A few years ago, as part of a summer professional development experience, I was asked for the first time to complete a Social Identity Wheel. LSA’s Inclusive Teaching website describes the Social Identity Wheel as “an activity that encourages students to identify social identities and reflect on the various ways those identities become visible or more keenly felt at different times, and how those identities impact the ways others perceive or treat them.” The version that LSA uses, and the one I completed, asks participants to identify themselves across 11 social identities (such as race, gender and socioeconomic status), and then to “categorize those identities based on which matter most in their self-perception and which matter most in others’ perception of them.”
Describing myself in terms of the 11 parameters was fairly straightforward, as was picking out the identities I “think about most often.” When I arrived at the second categorization question, identities I “think about least often,” only one of the 11 options jumped out as belonging here: “Religious or Spiritual Affiliation.” While I thought about some of my social identities more than others, spirituality fell far behind the rest — upon reflection, I realized I rarely thought about my religious affiliation at all. In fact, the only times I consciously pondered this specific identity were the instances in which I was specifically asked to identify it, whether it be on an online survey, a demographic form or a Social Identity Wheel. In these cases, I answered “agnostic” or, more often, “non-religious” and moved on to the next question. Religion simply did not feel like a part of my life — at least, not anymore — and nothing about my lack of a label seemed complicated until this summer.
In late May of this year, a mass grave containing the remains of 215 Indigenous children was found on the former grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada. The school was part of an extensive residential school system sponsored by the Canadian government and administered by churches. Under the guise of providing an education to Indigenous children, Canada’s residential school system systematically stole Indigenous children from their families to remove them from their culture, strip them of their heritage and force them to assimilate to the white culture of Euro-Canadian colonizers. This effort is described as a “cultural genocide” by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The still-unknown number of Indigenous children that died in residential schools, and the disrespect with which their deaths were treated, demonstrates that the Canadian government’s effort to destroy Indigenous culture would be carried out no matter the cost, including the destruction of Indigenous lives.
At the schools, children were forbidden from speaking their own languages or acknowledging their heritage. They were given Anglo names and many were baptized against their families’ wishes. Their hair was cut short and they were dressed in Western-style uniforms. Many didn’t receive an education, either — the curriculum was focused on prayer, along with manual and domestic labor.
Along with the inherent cruelty of forcibly separating children from their family and culture, conditions at the residential schools were horrific. The “schools” were places of severe physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Tuberculosis was rampant, and Indigenous children in these schools died of the disease at a much higher rate than children in the general Canadian population. Conditions that contribute to the development and spread of tuberculosis, such as “malnutrition, overcrowding and poor ventilation” were common in the schools. As early as 1907, the chief medical officer of Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs noted this problem and urged the federal government to improve conditions and to have tuberculosis nurses on staff. He was not only ignored but also prevented from conducting further research and sharing his findings. Two present-day tuberculosis experts, looking back, believe the devastating impact of the disease in residential schools was not an accident, but rather the “result of deliberate neglect and mistreatment.”
Kamloops was affiliated with the Catholic Church until 1969 when the federal government took over operations, using it as a residence for a day school until its closing in 1978. It was only one of 139 facilities identified within the residential school system, which an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend. And yet the tragedy of the residential schools is not reserved to the distant past — the last residential school closed in 1996, only 25 years ago.
The discovery of the mass grave at Kamloops spurred calls for further investigation, and since late May, more than 1,000 unmarked graves of Indigenous children have been found in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Many of the former sites at which these tragedies are being uncovered were affiliated with the Catholic Church.
To be clear, the Catholic Church was not the only religious organization affiliated with these schools — the Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian churches also oversaw the operation of schools within the system. But the Catholic Church was the one whose schools were associated with recent findings of unmarked graves, and therefore was the focus of scrutiny this summer. In the wake of this discovery, 68 Catholic churches across Canada were subsequently vandalized or burned in “suspicious” fires, some of which completely destroyed the churches. While no suspects or official motives have been identified, the burnings seemed to be an act of protest. Additionally, statues of Queen Victoria (the leader of the British Empire from 1837 to 1901, during which the Canadian Confederation was founded) and Queen Elizabeth II (Canada’s current head of state, a reminder of their colonialist past) were toppled as part of protests on Canada Day.
The vandalism was met with criticism from some, including from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — who happens to be Catholic. He claimed that while he understood the anger, these acts were “actually depriving people who are in need of grieving and healing and mourning from places where they can grieve and reflect and look for support.” Brian Pallister, then the premier of Manitoba, also “strongly condemn(ed) acts of violence and vandalism,” calling it a “major setback” and urging Canadians to “come together” to advance “real reconciliation.”
