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What Does the Church Teach about Infant Baptism

February 16, AD2013 19 Comments

\"Joel

We’re those people. In our families and social circles, we are usually considered to be the über-Catholics. We pray before meals, even when we’re dining out. We plan our weekend schedule around going to Mass, even if we’re traveling. We strictly observe all Holy Days of Obligation. In discussing issues of moral significance, we first ask, “What does the Church teach about that?” We assert these practices are the baseline for any practicing Catholic, but they’re still rather counter-cultural. However, we’re not perfect, not even close. We’re still learning; here’s an example.

Our son Jude was born January 27, 2012. We wanted him baptized as soon as possible, but first there were a few issues to navigate. One, Lisa was recovering from a Caesarian section delivery and was physically limited for several weeks after Jude’s birth. Two, Joel’s parents live six hours away and we wanted to schedule a date when they could attend. Three, Ash Wednesday was February 22, less than a month after Jude\’s birth. Since we knew the Church doesn’t celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism during Lent, we grudgingly waited until after Easter, when Jude was almost three months old.

Hopefully, right now you’re thinking, “What do you mean, the Church doesn’t celebrate the sacrament of Baptism during Lent?” If so, good for you; you’re further along than we were. We could never make good theological sense out of the withholding of one of sacraments of initiation, but that had been our experience at two different parishes. We took it as a given. In fact, we thought parishes that conferred Baptism during Lent were doing something wrong.

Following Jude’s Baptism we asked the priest why the Church doesn\’t celebrate this sacrament during Lent. He looked puzzled and thought for a moment before he inquired, “Did your previous parishes drain the baptismal font throughout Lent?” Yes, they did. In fact, one of them would fill the holy water stoups with sand or gravel. He replied, “Yeah, that would make it hard to do baptisms. That’s not correct liturgical praxis; in fact, it’s specifically forbidden by the Congregation for Divine Worship.”

How did we not know this? We looked it up, and sure enough …

CONGREGATION DE CULTU DIVINO ET DISCIPLINA SACRAMENTORUM

Prot. N. 569/00/L

Dear Father:

March 14, 2000

This Congregation for Divine Worship has received your letter sent by fax in which you ask whether it is in accord with liturgical law to remove the Holy Water from the fonts for the duration of the season of Lent.

This Dicastery is able to respond that the removing of Holy Water from the fonts during the season of Lent is not permitted, in particular, for two reasons:

1. The liturgical legislation in force does not foresee this innovation, which in addition to being praeter legem (outside of the law) is contrary to a balanced understanding of the season of Lent, which though truly being a season of penance, is also a season rich in the symbolism of water and baptism, constantly evoked in liturgical texts.

2. The encouragement of the Church that the faithful avail themselves frequently of the [sic] of her sacraments and sacramentals is to be understood to apply also to the season of Lent. The “fast” and “abstinence” which the faithful embrace in this season does not extend to abstaining from the sacraments or sacramentals of the Church. The practice of the Church has been to empty the Holy Water fonts on the days of the Sacred Triduum in preparation of the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil, and it corresponds to those days on which the Eucharist is not celebrated (i.e., Good Friday and Holy Saturday).

Hoping that this resolves the question and with every good wish and kind regard, I am,

Sincerely yours in Christ, [signed]

Mons. Mario Marini Undersecretary (who later went on to be named secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. Mons. Marini died in 2009.)

So holy water doesn’t get drained until Holy Thursday and Baptisms are absolutely allowed during Lent. Glad we know now. Misinformation notwithstanding, we still missed the opportunity to baptize Jude during the first four weeks of his life. Is that really such a big deal? From the Catechism:

Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. (CCC 1213)

The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth. (CCC 1250)

The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. (CCC 1257)

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Sorry little big man. Not only were we woefully ignorant of the Church’s willingness to baptize during Lent. In hindsight, we concede that we put too much emphasis on the production and not enough on the sacrament itself. From the Code Canon Law:

Parents are obliged to see that their infants are baptized within the first few weeks. As soon as possible after the birth, indeed even before it, they are to approach the parish priest to ask for the sacrament for their child, and to be themselves duly prepared for it. (Can. 867 §1)

Now we understand why only a couple of generations ago it was not uncommon for the father to have the infant baptized before the mother was even home from the hospital. We are not advocating a return to that practice, but it certainly underscores how culturally lax we’ve become with this most important sacrament. To that point, when our first-born was baptized at less than a month old along with five other babies, she was the youngest by far.

It really makes us wonder about state of parish baptismal preparation. Recalling ours, we watched an outdated video and discussed the mechanics of the rite, but there was no real catechesis. Not to throw all Adult Faith Formation Directors under the bus (we know several good ones), but are we as a Church missing a critical opportunity to catechize the parents? How best can we help parents be properly prepared for the Sacrament of Baptism rather than simply scheduling the most convenient date? As a deacon candidate, Joel may soon be tasked with this responsibility. We would love to hear from you.

