Rise in resignations after abuse documentary

Belgium debates deleting baptismal register entries

Brüssel - The Church in Belgium is being criticised after a television documentary about abuse – the number of people leaving the Church is increasing massively. But those who are baptised remain so, even in the baptismal register. Protests are rising against this – but do they have a chance of success?

Published  on 13.10.2023 at 00:01  – by Felix Neumann

"Europe has brought Google to its knees, now it's the Church's turn" - this pithy headline was published in the Belgian daily "Standaard" in an opinion piece by the artist and politician. opinion piece by the artist and politician Jan De Zutter. was headlined. After the television documentary "Godvergeten" ("Forgetting God") in September gave those affected by abuse in the church a chance to speak and triggered a nationwide discussion and triggered a nationwide discussionthe number of Catholics wanting to leave the church has risen. However, the Church does not provide for resignations: once a Catholic, always a Catholic. Whereas in Germany, resignation can be formally declared and has the consequence that membership in the public corporation ends (and resignations are documented very in other countries, including Belgium, there is no such possibility. The church rejects attempts by those who want to leave to have their entry deleted from the baptismal register - and thus triggers a debate in Belgium.

Anyone who is baptised Catholic or who converts to the Catholic Church is listed in the church registers. The entry in the baptismal register also documents church membership - but for the church it means even more: as a sacrament, baptism confers an "unforgivable imprint". an "indelible imprint".. Whoever is baptised once is always baptised. Baptism cannot be repeated, only those who are baptised can only those who have been baptised can receive other sacraments.and even for people who have turned away from the Church, baptism still has an effect - for example, on the question of whether a marriage is sacramental and thus absolutely unbaptismal. sacramental and thus absolutely indissoluble. indissoluble. The fact that the debate in Belgium is being conducted under the heading of "de-baptism" is partly a home-made problem of the church: the Belgian Bishops' Conference records church resignations in its church statistics under the heading "applications for removal from the baptismal register". In response to such requests, a note about a "formal withdrawal from the Church" is added to the baptismal register entry.

Bild: ©Osservatore Romano/Romano Siciliani/KNA

Baptism is a sacrament. It leaves an "untilgable imprint" - and therefore remains in the church records.

De Zutter, who is press spokesman for the Socialist S&D group in the European Parliament, insists on data protection in his newspaper article. For him, the addition about "formal withdrawal" is not enough: just as the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) also applies to the internet giant Google, he also sees the hour of data protection having come for the baptismal register. "The Church fears it like the devil fears holy water when confronted with the GDPR. It uses all kinds of theological and ecclesiastical arguments for this and invokes religious freedom," writes De Zutter. For him, theological and ecclesiastical reasons must take a back seat to secular law here. He receives support from his party colleague and MEP Kathleen Van Brempt. The Social Democrat has submitted a parliamentary question to the European Commission asking whether the Commission is aware that there are religious communities that do not comply with the GDPR and what steps the EU will take against this.

The Belgian Bishops' Conference pointed out in a first reaction of its data protection commissioner Bruno Spriet, the Belgian Bishops' Conference pointed out that it fully complies with data protection law - also with regard to the baptismal registers. Spriet stressed that the baptismal registers are not public, are only made accessible to third parties with the explicit prior consent of the person concerned and are not passed on to other authorities: "The resignation of the applicant is not published anywhere."

Belgian data protection watchdog investigates, Irish one has already ruled

In Belgium, complaints about refused deletions from the baptismal register have been made to the country's data protection regulator. The authority's dispute resolution chamber is currently looking into the matter. It is not foreseeable when it will give its opinion. "The proceedings in connection with the deletion of baptismal registers have not yet been concluded," the "Gegevensbeschermingsautoriteit", the Belgian data protection authority, announced at katholisch.de's request.

The Church's critics are convinced that they are in the right: After all, the "right to be forgotten" is one of the most important rights granted by the GDPR. However, it is not that simple: the right to erasure does not apply indefinitely. International precedents suggest that even in Belgium, baptismal registers are not simply deleted. Data protection law is not absolute - the interests of the church must also be weighed in decisions about deletion or non-deletion.

Official book in Trier parish
Bild: ©Bistum Trier/Deborah Kölz

In church or official registers, parish employees record, among other things, baptisms, marriages and deaths. However, some of the official books have also been given a personal touch by the authors.

Only in September, for example, the Irish data protection supervisory authority published a published an extensive decisionIn 183 pages, the data protection commissioner Helen Dixon explained why she sees no right to deletion in baptismal registers. As in Belgium, people who had been baptised Catholic turned to the authority after the Archdiocese of Dublin refused to erase baptismal registers on request. Dixon justifies her decision on the grounds that the baptismal registers are necessary for the Church, and will be so for as long as the baptised person lives. In her decision, she considers at length the theological and canonical self-understanding of the church.

As a result, the church could invoke a legitimate interest in the baptismal register entries, behind which the interest of persons wishing to resign had to take a back seat, especially since the Archdiocese of Dublin could show that it had taken appropriate protective measures for the contents of the baptismal registers. "Data subjects who no longer consider themselves to be members of the Catholic Church do not have the right to request the deletion of their personal data from the baptismal registers for the reasons set out in Article 17(1)(a) to (f) of the GDPR," the decision clearly states: Article 17 of the GDPR governs the "right to be forgotten". The church could add a note that the person has distanced himself from the church - but according to the Irish supervisory authority, this is not obligatory under data protection law.

So far no successes in court for deletion

Similar cases have occurred in other countries: in 2012, a plaintiff who wanted to have his daughter's baptism declared invalid failed before the Bavarian Administrative Court. In 2013, the Munich Administrative Court dismissed an action by a plaintiff seeking to force the redaction of a baptismal register entry. In 2014, the French Court of Cassation rejected a complaint by a man who wanted to have his baptismal register entry deleted; the European Court of Human Rights, which was appealed against the decision, did not find fault with the decision. Even after the GDPR came into effect in 2018, there were no successes: in Slovenia, the administrative court confirmed the data protection supervisory authority in its opinion that baptismal registers do not have to be deleted upon request.

In Belgium, however, the debate continues. It is not yet known what the country's data protection authority will decide, and the MEP has not yet received a response from the EU Commission. That Europe will bring the church to its knees, as the church critic De Zutter hopes, seems decidedly uncertain in view of the international precedents: the Belgian baptismal registers will probably continue to record the baptisms of former Catholics.

by Felix Neumann