As a concerned pastor, Bishop Barron dedicates much time and reflection to the group he refers to as the ‘nones’—those who are unaffiliated to any denomination or Church community. He has also expressed concern for those who have disaffiliated from the Church—baptized sons and daughters of the Church who have sadly decided to leave and walk away. Most of those who have disaffiliated do so silently and informally. They slowly drift away from the house rather than storm out and slam the door as they leave. For others, the divorce they want is more formal and final.
Recently, I had a sad encounter with such a young man who wanted out. He outlined to me his intention to formally leave the Church for a number of reasons. I explained to him that his request for formal defection would be noted in his baptismal entry. He was not satisfied with this response. He wanted the Church to cancel him altogether and obliterate all his details from our records. He was still not happy when I explained that this was not possible. When he asked why the Church won’t agree to his request, I first responded by saying that his baptism was a historic event—it happened and can never be undone. But the thought struck me that this is not the only reason—or even the main reason—why we don’t cancel baptismal records. I tried to explain to the young man that the Church does not cancel people or forget people despite asking us to do so. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Baptism (like Confirmation and Holy Orders) imparts a spiritual seal (“character”) in the soul, which can never be erased (CCC 1272). For the Church to cancel or forget people would be like giving their birthright to someone else or giving up their room in the house that belongs to them, even though they have left and told us they won’t be coming back. Just like the merciful God that Jesus revealed, the Church never gives up the hope of the return of a beloved child who has left the house of the Father. The door is never shut on our side.
This loving concern and hope for our brothers and sisters who have disaffiliated from the Church is founded on the sacrament of Baptism but extends much further back to the Old Testament. There we see that the offer of God’s love does not depend on whether his people accept that gift and respond to it. God is faithful to us even when we are unfaithful to him. Using the intimate symbolism of marriage, Hosea talks about how God woos his people: “I will espouse you forever, I will espouse you in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love in mercy and faithfulness” (Hos. 2:14, 18-21).
If God is a faithful husband to his people, then he is also a faithful father. Israel is God’s beloved son: “And you shall say to Pharaoh ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my first-born son’” (Exod. 4:22); “When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos. 11:1). In the Jewish mindset, if Israel is God’s son, then as an heir, the nation has a birthright that can never be given away by God to another despite Israel’s unfaithfulness.
In the Gospels, perhaps no other parable explains this logic more than the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-31). By natural ties, both sons in the story stood to benefit from the father’s inheritance. It was their birthright, as the father declared to the older son: “Son you are with me always and all I have is yours” (Luke 15:31). The younger son insulted his father not once but twice by demanding his inheritance before the father died and then, when it was given to him, squandering it on a life of vice. In his misery, the younger son decided to return home and fully expected to be treated like a paid servant: “I no longer deserve to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants” (Luke 15:19). In other words, he understood that because he had squandered his inheritance, therefore his birthright was gone too.
But the father, in his joy at seeing his son return home, had other ideas. He ordered his servants to dress him in fine clothes and to place a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. The father of the boy was declaring that despite his son’s foolishness and sins, he was still his son and therefore his heir.
For Paul, his master metaphor for divine sonship was adoption. He borrowed this from both his Jewish and Roman backgrounds. For the Jews, Israel was God’s child, and those who received the Holy Spirit stood to inherit the ancient promises made to Moses and the prophets (Exod. 4:22-23; Deut. 14:1; Deut. 32:5-6, 19-22; Isa. 1:2-4). As a Roman, Paul was also keenly aware of the privileges accorded to sons adopted in Roman families. To be adopted was closely linked to being an heir. For Paul, the baptized Christian was an adopted child of the Father, a co-heir with Christ and therefore an inheritor of the fullness of God’s life and grace.
Despite the desire of some disaffiliated to be cancelled by the Church, this is why we can’t do so. Despite their desire to leave, the Church holds that in the primordial sacrament of Baptism, God has irreversibly claimed the life of the baptized person for himself and for his own purposes. On God’s side, his choice or election of that person can never be revoked. Their anointing by the Spirit and consecration of their lives can never be undone. God never takes back the gifts he has given or cancels those he has chosen, even if they turn their back on him by betrayal and denial. Yes, God respects our freedom to walk away from him and his Church like the father of the prodigal son respected his desire to leave home. But God never surrenders the birthright of the children born to him at baptism. He never tears up his covenant or surrenders the room in his house reserved for his beloved.
This is the main reason why the Church doesn’t cancel or erase the details of the baptized who wish to be disaffiliated. The real reason is love and not administration. Based on the Word of God, it has to do with the Church’s fundamental understanding of what happens at baptism and the birthright we received on that day that can never be taken back.
I tried to explain all this to the young man—how the Church wasn’t like a banking institution or any other institution for that matter. Whether he heard the message or not I wasn’t sure for he was angry and unsettled. I have thought about him often since and prayed for him every day. When I recalled his anger against the Church, St. Paul came to my mind and how intent he was to discredit Christianity and his work trying to destroy it. Yet despite his angry zeal, Paul was the one that God had chosen to bring the Gospel to thousands as a first-hand witness to the power of God’s merciful and transforming love. That is why I pray for that young man in the certainty that God has plans for him. Despite his desire to leave the Church, God’s choice of him remains. Although he doesn’t know it, like St. Paul, he has been “set apart from the time I was in my mother’s womb and called by grace” (Gal. 1:15).
I pray that through my encounter with this young man, he will know that while he is giving up on God and the Church, God and the Church will never give up on him. For now, he has left our family home of the Church. But he is never forgotten. His room in the father’s house remains empty, waiting for him to return. In our efforts to evangelize and to re-engage the disaffiliated, let this theological truth inspire our efforts and prayers.