By Elizabeth Bryant
Religion News Service
PARIS (RNS) A decade ago, Rene Lebouvier requested that his local Catholic church erase his name from the baptismal register. The church noted his demands on the margins of its records and the chapter was closed.
But the clergy abuse scandals rocking Europe, coupled with Pope Benedict XVI's conservative stances on contraception, hardened Lebouvier's views. Last October, a court in Normandy ruled in favor of his lawsuit to have his name permanently deleted from church records -- making the 71-year-old retiree the first Frenchman to be officially "de-baptized."
"I took the judicial route to get myself de-baptized because of the church's excesses," said Lebouvier, speaking by telephone from his village of Fleury, near the D-Day beaches.
"It's a sort of honesty toward the church because they have a guy on their register who doesn't believe in God."
Lebouvier's case is among a growing wave of de-baptisms in Europe, one of the most visible manifestations of the continent's secular drift. Websites offering informal de-baptism certificates have mushroomed. Other Christians are formally breaking from the church by opting out of state church taxes.
"The movement is happening across Europe," said Anne Morelli, who heads a center studying religion and secularity at the Free University of Brussels. "It was very apparent during 2011 -- in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Austria. It is obviously related to the scandals of pedophile priests, but it has been going on for some time."
While there are no official statistics, experts and secular activists count the numbers of de-baptisms in the tens of thousands. It's a phenomenon that has touched Protestant as well as Catholic communities.
In France, the de-baptism drive affects a relatively tiny proportion of Christians, experts say. Still, Lebouvier's case may create a precedent.
The local bishop of Coutances, Stanislas Lalanne, has appealed the court ruling, a process that could take years.
"Baptism is a spiritual gift, it's bigger than we are," said Bernard Podvin, spokesman for the French Bishops Confederation, who would not comment on the specifics of the Normandy case. "It can't be confined to a purely administrative framework."
But if Lebouvier wins, de-baptism could become standard practice here, and trigger copycat lawsuits across Europe.
"The church is afraid the movement might amplify," said Marc Blondel, president of the Paris-based National Federation of Freethinkers, who says he will launch another de-baptism drive if Lebouvier prevails.
Lebouvier's split from the church took decades. Born in a deeply conservative and religious community, he went to Catholic school. But instead of becoming the priest his mother had wished, he became a baker, moving to Paris and joining a leftist trade union.
"I changed 180 degrees," he said. "It took time, but it happened."
Change is afoot elsewhere. In neighboring Belgium, which has been hit hard by the church sex scandals, de-baptism requests in the French-speaking region alone soared to roughly 2,000 in 2010, compared to 66 two years earlier, according to the Brussels Federation of Friends of Secular Morality. The numbers of people reportedly leaving the Dutch church reportedly shot up 25 percent.
In Britain, a de-baptism certificate offered as a joke by the National Secular Society has since turned serious after tens of thousands of people downloaded it.
"Some people actually do feel actively hostile toward churches," said society president Terry Sanderson. "And they want to express that by saying, 'I'm not one of your members.'"
In Germany, a record 181,000 Catholics formally split from the Catholic Church in 2011 -- the first time that Catholic defections outpaced Protestants leaving. Rather than requesting de-baptisms, Germans fill out government paperwork saying they no longer want to pay church taxes.
"I don't think they want to get rid of their belief, their connection to Jesus and the baptism, but they don't want to be connected with the church hierarchy," said Christian Weisner, German spokesman for the international lay reform movement We are Church.
At stake for many cash-strapped European churches is not just faith, but euros.
"It's not by chance that in Germany, Austria and Belgium that the movement is strongest," says Belgian researcher Morelli, noting countries that levy church taxes, which France does not. "It's also a struggle about subsidies the population must pay for a church that doesn't represent them."
The bigger worry, experts say, are plummeting rates of new baptisms. Half a century ago, for example, 90 percent of French children were baptized, said Sorbonne University religion professor Philippe Portier. Today, roughly one in three are.
"The church considers de-baptisms a very marginal phenomena and its strategy right now is to resist it," Portier said. "It is much more active when it comes to reversing the drop in (new) baptisms -- there it's put in place a new evangelizing strategy."
The parish at Paris' historic Saint-Germain-des-Pres, for example, is offering a myriad of activities, from ski retreats to support networks for young professionals. At a recent evening youth Mass, the church was overflowing.
The parish priest, the Rev. Benoist de Sinety, is counting on faith, not numbers.
"What is striking today is that those who want to be Christian really want to be Christian," he said. "I rejoice in the fact that people are free to choose."