Hotel California by the Eagles, generally considered to be an allegorical analysis of the shadowy, more unedifying elements of questionably modern cultural improvements and evolution, features the timeless words, You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. I’ll take some liberty and apply this to the Sacrament of Baptism. In Baptism you receive a new identity that “checks you in” to the Church, and there are serious consequences.
In short, we can’t. Leave, that is. Technically, there are no “former” Catholics or “ex”- Catholics. Even if we exercise our free will and “check out,” even if we are formally or automatically excommunicated, Holy Mother Church expects us to turn back to her, seek forgiveness and resume our responsibilities as actively engaged, living members of the Mystical Body of Christ. Should this not happen, however, the risk of eternal damnation is a very real possibility if, at the very least, a change of heart, preferably in Sacramental Confession, does not obliterate final impenitence. These obligations simply just don’t go away if we decide to “check out.” A detailed description of each sacrament and what they entail for the soul who receives them can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):
“By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all, personal sins, as well as punishment for sin. In those who have been reborn nothing remains that would impede their entry into the Kingdom of God, neither Adam’s sin, nor personal sin, nor the consequences of sin, the gravest of which is separation from God” (CCC 1263).
Once baptized, always baptized. We can’t ignore its reality, live life as if it didn’t happen, or renounce it, even though many mistakenly believe they are choosing one of these options. Baptism imparts an indelible spiritual mark (character) on the soul for all eternity, indicating we belong to Christ (CCC 1272). We can’t remove it with Spray ‘n Wash, Formula 409 or Shout it out. At the moment of baptism, the soul is a new creation in Christ, spotless, sinless, without stain or wrinkle. Every baptized person is a member of the Church unless that relationship is broken by schism, heresy or excommunication. And even then, forgiveness is available. But the baptismal seal remains and will shine for our glory in heaven or exist for our shame in hell.
Being baptized means being a member of the Church. There is no going back, no cancellation of membership, no way to be “unbaptized.” The baptismal certificate makes us, in effect, a card-carrying member of the Church for life. Whether we are in good standing or not depends upon our participation in the sacraments, beginning with the first one. The seal of baptism can never be undone, refuted, destroyed or reversed. We promise to live by the Creed, keep our light burning brightly in a world darkened by sin and, ultimately, bring our baptismal garments unstained to the heavenly glory of the kingdom.
This is something to remember as the number of “ex-Catholics” grows – we need to know they are only one good confession away from being back home.