© Joel and Lisa Schmidt. All Rights Reserved.

About the Author:

Joel and Lisa Schmidt co-founded The Practicing Catholic, an antidote to the perception that piety is boring or that the Church is filled with “sour-faced saints”. In their writings, the Schmidts provide witness to the adventure of living an integrated Catholic life ... not just on Sundays. For more about the Schmidts, please see their individual bios (Joel's bio; Lisa's bio).

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  • Theresa

    My husband was baptized almost 58 years ago at the age of 2 weeks, during Lent, and his mother wasn’t up for attending it herself, so his dad and older siblings went, along with the Godparents.
    When my third child was born, his Godparents could only get away during spring break (always smack dab in the middle of Lent) so Danny was baptized on Palm Sunday. Some of my friends, whom I considered to be much more knowledgeable than I when it came to Catholic matters, told me later that it was wrong to baptize during Lent. I did my research and found that to be a very common misunderstanding. It amazes me sometimes how much bad information there is out there about matters of the Faith.

    • http://www.thepracticingcatholic.com Lisa Schmidt

      I shudder to think that I led folks astray from the teachings in this regard as well. Good for you for doing your research. We should all take a similar approach!

      Thanks for chiming in and sharing your story.

  • Richard E

    I’ve seen many parishes, mine included where the Holy Water fonts are empited at the start of Lent. In the Liturgy course I took back around 2001/2002 I found out the practice my parish of emptying the font was wrong. When I was on the parish RCIA team, this came up and mentioned, someone mentioned or asked the pastor about it and and needless to say I ended up in a lot of hot water. At our next gathering I said that to empty the font was a ‘pastoral decision’. My college advisor, a wonderful priest to me that I had just enough knowledge to be dangerous. Still do it today, but use the teachings of the Church to back me up.

  • http://www.thepracticingcatholic.com Lisa Schmidt

    Bet you didn’t end up in hot (holy) water given there was none to be found, huh? Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  • http://www.anabellehazard.blogspot.com Anabelle Hazard

    My parents had me baptized within days and we took up the same practice without knowing why (just thought we were afraid of untimely death) Now I know there’s a Canon law for it. Thanks.

    • http://www.thepracticingcatholic.com Lisa Schmidt

      Over on Facebook a friend mentioned that Pope Benedict was baptized on the day he was born. It was Holy Saturday and there was a snow storm, but nothing kept his father from getting him the sacrament.

      Love that story!

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  • H

    Okay, here’s the thing that puzzles me……the Catholic Church has the ‘guidelines’ or ‘rules’ already set in place. There are certain things that are not ‘subjective’– they are ‘absolutes’. So why is there not consistency on matters such as this?

    The NFL has already established it’s rules and guidelines for example. The Dallas Cowboys can’t decide to play by different rules– the notion would be absurd, of course. Why is it any less absurd when a Church decides to deviate away from guidelines that are already in place? Or am I just missing something?

    I do understand that within the Church there are areas that are gray– but this does not seem to be one of them. It also appears that this would be easy to fix with a mere memo! The issue has been decided– it’s not complicated, and there is an easy solution. Don’t take the water out of the fonts till the appropriate time– which is spelled out in black and white.

    I am not a member of the Catholic Church although I’ve been trying to get there for a number of years– and I won’t stop trying. My heart is Catholic, and I believe what the Church teaches– EVEN when I find it hard to believe or don’t necessarily LIKE the doctrine or dogma. (Purgatory comes to mind……)

    But things like this frustrate me………the solution seems so simple to me. And since Baptism is vital, why is the practice of emptying the fonts or not doing Baptisms stopped?

    I simply don’t understand.

  • Christina

    I hate the paperwork and hoops you have to jump through to get your kid baptized. I am so completely overwhelmed and exhausted after having a baby, and yet all the work involved in getting it done falls on me (coordinating schedules, arranging for out of town guests, getting paperwork together etc.) not to mention the minefield that selecting godparents can be. I simply cannot manage to get it done fast enough – I’m tempted to just do it myself, but apparently that’s a no-no.
    After having a baby a million people come in and out of your hospital room – the birth certificate person, the social security card person, etc etc. I would love it if a priest could just pop in and do it, before we even leave the hospital. Or, if we could just snag the priest to do it quickly after the first mass we manage to make it to after the baby. Why can’t it be like confession – show up, get it done, no muss no fuss? I told my husband that I have washed my hands of baptism for good- its his job now.

  • James

    Infant baptisms are not in Scripture. There is no repentance or belief in Christ for the infant. It actually creates baptized unbelievers.

    • http://www.thepracticingcatholic.com/ Joel Schmidt

      First, the New Testament contains multiple references to whole families/households being baptized:

      • “After she [Lydia] and her household had been baptized…” (Acts 16:15)
      • “He [Paul’s jailer] … and all his family were baptized at once.” (Acts 16:33)
      • “Crispus, the synagogue official, came to believe in the Lord along with his entire household, and many of the Corinthians who heard believed and were baptized.” (Acts 18:8)
      • “I baptized the household of Stephanas also…” (1 Cor 1:16)

      There’s no reason to believe infants would have been specifically excluded.

