What's New
Roman Missal
Rite of Reception
The Good News
Music & Video
Contacts & Links

What Does the Catechism Say About Baptism?
By Paul Turner

[Editors note: As this issue of Catechumenate goes to press, no publication date has been set for the English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church serves as a compendium of how the church understands what we believe. It helps us observe the fruit of theological discourse. Catechumenate ministers may wish to acquaint themselves with the sections concerning the sacraments of initiation. Such a study will enrich the ministers' understanding of their work. This article will examine what the catechism says about the sacrament of baptism. The treatment (paragraph #1213-1284) lies where one hopes to find it: it opens the study of the seven sacraments of the Catholic church. Before analyzing the section on baptism, however, an overview of its position in the book will set its meaning in context.


The whole catechism is divided into four sections: exploring faith, liturgy, morality, and prayer. The Creed, the sacraments, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer, respectively, form the sources from which these sections draw. This division offers the advantage of a systematic context in which to find what the church believes. Other schema could also have served this purpose. For example, the Bible, canon law, liturgical prayer, the history of the church -- any of these could theoretically provide a structure for arranging a catechism of what we believe. But the current division has some tradition behind it -- earlier catechisms have used the same structure -- and it provides a more useful means of cataloging our teachings of faith and morals. The drawback of this division is that it can demand more of its four sources than they readily proffer. Can the Ten Commandments govern every moral act in an increasingly diverse society? (For example, isn't it too much to expect the commandments to resolve the complex questions in medical ethics?) Is the Lord's Prayer capable of introducing every other kind of prayer? (What does it say about contemplation?) Does the Creed cover everything we hold in faith? (It never mentions the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.) And do the seven sacraments sufficiently explain all liturgical prayer? (How do we explore the liturgy of the hours, consecration to religious life, sacramentals, and funerals, except by appending the basic structure of the catechism?) So the fourfold division isn't perfect, but it is useful to get at what we believe. It will prove faulty if scrutinized too much, but satisfying as a means of gathering into one fold the flock of our beliefs. For its references, the catechism generally turns to the Bible, patristics, the liturgy and the magisterium of the church. This gives the text a strong foundation in the church's scripture, prayer and tradition, but avoids the contribution of many modern theologians. Among magisterial sources, the text leans heavily on the writings of Pope John Paul II.

AN OVERVIEW OF PART II. Part II of the catechism explores the liturgy, or the celebration of the Christian mystery, as introduced in part I by means of the Creed. This chapter develops a basic theology of sacrament and then offers a presentation of each of the seven. This organization helps survey what we believe about these rituals. Noteworthy in the theology of sacrament found in the first section of part II is how the church establishes the origin and number of its sacraments. To explain the origins of sacraments, the catechism revives a troublesome phrase, "instituted by Christ" (#1114 and #1210). It seems to mean that the sacraments of the church derive their power from seamlessly continuing the saving actions of Jesus' life (#1115). But the term "instituted" will cause many to assume the church believes that Jesus himself created all seven rituals, in the same way that the scriptures record he introduced baptism and Eucharist. That's how Martin Luther understood the concept and why Christian churches today do not agree on the number of sacraments. By not clarifying here the primacy of baptism and Eucharist nor the disputed meaning of the phrase, the catechism invites needless ecumenical tension. "Institution" her refers more to the mission of Christ than to some executive ecclesial action, but the word courts misunderstanding. When the text footnotes our belief in seven sacraments (#1113) it turns to several medieval councils: The Second Council of Lyons in the year 1274, and the Council of Florence in 1439, and the Council of Trent in 1547. Nothing earlier and nothing later. Up until the thirteenth century the church never officially taught how many sacraments there are; the question had never arisen. And Vatican II never did say, "There are seven sacraments," as bluntly as its predecessors. It describes all seven by name, if not by number (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 47, 66-78), but then it uses the term "sacrament" in a broader sense. Vatican II calls the church the "sacrament of salvation" (Constitution on the Church, 48) and says it is "like a sacrament of intimate union with God and of the unity of all humankind" (#1). The catechism cites this passage earlier on (#774-775) and earlier still says that Christ's humanity is like a "sacrament" of his divinity (#515). All this may leave traditional sacramental theologians counting on their fingers and toes. Are there nine sacraments? it depends on what you mean; the term is rich. But by focusing this section on the seven sacraments, the catechism leaves their relationship to the sacraments of Christ and the church undeveloped. How easily it could have clarified this interrelationship: The sacraments are symbols of the church, as the church is the sacrament of Christ, as Christ is the sacrament of God.

