The Catholic Church in Belgium reported on Wednesday a sharp rise in the number of people asking for their names to be removed from baptismal registers.
The Church’s latest annual report, published on Nov. 30, said there were 5,237 such requests in 2021, compared to 1,261 in 2020 and 1,800 in 2019.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark of his belonging to Christ.” While a person can lapse in the practice of the faith, or even renounce it altogether, it is impossible to reverse the effects of baptism.
Nevertheless, a rising movement in Europe promoting “debaptism” has encouraged Catholics to write to Church authorities asking to be removed from parish baptismal records. The movement is a consortium of several political and philosophical factions among European secularists.
A spokesman for the Belgian bishops’ conference told The Pillar on Dec. 1 that when the Church received a “debaptism” request, “it is noted in the register in the margin that the person has requested to be de-registered.”
“You are not allowed to cross out or delete an entry in an official register,” he explained.
The annual report suggested that the Vatican doctrinal office’s March 2021 reaffirmation that the Catholic Church does not have the power to bless same-sex unions might “partly explain” the spike in requests.
It said: “The Congregation [now Dicastery] for the Doctrine of the Faith does not permit the blessing of ‘same-sex’ couples. The matter is receiving considerable media attention. This may partly explain the increasing number of requests for removal from the baptismal register. The Belgian bishops call on the country’s faithful to work towards a climate of respect, recognition, and integration.”
In September, Belgium’s Flemish bishops issued a new document on the pastoral care of Catholics who identify as LGBT, which included a text allowing for a ritual blessing of same-sex couples.
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The new annual report, released days after Belgium’s bishops returned from their first ad limina visit to Rome since 2010, will make grim reading for Church leaders.
It said that Mass attendance on an average Sunday was just 166,785 in 2021, compared to 241,029 in 2019.
Attendance at Midnight Mass and on Christmas Day was 347,229 in 2021, a significant drop from 551,134 in 2019.
There are roughly 6.7 million baptized Catholics in Belgium out of a total population of almost 12 million, suggesting that around 2.5% of Catholics attended Sunday Mass in 2021, compared with 42.9% in 1967.
The new publication noted that the previous year’s report did not include figures on religious practice because churches were affected by COVID-19 restrictions throughout 2020.
“This year, these figures will be included even though face-to-face gatherings were still subject to restrictive measures,” the 2022 report said. “In the next round of data collection, it will be possible to assess whether the level of religious practice has returned to the level it was before the health crisis.”
Writing in the 100-page report’s introduction, Belgian bishops’ conference president Cardinal Jozef De Kesel said: “The first half of 2021 was still largely marked by the coronavirus pandemic. But with the restrictions gone, we saw how happy believers were to come together again, to roll up their sleeves and be close.”
The report noted that there were 36,834 baptisms in 2021, including 162 adult baptisms, compared to 44,850 and 219 respectively in 2018.
There were 41,751 First Communions in 2021, down from 45,079 in 2018; 35,783 confirmations in 2021, compared to 39,284 in 2018; 4,032 Catholic marriages in 2021, in comparison with 6,765 in 2018; and 41,760 Catholic funerals in 2021, fewer than the 48,407 in 2018.
There were eight priestly ordinations in 2021, while six diocesan priests left the ministry in the same year.
Belgium’s bishops discussed the country’s rapid secularization during an audience with Pope Francis on Nov. 25 at the end of their ad limina trip.
Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt said that he asked the pope how the Church could reach young people in a highly secularized society.
“The pope’s answer was clear: go out, give young people the opportunity to discover how to really care for others,” he said. “Then they will also be more open to the riches of the faith. The pope challenged us to visit people often ourselves.”
This report was updated on Dec. 1 with a quote from a spokesman for Belgium’s bishops’ conference.