Baptism for the child of nonpracticing Catholics
Father Doyle is on vacation this week. This column originally was published in October 2011.
Q. About a year ago, I listened to a priest tell the story of how a relative of his asked him to baptize their infant child. The priest refused because the parents had not been attending Mass. Later, the parents started coming to Mass again, and the baptism was performed.
I was under the impression that we believe that, for a child to get into heaven, the child has to have been baptized. What are the church’s guidelines for baptism? Is it common for a priest to refuse a request for baptism if he feels that the parents are unworthy?
A. Your question is an interesting one because the answer involves (as in many pastoral situations) a blending of church teaching and tactical strategy. Here, the goal of every priest is the same: to bring the parents back to regular attendance at the sacraments so that their child will have the best chance of growing up a faithful Catholic. Priests will differ, though, as to how best to reach that goal.
I should probably clear up one misconception first that has to do with your belief that a child must be baptized to get to heaven.
In 2007, the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, said that the concept of limbo reflected “an unduly restrictive view of salvation,” that the mercy of God offers good reason to hope that babies who die without being baptized can go to heaven.
(Limbo, understood as a place of natural happiness but without communion with God, had been a common belief for centuries; significantly, though, it had never been defined as dogma and is not even mentioned in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church.)
Now, to the heart of your question: what to do about parents who rarely, if ever, come to Mass but want to have their child baptized.
The relevant guideline is Canon 868 of the church’s Code of Canon Law, which states that “for an infant to be baptized licitly … there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion.” The same canon goes on to say that “if such hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be delayed … after the parents have been advised about the reason.”
The wiggle room, I suppose, is in the phrase “altogether lacking,” and that’s a subjective call on the priest’s part.
Surely, baptism does involve the pledge of the parents to raise and educate their child in the beliefs and practices of the Catholic faith. (The very wording of the baptismal ritual itself requires an affirmative response by the parents to that pledge.) So a priest acts properly when he seeks some assurance of that parental commitment before agreeing to do a baptism.
My own approach on this is to give to parents the benefit of the doubt. A week or two before the baptism, I meet for half an hour individually with each couple who are having their first child baptized. I am particularly direct with those parents whom I haven’t seen regularly in church, and we talk specifically about their willingness to support the child’s growth in faith by their own practice. And I have to say that only on one or two occasions have I ever sensed that this commitment was “altogether lacking.”
I know that some priests would differ, and I grant them that right. I’ve even seen parish websites that demand, for example, that in order to have their child baptized, parents must “show their willingness to practice their own faith by attending Mass each Sunday for at least three months” and must verify their attendance “by placing a note in the collection basket.”
These, I think, are special times for tenderness. A priest’s response at a moment like this can dictate a family’s relationship to a parish — and even to the church — for years down the line.
Baptisms are the ideal occasion for evangelization, for blessing marriages in the church, for lifting lost sheep onto your shoulders and bringing then back.
I would add to what Father Doyle wrote that we need to deepen our understanding of the nature of sacramental grace. Too often one thinks of sacramental grace as something that is totally subjective, depending on the good will of the recipient for its efficacy. It is important to understand that sacramental grace operates in the individual ex opere operato that is it does not depend always and under all circumstances on the good will of the recipient ex opere operantis. So the baptized child, not reared in the faith by bad parents, may at some future time be moved by its baptismal grace to be open to Christ. – ABYSSUM