The response among Indigenous leaders in Canada was more ambivalent. Arlen Dumas, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, expressed shock at the vandalism and said he “personally wouldn’t have participated.” But he also shared that the discovery of the unmarked graves had been “very triggering” and the events were a symbol of hurt, frustration and anger. Greg Gabriel, chief of the Penticton Indian Band, said his community had “mixed feelings” about the burning of Sacred Heart Church on their land; while the memory of the Roman Catholic Church’s subjugation was painful, the church had also become an integral part of their community. Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band expressed similar ambivalence about Sacred Heart Church, saying that while he doesn’t believe in the Catholic church, “some of (his) people do.” Other Indigenous leaders said the church burnings were “not in solidarity” with Indigenous peoples, worsening the strife of those in mourning and furthering the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
While vandalism may not have been the most productive response, the burnings demonstrate the visceral anger and hurt that the Catholic Church created through its role in the residential schools. These feelings are only exacerbated by the Church’s response to its past wrongdoings. The Church, along with the federal government, has resisted sharing the records that would, among other things, help identify the remains within the uncovered graves. Pope Francis has yet to explicitly apologize for the Catholic Church’s part in this cultural genocide. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops did recently issue an official apology for their role in the residential school system, after years of refusal to do so.
But this isn’t nearly enough.
When the Church resists taking full accountability or working cooperatively with reconciliation efforts, property destruction directed at a destructive organization may feel like the only outlet. It should be mentioned that, though there were concerns that church burnings could add to already significant wildfire risk, there is no evidence that anyone was killed or severely injured by the burnings, only that property was damaged. Yet some responses to the burnings seemed more concerned with the hypothetical lives that could have been lost than the Indigenous lives that were.
To be clear, Indigenous voices should have been prioritized in the responses to these tragic discoveries. While the vandalism may have generated mixed feelings for Indigenous communities, the condemnation of the church burnings on behalf of Indigenous leaders was clear, and their calls to end the violence and the further damage it was inflicting upon their communities should’ve been heeded immediately. But the destructive protests demonstrated that the discoveries of unmarked graves created anger, and perhaps felt personal, even to non-Indigenous people.
I am not Indigenous, nor even Canadian. But the events of this summer created an anger that felt personal for me as well. Of course, it reminded me that boarding schools analogous to Canada’s residential schools were operated in the United States — including three in Michigan and 16 in my home state of Minnesota — with the objective, summarized by Captain Richard H. Pratt, to “kill the Indian … save the man.” But the events of this summer also made salient an aspect of my identity I hadn’t thought about in years.
Though other wrongdoings of the Catholic Church had been uncovered in my lifetime, these discoveries in Canada happened just after I completed my college degree, which had made me far more aware of injustice. In fact, I had learned specifically about the American boarding schools and Canadian residential schools in an American Culture course I had taken the year prior. This education, combined with the especially self-reflective state I was in after the pandemic year and my graduation from college, made this particular offense especially jarring. And contrary to Trudeau’s tone-deaf implication, the last place I wanted to be reflecting on this fact was inside a Catholic church.
I was baptized as Catholic on Oct. 19, 1997 at St. Mary’s Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio, a church just a few blocks away from the home my parents lived in when I was born. I have no memory of the event, given that I wasn’t yet two months old. I do remember watching the event on home video several times growing up, often on my birthday. I wore a traditional, lacy white baptism dress. I sported a similar look — albeit several sizes larger — when I received my First Communion years later. This time, I was actually able to remember the event, though I still had fairly little autonomy in the decision to receive the sacrament — a Christian rite regarded as especially spiritually significant, serving as a sign of “divine grace.”
When it came time to receive the Confirmation, the final sacrament of “Christian Initiation,” I had much more choice in my religious decisions. This autonomy ended up being crucial, as I began questioning the teachings of the Catholic Church — and of Christianity in general — about a year before I was due to be confirmed. As I developed my own perspective on the world, I found I disagreed with the Church’s stances on same-sex marriage, premarital sex, birth control and abortion. On a more base level, I no longer believed in God — certainly not the Christian “God,” a transcendent and immanent creator.
I stopped attending mass with my family and accordingly did not begin the confirmation process as my peers did during my sophomore year of high school. My parents were understandably upset, but thankfully — truly, I am thankful — did not force me to complete the sacrament. I knew many people also questioning their religious beliefs whose parents did not let them make their own decisions. There was no major moment of confrontation with my family, either. As I naturally gained more control over my time, I chose not to spend that time in church. While my family encouraged me to attend, they never forced me to, and it eventually went without saying that I no longer subscribed to Catholicism or Christianity.