CATALOGING THE SEVEN SACRAMENTS. The Catechism chooses a secondary system to subdivide the seven sacraments (#1211). It calls baptism, confirmation and Eucharist the sacraments of initiation (also at #1275); penance and anointing the sacraments of healing, and orders and matrimony the sacraments of service to the communion of the church. The catechism admits this is not the only possible arrangement (#1211). This subdivision has experienced some popularity in recent years, and it has both strengths and weaknesses. To its benefit, this subdivision helps establish a relationship among certain sacraments. Canon law also unites the sacraments of initiation to explain who is a fully initiated member of the Catholic church, eligible for sponsoring at baptism, for orders or for joining a religious community. Binding penance to anointing makes it more "user-friendly"; this way it sounds like a healing, which everyone would like, more than a trial, which most of us avoid. Marriage and religious life remain vocation options for Catholics; so priesthood has taken its place as the sacramental alternative to marriage for Catholic men. There are drawbacks to subdividing the sacraments in this way. Baptism and confirmation already include aspects of service to the community (#1270), which marriage and orders are here grouped to provide. All the baptized accept mission as part of their call. Confirmation so strongly serves this aspect of the Christian life that many communities delay it to a more mature age, far from its temporal proximity to baptism. This makes confirmation more a sacrament of service than of initiation. Anointing and penance are sacraments of healing, but in many places the popularity of anointing has risen while that of penance has declined. Many Catholics have been hurt by thoughtless confessors; for them, calling penance "healing" is like calling a warhead a "peacekeeper." Marriage and orders are sacraments of service, but in different ways and not as mutually exclusive options. We have married priests in the Roman Catholic Church: Eastern Catholic priests and married ministers of other religions who joined the Catholic communion to pursue their ministry -- wives, children and all. Orders pertain to liturgical ministries and ecclesial service that further specify the charismas of baptism. Marriage contrasts more with celibacy than with orders; marriage and celibacy provide spiritual environments out of which any Christian may fulfill his or her service to the church. Well, some subdivision helps, but it's noteworthy that even though this one has been popular for some years, its appearance in an official church text establishes a theological framework and a set of titles brand new in the entire history of the seven sacraments.


The catechism tries to situate its theology of baptism in the initiation of adults, not the baptism of infants. When introducing the three sacraments of initiation, the text turns to an explanation of the catechumenate by Paul VI (#1212). Similarly, when describing how Christian initiation takes place, the catechism turns first to the multistaged journey of the catechumen (#1229), a model of conversion evident from the earliest days of the church (#1230). So rich is the meaning of baptism that it invites many metaphors: regenerative bath, illumination, death, purification -- the catechism explores them all. Summarily, it treats baptism's benefits to the individual and to the community, and how it cleanses the individual from sin while incorporating the new member into the body of Christ (#1214-1216 and 1262-1271). These paragraphs beguile us with the many aspects of baptism's beauty like the petals of a flower. These sections make a stronger case than those dealing with scriptural prefigurements of baptism and the baptism of Jesus by John (#1217-1225). These are thorny matters. Prefigurement presumes that certain passages of the first testament (e.g., the creation of water, the rescue of Noah and the crossing of the Red Sea) announce the coming of baptism in the second testament. But textual criticism evaluates biblical texts for what they are, nor for their parallels. Prefiguring is acceptable critically more as poetry than as prophecy. Further, just what was the meaning of Jesus' baptism by John? Even the four evangelists do not agree on that one. But the catechism tries to offer one meaning. However, linking the baptism of Jesus too strongly with Christian baptism runs the double danger of having to explain why the sinless Jesus would undergo the ritual that cleanses us from sin, and why Catholics do not limit baptism to the adult experience of commitment and mission. Laudably, this section also portrays Jesus' own death as baptism (#1225). This sense of the term strengthens the meaning of the ecclesial baptismal rite: death to a former way of life, rising to life in Christ. Baptism most fully signifies its meaning when celebrated by immersing the candidate three times in water. The catechism prefers immersion to pouring water over the candidate's head (#628), 1214, 1239, 1262). This preference promotes a symbol dramatic enough to proclaim baptism's full meaning: the reorientation of the catechumen's life and the reawakening of the church's total commitment to Christ. Because the catechism stresses adult initiation for the source of its baptismal theology, it is surprising to see the treatment of the sacrament's meaning follow the ritual for infant baptism (#1234-1245). For example, the analysis of the ritual begins with an explanation of the signing with the cross (#1235). This gesture, which is part of the rite of acceptance into the catechumenate, open the rite of infant baptism. But then we read that more than one exorcism may accompany the rite (true for adults), that the oil of catechumens is applied (true for infants) and that the one to be baptized renounces Satan and professes faith in Christ (true for adults, #1237). At infant baptism, renunciation and profession belong to the parents and godparents, but the catechism does not make the distinction. Stressing the role of the parent seems confusing if the text refers to adult as well as infant initiation (#1255). This section concludes with a reference to the blessing of the mother (#1245), a ritual foreign to the catechumenate, and even to infant baptism (which forsakes the odious custom of "churching" women thought to be unclean by childbirth, and rather includes a blessing for both parents).

