Sacramentalism and Brights

One reason I’m not good at blogging is because I think so slowly. Some of my snappiest comebacks occur to me in the shower a week later, which is of no help at the time of the witty repartee  in the cocktail party. This is not a snappy comeback, but I see that I’m behind the times already as I notice a news story – why, Time magazine has already reported on it, and as someone quipped, by the time you’re in Time you’re already passé.

It seems that the atheists are getting organized. According to one report, they are modeling themselves after other social movements, and beginning with an identifiable and sympathetic name for themselves. The atheists refer to themselves as “the brights.” Hellooo Gnosticism. I miss out again. I would not have been a pneumatikos then, and am not now able to be a bright.

An influence of atheism in Britain has resulted in the sale of “certificates of de-baptism.” Pictured here It reads:

I ________ having been subjected to the Rite of Christian Baptism in infancy (before reaching an age of consent), hereby publicly revoke any implications of that Rite and renounce the Church that carried it out. In the name of human reason, I reject all its Creeds and all other such superstition in particular, the perfidious belief that any baby needs to be cleansed by Baptism of alleged ORIGINAL SIN, and the evil power of supposed demons. I wish to be excluded henceforth from enhanced claims of church membership numbers based on past baptismal statistics used, for example, for the purpose of securing legislative privilege.”

It is printed on “quality parchment paper,” you’ll be glad to know. Perhaps the paper will last longer than they claim the baptism lasts.

And there’s the question that caught my interest: the light it sheds on the idea of sacramental character.

In the month before I was received into the Catholic Church I read through the thousand page, double-column 1985 Commentary on Canon Law just to make sure there wasn’t anything I couldn’t live with. (I didn’t find anything, obviously.) Now, putting canon law in the hands of someone other than a canon lawyer is a little risky, not unlike putting a small cannon in the hands of a toddler. Who knows what damage around the house might ensue? But I do remember being surprised at how hard it is to get out of the Catholic Church. You can’t just drift out of her, you have to bolt out in both a conscious and formal act.

This was clarified in a 2006 document from the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts entitled “Actus Formalis Defectionis Ab Ecclesia Catholica” and the relevant portion reads:

1. For the abandonment of the Catholic Church to be validly configured … it is necessary that there concretely be:

a) the internal decision to leave the Catholic Church;

b) the realization and external manifestation of that decision; and

c) the reception of that decision by the competent ecclesiastical authority.

The atheist web sites have found this, of course. They are bright, after all, by their own modest admission. But the document also concludes with words they seem to overlook:

“7. It remains clear, in any event, that the sacramental bond of belonging to the Body of Christ that is the Church,  conferred by the baptismal character, is an ontological and permanent bond which is not lost  by reason of any act or fact of defection.”

Yes, that was the teaching on baptism’s permanency from Augustine onward, maybe a wee bit before. So it would appear that by her own understanding, it is possible to be de-membered but not de-baptized.

But a secular light would not reveal this sacramental understanding when it shines at its brightest wattage. And when that occurs, the Church is left in a position of affirming the existence of a covenant even when the secular world doesn’t want to see one.  The Canon Law Society explains covenant in its commentary on canon 1055:

“A covenant, or b’rith, was, in Jewish tradition, an agreement which formed a relationship which was equal in binding force to a blood relationship. Consequently, the relationship does not cease even if the consent to the covenant is withdrawn by one or both of the parties.”

Oh, wait. My mistake. They are here talking about the marital bond, by which the spouses commit themselves to each other in covenant. But come to think of it, we’re in the same pickle concerning marriage: the Church is left in a position of affirming the existence of a covenant even when the secular world doesn’t want to see one. Secular society doesn’t recognize the indissolubility of the marital covenant, either.

It’s tough to be a sacramentalist in a world of brights.


  1. Fascinating stuff, David; thank you. Covenants are interesting. I agree with the idea of covenants being unbreakable (which is why I agree with John Paul II about the Jews being our elder brothers and why I understand their covenant with God is unbreakable). But – if baptism is so unbreakable, will the brights then seek to ban infant baptism, not seeing this as a parental right as with, for example, so many child healthcare issues?
    Or, ‘a la’ marriage annulments in the Church since the 1960’s, will baptism annulments be developed by seeking some impediment at the time of baptism, such as lack of true consent? And if the sacrament of marriage can be declared later to have been void ‘ab initio’ on sometimes hair-raisingly thin (but always, of course, pastoral!) grounds, I see no reason why the sacrament of baptism cannot likewise be. But, then, I’m just a layman!

  2. Yes, but having a marriage annulled has specific implications because you wish to stay within the Church. If you are planning to just leave the Church entirely, there is absolutely no reason to go through the process. If you would be so inclined to sign such a document as the one above, what is the point of renouncing a baptism which you already don’t recognize? I suppose there might be legal issues in other countries, but baptism, at least in the US, has no civil legal force. I would imagine that if you are at that point, your baptism is already not recognized by those who really matter….

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