s decision confirmed in writing. Has anything changed since then?

RC: On September 2006, a new move by the Guarantor allowed all those who do not know the parish of their baptism (or who were baptized abroad) to make this annotation on the act of confirmation. In November 2008 another parish priest tried a new dirty trick – he wrote to the applicant in Latin! On April 2009, the Guarantor replied that correspondence must be sent in Italian.

MP: So what is the procedure that you won for Italians?

RC: Any adult citizen who knows where he was baptized, or confirmed, or where he had First Communion (since 1984, when the Italian Episcopate introduced an obligation to keep a register for this sacrament), has the right to ask their parish priest, through a simple letter sent by post as a registered mail, to annotate his decision to leave the Catholic Church, and the parish priest has an obligation to confirm in response within 15 days that he has taken action to do what was required. The procedure is free of charge but the priest can ask for reimbursement of the actual administrative costs (e.g. photocopying). All this is under Article 7 of Legislative Decree 196/2003, which replaced statute 675/1996 from 31 December 1996.

MP: How many Italians followed this procedure?

RC: UAAR has estimated that nearly twenty thousand Italians have left the Catholic Church. This estimate is based on three factors: the number of those who downloaded the form from our website (about 5,500 in April 2010 alone!), the number of those seeking advice from our association (about thirty per week) and the number of those who took part in the “days of debaptism” held by UAAR on 25 October 2008 and 25tOctober 2009: on the first, 1,032 people joined in, on the second 820. This day is very important for us as it is the anniversary of the ruling  of the Appeal Court in Florence in 1958. We’re planning to make it an annual event.

MP: Do you think that your campaign led to the instruction „Actus formalis” of 13 March 2006 issued by Cardinal Herranz?

RC: Yes, but our campaign wasn’t the only factor. The German situation is more important (and more significant in terms of numbers) for a German pope. Then the flood of cases in Spain in 2005 must in my opinion have played a significant role.

MP: Thank you very much.

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