Throughout the time that followed this decision, my perceived spiritual identity morphed from “Catholic” to “not applicable.” I’ve attended mass a few times in the intervening years, typically on holidays, a handful of weddings and funerals and one Mother’s Day. Not much has changed, though I no longer remember the prayers or hymns, and I stay seated as the people around me rise to receive the Eucharist. Aside from this, Catholicism was something I believed I could simply leave behind by forgoing Confirmation and skipping mass.
The way I felt in the aftermath of the discoveries of Indigenous graves and the responding protests proved the indifference I sought after couldn’t be the case. Suddenly, being a Catholic — specifically, someone who identified as a former Catholic — became very relevant to me. Borrowing from the language of the Social Identity Wheel handout, I “keenly felt” my past religious affiliation. I rarely identified myself as a former Catholic to anyone, but if I did, would I be seen differently? Was Catholicism an identity I had forsaken or simply an organization I had left? Did some vestiges of being raised as a Catholic remain with me?
More than anything, I was outraged. Outraged at the injustices the Catholic Church has inflicted upon so many and outraged at my affiliation with it. I was furious that Pope Francis would not apologize and enraged that the church was impeding justice and reconciliation. As such, I wanted to completely disassociate myself from Catholicism. I wanted to somehow send a message to the Church — or at least as much as one person can when facing a massive international organization. They would no longer be allowed to count me among their 1.34 billion members by virtue of my baptism, a decision made for me at two months old. When I first stopped practicing, I had made no formal declaration of being an ex-Catholic. But after the events of this summer, that was exactly what I intended to do.
My intention to formally defect from the Catholic Church was met with immediate disappointment. The first result I received when I Googled “how to leave the Catholic Church” was a Washington Post article from 2018 titled “Want to leave the Catholic Church? Officially, you can’t.”
The article describes a woman, Mary Combs, who stopped practicing Catholicism shortly after the Boston Globe uncovered rampant sexual abuse by priests toward young children in 2002. (This investigation was dramatized in the 2015 movie “Spotlight.”) In 2018, after a similar scandal was exposed in Pennsylvania, Combs discovered from a friend that she may still be considered a Catholic. This concern led her and the story’s reporter Dan Waidelich to a surprising discovery: There is no official way to disaffiliate from the Catholic Church, at least not at the moment.
This was disheartening news, to say the least. I sought out more information on the possibility of defection, a search that confirmed Waidelich’s claims. It is impossible to formally become an ex-Catholic, at least in the eyes of the Catholic Church. This has actually been the case for the majority of Catholicism’s history, with formal defection only possible for a brief period of time between 1983 and 2010. Though short-lived, when enacted, the policy was controversial for many Catholic leaders. The contention was so prevalent that near the end of his time as the pope, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI eliminated the possibility, returning the Church to its traditional approach to membership.
Benedict announced this modification in late 2009. In discussing the forthcoming reversion, canon lawyer J. D. Flynn said the following: “Theologically we understand that what makes us Catholic is our Baptism or our reception in to the Church. Whether we want to be Catholic is not germane to the question of whether we are Catholic. Whether we follow the teachings of the Church or not is not germane to the question of whether or not we are Catholic.”
Because I was baptized into the Catholic Church, I am forever marked as a Catholic in the eyes of the Church, forever counted among their membership. Contrary to my prior assumption, Catholicism is not something I can simply leave behind. Apparently, my Catholic identity isn’t based upon my wants, my practices or even my beliefs. It is, in fact, because of baptism, an aspect of my social identity as immutable as my ethnicity. Perhaps my decision to forgo the complete Christian initiation process was not as autonomous or meaningful as I had believed.
I’m not the only former Catholic outraged by this discovery. Writing for The Guardian in April of last year, former Catholic Sebastian Tesoriero found the Church’s logic to be authoritarian and based on an abuse of power. He wrote 10 letters over a 10-month period to the archdiocese of Sydney, Australia, demanding his baptismal record be amended to reflect that he no longer considers himself a Catholic, no matter what the Church believes. Similarly, in April of this year, writer Monica Dux also contributed an article to The Guardian on her attempt to leave the Catholic Church. After finding out that she wasn’t allowed to quit being Catholic, she looked into ways to force the Catholic Church to count her out — specifically, how to be excommunicated. While these are both great ways to send a message to the Church, they are ultimately grasping at power and self-determination in the face of an institution determined to deny you of both.
