(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.”