As Canadians grapple with the horrific discoveries of more than 1,000 unmarked graves at former residential school sites, much of the anger has been directed at the Catholic Church.
While the church has been culpable in many atrocities, including running homes in Ireland for unmarried mothers where thousands of women and babies died and covering up for pedophile priests, its role in systemically abusing Indigenous children in Canada via the residential school system is facing renewed scrutiny.
As VICE World News previously reported, the discoveries—which Indigenous peoples have long known about—have been enough to make some Catholics stop attending church. Others are considering leaving the faith altogether.
There are also growing calls to tax the church and criminally prosecute the churches responsible for operating the schools.
But the question of how to leave the church, formally, a process called “apostasy,” is more complicated than one might think. Because the church doesn’t operate as an organization per se, there’s not a giant membership list Catholics can ask to be removed from. And the way to leave the church, theologically speaking, differs from how to go about it bureaucratically.
The Catholic Church ran more than half of Canada’s residential schools, which forcibly assimilated 150,000 Inuit, First Nations, and Métis children and subjected them to widespread physical and sexual abuse. Many of the unmarked graves now being recovered are believed to belong to children, some as young as 3 years old.
“(I) literally looked up how to get yourself off the list of Catholics the day that news broke. Been thinking about it for a while,” one Toronto resident, who did not want to be named, told VICE World News.
“I really want to get off their number rolls because not in my name will they keep doing their shit.”
However, she said the process seemed like “a total pain in the ass.” And she wondered if going through with it would prohibit her from being buried in a Catholic cemetery with her other family members.
David Deane, an associate professor at Halifax’s Atlantic School of Theology, said while apostasy “sounds dramatic,” it essentially means a person stops receiving Holy Communion—one of the most sacred sacraments—and is cut off from the Holy Spirit.
“Millions of Catholics have done it for a vast swath of reasons, mainly just not believing in it anymore,” he said.
“There’s no theologically coherent process for leaving, no more than there is for no longer being a Kantian or a Platonist, or a friend. You just stop being that.”
Deane said when it comes to the theology, saying “yes” to the Holy Spirit is effectively being a part of the church, with the result that a person has “the presence of Christ within.” To reject the church is to reject the Holy Spirit.
But he said, “We can never be certain if someone is part of the church or not. Even a bishop might not be part of the church.”
He said when someone is excommunicated, the church is saying, “We believe you have excommunicated yourself.”
The process is playing out in the U.S. right now, as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to draft new guidelines on who can receive communion (also called the Eucharist), targeting people who support abortion rights e.g. President Joe Biden.
“If the church withheld the Eucharist from Joe Biden, they would be saying that they believe Joe Biden has excommunicated himself by his support for abortion,” Deane explained.
While “these bishops are in keeping with Catholic theology,” Deane said their motivations are likely political, spurred by anger at liberalism.
When it comes to the actual bureaucracy, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said it does not handle apostasy requests—those need to be communicated and registered by the bishop in a person’s diocese.
Deane said it’s possible for a person to go to the church where they were baptized and ask that a notation be added stating that they’re no longer a member. But he said those records could be hard to dig up, and most likely it’ll be a senior volunteer trying to complete the request.
In Germany, where the government takes a tithe for churches, people can actually opt out of paying, he said.
While excommunicating from the church may feel good to some people, Deane said he’s concerned it won’t address the wider harms that are still being perpetuated against Indigenous peoples in Canada.
“During my lifetime, by many metrics, the plight of First Nations people in Canada has gotten worse not better,” he said, pointing to disproportionate incarceration rates, infant mortality, and a lack of clean water on reserves.
He said the church shouldn’t be excused for its role as “the primary weapon in… genocidal brutalization of First Nations people.” But “one of the things that we do is we identify monsters in the past whose fault it is and say it’s them monsters who are to blame. Then we kind of absolve ourselves.”
Since news of the graves broke, several Catholic and Christian churches have burned to the ground, including St. Paul’s, a century-old Anglican church on Gitwangak First Nations land.
Gitwangak Band elected chief Sandra Larin told VICE World News there’s been a lot of dialogue about “whether people were duped into formalized religion and whether they should leave the faith or not.”
But she said that’s not for anybody to decide on someone’s behalf.
Larin said there’s a generational divide when it comes to church attendance and support for organized religion. However, she said simply distancing oneself from religion “isn’t being an ally.”
“Just distancing yourself isn't accountability. It isn’t action for the Indigenous population. I think action and accountability and redress and reconciliation can happen whether you’re a strong Catholic, or a non-practising Catholic, or an ex-Catholic.”
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