      Second, St. Paul writes about how baptism (sign of entrance into the new covenant) replaces circumcision (sign of entrance into the old covenant), which took place 8 days after birth.

      “In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not administered by hand, by stripping off the carnal body, with the circumcision of Christ. You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Col 2:11-12)

      Finally, explicit testimony on the practice of infant baptism dates from the 2nd century. For more, please see Pastoralis actio (Instruction on Infant Baptism, 1980) from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

  • Richard E

    Christina, most dioceses that I know of have/require parents to go to pre-Baptisimal course/ get together, whichever word one wishes to use that instructs parents on the why’s and whats and I know in my parish the parents do most all of the paperwork before the birth. Also there is nothing wrong in having the child Baptised in the hospital, but the God-parents should be close so they can be present or ask staff members of the hospital to ‘stand in for them’. One of the aspects of having the child Baptised in Church is that the Church is gathered – we are all in a way responsible for the faith upbringing of the Child,(this isin the CCC but too lazy right now to look it up) and we are all part of the family – the Church welcoming a new member into our fold.

    H – there is a big difference between the doctrines and dogmas’ of the Church. On Purgatory, look for lastest writings from the Church on this, not the early fathers.

  • http://Perinatalbereavement.com Tammy

    I thought I was pretty knowledgeable on this topic and you taught me a few things I didn’t know – thank you for that. I ask you to keep plugging away at this topic…most of us really are badly prepared and under informed.

    Im my hospital work in Perinatal Loss…I have myself come to the hospital to help a family and upon arriving had a Catholic grandmother tell me that she stood there and watched the baby die while she waited for the Priest…how could we have done this family such a disservice to not properly teach them that THEY could and should have done the Baptism themselves ?!

    I spoke of this to the Deacon in my Church who does Marriage prep and he told me he plans to teach emergency Baptism to every couple he counsels. A Priest I know includes this instruction in the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. We need to teach it and teach it and teach it until it is commonly understood among the rank-and-file laity.

  • http://www.consecratedhousewife.blogspot.com/ Amy @ Consecrated Housewife

    Yes, yes, yes to what Tammy said. I am a convert Catholic and my husband is a Protestant who currently attends a Baptist based church. Baptists will not baptize infants and my Catholic church will not baptize my babies because my husband cannot, in good conscience, agree to raise them Catholic. So what we have are two christians who are raising their children in a God fearing home that cannot have their children baptized at either church they attend?! My solution was to baptize them myself, after I did my own research on the matter and found that the Catholic church does allow lay people to confer this sacrament. Why would I not want my babies to have the grace of this sacrament in their lives?

  • Noelle

    Amy,

    I am confused as to why you think you cannot have your children baptized in the Catholic Church. All that is required for a Catholic Baptism is that there is a reasonable hope that the children will be raised Catholic. I assume that you go to Catholic Mass. Do you not plan to bring your children with you? Do you not plan to talk to them about your faith? That is all that is required. It is not necessary for your husband to agree to also raise the children Catholic or to support you in this. If you, as the Catholic, plan to raise the children Catholic to the extent you are able, that is sufficient. If your current parish told you they cannot baptized the children I would seek out another priest to talk to. Also, please make sure you get your children’s baptisms recorded. If you do not they will encounter a lot of trouble if and when they decide that they would like to receive the other sacraments.

  • Dr. Siegfried Paul Posch

    [I added my following lines as a comment on http://catholicstand.com/getting-the-marriage-conversation-right/ less than one hour ago; I thought at the moment that not everybody might be aware of the fact that the NATION has to decide if a father and a mother have the right to baptize a child:] I don’t see in this discussion, that you would add the second question to the first one. The first question is, if a child needs – or rather h a s – a mother and a father: but the second question is, if every child belongs to a NATION at the same time, if every child also has a NATIONALITY. The NATION is responsible for the EDUCATION of the child in a SCHOOL: if you forget this, you forget the children whose father and mother neglect their duty to EDUCATE the child.

  • Charles Nzegbuna

    Anabel, you mentioned untimely death, well that was a topic for discussion during the study of faith section in my society (Legion of Mary)meeting this evening, and my take on the topic is that there is no such thing as untimely death and I premised my argument on the fact that if God has knowledge of all that happens to us, then it means he permits that to happen, and then the issue of someone dying before his time will then have no basis. Whats your take on this ans every other person can say something about this.

  • Jacki

    This article actually upset me! My brother came in from out of state during Lent to see his new nephew and god-son and the Deacon at our church said we couldn’t baptize during this time BECAUSE of Lent. We were frustrated but just assumed this was correct. I wish I had found this before as my son is 3 months old and has to be baptized with a proxy.

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