INITIATION PRACTICES. Sensitivity to Easter rites surfaces when the catechism records that their baptismal formula differs from that of the West ("The servant of God, N., is baptized in the name of the Father...." #1240), as well their anointing with chrism. In the East, this chrismation is the sacrament the West calls confirmation (#1242), but the West reserves confirmation to a second anointing some years following infant baptism. The West follows the East only when initiation adults (#1233). The catechism admits that the West has two initiation practices, one for infants (#1250-1252) and one for adults (#1247-1249). Occasionally the weakness of this system becomes evident. In the rite of infant baptism, the anointings, prayers and symbols that precede the pouring of water come from the catechumenate. Are we making the infant a catechumen for a few moments? If so, we thoughtlessly minimize the great state of evangelical formation and apply the catechumenate state to one who is by birth a member of the Christian household. The catechism admits that the baptismal rite for infants abridges the catechumenal steps (#1231), but it stresses that catechesis should follow baptism. However, in order to make this point, the catechism employs a strange phrase which may prove troublesome: It says that by its very nature, the baptism of infants demands a "postbaptismal catechumenate." This expression, placed in italics in the text, depicts an oxymoron: The catechumenate is precisely that period which precedes baptism; mystagogy follows it. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1980 instruction on infant baptism, Pastoralis Actio, criticized the idea of an infant catechumenate (#31). Further, "catechumen" is not just a liturgical term, nor merely an ecclesial one. It is a canonical term, describing a non-baptized member whose bond with the church is not as complete as the membership of the baptized. Catechumens have certain rights and responsibilities under the law, but they do not have others. The use of this term "catechumenate" to describe postinitiatory catechesis may only muddy the waters of baptism. The baptism of infants enjoys a long history in the church, dating back to the second century (#1252 and 1282), but when the catechism develops this theme, it mixes the gift of a new birth after baptism with a concern about original sin (#1250). For whichever reason, the catechism recommends baptism shortly after the birth of the child. In any event, the need for catechesis remains clear (#1231). For adults, mystagogy, or postbaptismal catechesis, produces its best effect when the liturgy it follows is beautifully celebrated (#1234). For infants, parents accept responsibility for catechesis (#1251).

OTHER THEMES. The catechism confronts an authoritarian interpretation of the sayings of the Lord about baptism. Because Jesus says we enter the reign of God only by water and the Spirit (John 3:5), and commands the apostles to baptize all nations (Matthew 28:19-20), it concludes that baptism is necessary for salvation -- necessary, though, for those who have heard the gospel and have had the opportunity for baptism (#1257 and 1277). The text balances the absolute evangelical importance of baptism with this insight: Though God has bound salvation to the sacrament of baptism, God is not bound to the sacraments (#1257). In other words, although God offers salvation through baptism, it is not the only means by which God grants salvation. God can offer salvation to anyone. The possibility for the unbaptized to enter eternal life mitigates the necessity of baptism for salvation. Another authoritarian theme arises in discussing the responsibility of the baptized (#1269). The Catechism says they now live not for themselves, but for others and for those in authority. It reads like the magisterium's opportunity to remind the community who's in charge. But it balances this by detailing some of the rights of the baptized -- to receive the sacraments, to be nourished with the word of God and to be upheld by the other spiritual aids of the church. On a freer note, the catechism reinforces the importance of inculturating the rites of Christian initiation (#1232) according to the needs of various countries and refers the reader to the same principle as it applies to liturgy in general (#1204). The ecumenical movement will rejoice to see once again the assurance that baptism does unite Christian faiths (#1271), but much work needs to be done in the arena of church life. Some basic issues are covered, such as who is eligible for baptism (#1246). (Only the unbaptized.) And who may baptize (#1256 and 1284). (Usually a bishop or a priest, and in the Latin rite a deacon. But anyone with the right intention can do it.) The once-and-for-all nature of baptism is still explained by the confusing allegorical image of the "mark" or "character" (#1272 and 1280). "Mark" is such a physical image that it encourages a physical notion of the immortal soul. Still, the basic idea admirably reinforces our belief that sin is powerless in the face of baptism, which consecrates Christians for worship and service (#1273) and marks them for the day of redemption (#1274). But the catechism also takes on some complex issues, such as the relation between faith and baptism (#1252-1261). Whether the one to be baptized is an adult or a child, the text stresses that the church asks not for a mature faith, but for a beginning, which must be developed (#1252). This is interesting when considering the catechumen. The readiness of a candidate does not depend on a mature faith (#1254). Adults deepen that faith each year during Lent and renew it at Easter. One wishes for a more thought-out presentation on the status of infants who die before baptism. Avoiding the whole idea of limbo, the catechism still doesn't offer the confident assurance of their salvation. This is curious because it admits that unbelievers who die without baptism may receive its fruits (#1260; 1279 for a fuller description of "fruits"); that those who die a martyr's death prior to but desiring baptism share eternal life (#1258 and 1281); and that the salvation of catechumens is assured without the sacrament (#1259). But, probably because of the needling doctrine of original sin, the catechism cannot bring itself to say more of the death of unbaptized infants than that we entrust them to God, in the hope that there is a way of salvation for them (#1261 and 1283). Christian parents who have suffered the sorrow of an infant's death deserve better consolation from the church than this text affords.


The section on baptism in the new catechism is quite complex, in spite of its neat presentation. A careful analysis shows that the sublime sacrament of baptism stands ready to enlighten the everyday life of individual Christians and church communities, while calling us to an ever more careful articulation of the mystery we celebrate. Catechumenate ministers will serve well when they know both the Church's reaching and the presence of God unfolding in the lives of those who seek union with Christ and with the church through the waters of baptism.  

Back to Top-of-page