A few days ago, I came across a fascinating article in one of Canada’s national daily newspapers. It was about a woman who was born and baptized in Poland, received her first communion and confirmation in Canada, and is now seeking to formally renounce her status as a Catholic because she no longer believes in God. This would appear to be a fairly straightforward request, given how many people these days follow a similar spiritual trajectory. . . right?

Apparently not.

According to the article, the woman’s request has been refused by her local diocese, on the grounds that Church sacraments are irreversible. Even if the woman no longer believes, she cannot have her name removed from the parish records confirming her baptism, communion, and confirmation, with the result that the Church still formally considers her a Catholic. Even excommunication wouldn’t solve the problem: it would only prohibit her from taking communion, not actually being expelled from the Church. A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Toronto justified this approach by comparing the individual Catholic’s relationship to the Church to that between a mother and her child. Like this biological bond, the individual’s tie to the Church is unbreakable. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.

It might seem a little counter-intuitive that someone who openly professes her atheism and no longer wishes to be a part of the Catholic Church nevertheless cannot formally remove herself from it. When the woman was being confirmed into the Church at the age of thirteen, she even told the parish authorities that she was an atheist and that her parents were forcing her to be confirmed, which, she now argues, should make that sacrament null and void. This raises the critical problem of who decides who belongs to a religious community. If it seems obvious that someone who does not even believe in God should not be considered a Catholic, this testifies to the widespread presumption that individual belief and self-identification are the primary determinants of religious belonging. But this is, in many ways, a very modern definition of religion and one that reveals the implicit secular framework grounding much scholarly engagement with religion. It is worth questioning, however, if the decision to belong to a religious community ultimately rests with the individual believer (or unbeliever).

For instance, many of the Catholic theologians I study profess what’s referred to as an “inclusivist” model of salvation. The New World discoveries of the early modern period, by revealing the vast territories beyond the borders of Christendom, first poignantly raised concerns about “exclusivist” models of salvation based upon formal Church membership. Such models suddenly seemed problematic, as they automatically condemned vast numbers of people to damnation simply because they had not been fortunate enough to be born in a land exposed to the “good news” of Christianity.

It seems to me that this problem re-emerged for Catholic theologians in the twentieth century, in light of growing concerns about secularization. Henri de Lubac, for instance, articulated a universalist model of salvation grounded in the fundamentally transcendent destiny of every human person. As the sacrament which would effect this redemptive incorporation in Christ, de Lubac figured the Catholic Church as the universal and indispensible vehicle for salvation, such that even those who did not identify as Catholics could still participate in the Church by virtue of their humanity. Karl Rahner developed perhaps the most famous variant of this “inclusivist” salvation model, when he introduced the idea that even those who have not heard the Gospel could be considered “anonymous Christians” in their basic orientation. In other words, they could achieve salvation without formally joining the Church.

As against Grace Davie’s vision of European secularization as a form of “believing without belonging,” here we see the genesis of a theological justification for an extreme form of “belonging without believing.” It’s one that I think forces us to rethink how we define membership to a religious tradition, by pointing to the possibility that individual will may not be the primary determinant of religious inclusion or exclusion, any more than a hand can repudiate the body to which it belongs. But it is equally worth considering what kind of ideological work such organic metaphors of embodiment perform in authorizing these kinds of inclusivist models, as well as their ambivalent political implications.