Of course, all of this is only true from the perspective of the Catholic Church. I know I’m not a Catholic. I don’t believe in any of Catholicism’s teachings — or Christianity’s, or those of any organized religion. I don’t even believe in God. The Catholic Church can count me among their membership, but it’s not like my leaving would have any tangible impact on their numbers. From my own perspective and from the perspective of most of the people that matter to me, the opinion of the Church should have no impact on my religious identity. So why, then, does this discovery bother me so damn much?
For Mary Combs, the woman chronicled in The Washington Post, her outrage is somewhat more justified than mine. Though no longer a Catholic, she remains a Christian, now attending a Lutheran church. She, understandably, does not want her “soul” affiliated with the Catholic Church. But this isn’t a concern for me. I left Catholicism specifically because I do not believe in its teaching or laws, yet somehow I’ve found myself caught up on this rule.
Perhaps I should follow the advice of Quora user David Phinney: “Just leave.” No formalities or ceremonious declarations of defection necessary; just“walk away, and don’t look back.” By getting caught up in the “nonsense” about how and if I can leave, I’m allowing myself to be intimidated — and even controlled — by the Church. My time spent drafting letters to the archdiocese or scheming ways to be excommunicated is time, in a roundabout way, dedicated to Catholicism. Maybe the most empowering move would be to refuse the Church’s view of me and to trust in my knowledge that no matter what they think, I am not a Catholic.
But while walking away may be the path of least resistance, I feel I have a responsibility to all the people that the Catholic Church has harmed — including many of its members — to push back. As Monica Dux describes, “when you passively let the church count you as a member, you’re doing something … insidious.” The Catholic Church is an immensely powerful institution, a power it maintains in part through claiming to represent over 17% of the global population. Every time it seeks to limit same-sex marriage, reproductive freedom or the right to a dignified death, it can contend that their views are the will of 1.34 billion people, one of whom is me. Every time it seeks to downplay or shirk responsibility for its past wrongdoing — whether killing Indigenous children or covering up systemic sexual assault of young parishioners — by pointing to their large membership as an endorsement of itself, I am a part of that membership.
While I’m only one individual in a cohort of over a billion, maybe sharing my disaffiliation with Catholicism with others, as I’m doing right now, can amplify my vote of no confidence in the Church. Maybe other former Catholics will read this and consider publicly declaring their own defection as well. And given that 41% of Americans who were raised Catholic consider themselves no longer Catholic, amounting to about 21 million people, the impact could be significant.
As a personal act of protest, I plan to make very specific my ex-Catholicism whenever I’m asked about my religious or spiritual identity. I’ll make use of the “Other” option given on many online surveys to specify that I’m an agnostic former Catholic. (My apologies in advance to the researchers who have to work with that data.) If I’m ever asked to fill out the Social Identity Wheel again, I’ll be sure to make note of my former Catholicism. While it will most likely go unnoticed, maybe there will be another former Catholic in the room who wants to know why.
With all of that said, I understand that there are many current Catholics who are deeply upset with the Church’s past wrongdoings and disagree with some of the Church’s political stances. For example, according to Pew Research Center, just 6% of American Catholics view using contraception as morally wrong, and 68% do not want Roe v. Wade to be overturned. 76% of U.S. Catholics also believe homosexuality should be accepted by society. In response to reports of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, 69% of U.S. Catholics view these problems as ongoing, not as a thing of the past; 27% report going to mass less, and 26% report reducing their monetary donations to their parish or diocese.
Clearly, many Catholics find meaning in Catholicism even if they don’t agree with or endorse the Church’s view on everything. In fact, I know and love many Catholics who have their own contentions with the Church. I’m not condemning any individual for maintaining their faith in Catholicism, and I acknowledge that some may believe they can push for change and accountability from within. But personally, I’m unable to find any meaning within Catholicism that can overcome the damage the Church has done. Therefore, I no longer want to be affiliated with the Catholic Church in any way.
Though I can’t formally defect from Catholicism, there is the possibility of public or notorious defection — recognized several times in the Code of Canon Law — which disaffiliates one from Catholicism in nearly every meaningful way. In fact, it results in excommunication. Rejecting the faith can mean “professing to believe something contrary to the Catholic faith,” and does not require joining another religion. To prove a notorious rejection (a “serious matter”), it “must be demonstrated that the person has consciously rejected the Catholic faith and that the rejection is publicly known.” I’m certain my rejection of Catholicism has been made quite clear, and I’ve done so deliberately. Writing it in The Michigan Daily must qualify it as publicly known. As such, consider all of the above as my notorious rejection of the faith.
Statement Correspondent Mary Rolfes can be reached at email@example.com.