The Catholic Church will never let you go – but Lutherans are jumping ship in their thousands

The Vatican has revised its own canon laws to keep people from formally defecting from the Church, panicked by the huge numbers leaving over the child abuse crisis.

The Church claims — based on baptismal records — that it has a billion adherents worldwide. But by preventing people from formally declaring that they have rejected their Catholicism, the Church can continue to inflate the level of its support, thereby retaining power and influence based on these misleading figures.

The Irish website CountMeOut, which has, until the change, made the process of formal defection a simple matter of filling in a form, has suspended its operations until the Church decides what the changes in Canon Law mean for those who wish to ditch their Catholicism.

In response to pressure from the Irish media, the Archdiocese of Dublin released this statement:

The Holy See confirmed at the end of August that it was introducing changes to Canon Law and as a result it will no longer be possible to formally defect from the Catholic Church. This will not alter the fact that many people can defect from the Church, and continue to do so, albeit not through a formal process. This is a change that will affect the Church throughout the world. The Archdiocese of Dublin plans to maintain a register to note the expressed desire of those who wish to defect. Details will be communicated to those involved in the process when they are finalised. Last year 229 people formally defected from the Church through the Archdiocese of Dublin. 312 have done so, so far this year.

The news that no one is allowed to leave is obscured by the Church now introducing a kind of "wish list". As an alternative to the formal process, the archdiocese said it planned to maintain a register of those expressing a desire to leave the church.

But Paul Dunbar of CountMeOut claimed the withdrawal of the formal defection procedure had implications for a person’s right to freedom of religion and association. Mr Dunbar said the changes to Canon Law left the situation “open-ended” and it remained to be seen whether the church was in breach of the Data Protection Act, which requires organisations holding personal data to keep accurate records.

Meanwhile, a similar defection-facilitating website in Finland — which enables secession from the Evangelical Lutheran Church — saw a record number of people make use of their services recently. The website saw 2,633 leave the church in one day – well up on the previous record for one day of 1,049 in 2008.

Between 2003 — when the service was set up — and 2007, it gathered 100,000 resignations. The next 100,000 came within two and a half years. At the current rate, the number of resignations will hit 300,000 by Christmas 2012.

While roughly eight out of ten Finns belong to the state church, actual attendance at services is at a much lower level, and many remain inside the church — something that also involves an obligation to pay an annual parish council tax — largely to be able to get married in church. Numbers have been declining steadily as the society becomes increasingly secularised. Every church member in Finland pays a special tax to the church amounting to between 1 and 2.25 per cent of his or her income, so the eroakirkosta site is costing the Church many millions of euros in lost taxes.