THE WISDOM AND FOLLY OF INFANT BAPTISM
Infant baptism is both a great treasure and an abused ritual. It offers golden gifts: participation in eternal life, incorporation into the body of Christ, and life in a community of faith. But infant baptism can also be abused. Its meaning can be swallowed up in empty ritual. If a family lives disconnected from regular contact with the Catholic community, infant baptism may degenerate into a mouthed ceremony intended to pacify more religiously active relatives. Baptism connects baby to church across the bridge of parents. The wisdom or folly of baptizing infants depends on the spiritual strength of that bridge.
Infant baptism can celebrate a marvelous mystery, the faith of a family and the faith of a parish. A newborn child may inherit all the support it could ever desire: parents who will feed and protect, educate and form them as a family; a parish that will pray and play, nurture and sustain them as a community. When infant baptism actually connects the parish to the family and the child, the sacrament performs functions similar to those of a first birthday party: It provides an opportunity for family and community to pledge support and affirm the life of an infant who does not understand and will not remember what is going on. Still, the ritual establishes the critical relationships of child, family, and community.
However, it doesn't always work that way. Baptizing infants sows great promise, but unless someone tends the garden, the harvest will fail. If the relationship between parish and family remains fragile, the ritual may succumb to hypocrisy.
Potential problems loom when preparing a newborn for baptism.
ƒ Ecclesially Self-reliant Parents
Some of the parents who present a child for baptism stand on the fringe of participation in the church. Self-reliant in matters of faith, they do not attend Mass regularly. In some cultures the father rarely participates in public worship. Other parents lack good catechesis. They received education about the church somewhere in their youth, but their principal sources of current information may be movies and sensational news stories. Many parents lack a good understanding of church teachings or even the primary issues facing their local parish. Many parents of young children have not registered with a parish, pledged to support a parish, or volunteered any time or talent for their parish or any other charity. The moral decisions they make are often subject to the values of the marketplace, where economics and self-interest constitute the guiding principles.
Such parents may nonetheless present a child to the church for baptism. The Catholic rite of infant baptism asks the parents again and again if they understand their responsibility and if they accept it. Parents answer yes. After all, they came to church to get their child baptized. They don't want to derail that effort by offering a muddled reply. But in some cases the gulf between their spoken words and their weekly behavior gapes wide.
What brings such people to baptism? Sometimes it's pressure from the family. The grandparents of the newborn may harass their children who neglect the parental duty of baptism, just as they may presume to advise them about other aspects of marriage and family life. Baptizing the child may bring a temporary peace. Other times parents who have no regular connection with church unreflectively want to do what society expects them to do. Social pressure moves them to have the child baptized. Consequently, some couples who may live apart from the church still present their children to the church for a share in its life and ministry. They may never even see the difference between the church's expectations of their leadership and their perception of their role.
ƒ Fear of Loss
Some parents desire their child's baptism not so much for what the sacrament brings but for what it avoids. Many Catholics have learned that baptism is necessary for eternal life, and they fear that if their child should die without baptism, he or she would lose heaven. For parents who dream the ideal future for their children, the prospect of a shortened earthly life followed by no eternal life can instill great fear. Some cavalier parents scoff at the unenlightened notion that a baby who dies before baptism is deprived of eternal life, but they may have second thoughts about it if the child is theirs.
Consequently, some well-meaning parents, grandparents, relatives or friends may surreptitiously baptize a perfectly healthy baby at home or in the hospital if they grow nervous or impatient for a formal baptism. In danger of the child's death, the church encourages this practice, but not when the child is reasonably healthy. A child who regains health after an emergency baptism should be brought to church for the other parts of the rite (e.g. the anointing with chrism, the white garment, and the candle), but cannot be baptized again. In non-emergency cases of baptism in isolation, the ritual resembles a kind of inoculation against perdition, a protective incantation to ward off injury. When detached from the community of the church, its font, and its minister, baptism has less to do with the body of Christ and more to do with the fear of death.
ƒ Avoidance of the Public Eye
For various reasons, parents often view baptism more as a family event than as a parish one. Truly, it does gather the family together. But the parish community plays a role as well.
We contribute to the perception of baptism as family-only event when we traditionally ritualize the sacrament after the last Sunday morning Mass in an emptied church during a celebration quite distinct from the eucharist and the gathered parish community. In parishes ill-attuned to the sacrament's communitarian dimension, baptisms celebrated at Mass will surprise the child's family with the number of strangers witnessing what they imagined a private event, and parishioners will find the whole ritual an imposition on their worship routine.
Depending on the circumstances of the pregnancy and birth, a family may feel too embarrassed to celebrate baptism in front of a parish community. Sometimes a single parent or an unwed couple feels reluctant to stand publicly for baptism. If parents feel shame, the community faces a conflict between its rightful expectations for the moral behavior of it members and its genuine charitable care for those who feel excluded in a time of need. If a family feels that a private baptism provides more comfort than a public one, they're expressing the distance they feel between themselves and the parish community. A parish will find that their charity helps overcome the detachment that some families experience when they seek support at baptism. We all must deal with the shame some feel when they stand in the public eye.
To prevent the potential pitfalls of infant baptism, parishes take some advance measures. But they have mixed success.
ƒ Preparation Programs
Parishes commonly conduct programs to prepare parents for the baptism of their child. Generally the parish requires participation. The program varies from one community to another. It may last a single session or several. It may involve the priest or a team of parishioners. It may instruct about baptism or parenting and parish life. It may require the attendance of one or both parents, one or both godparents, all or none of the infant's siblings. It may use videotapes or live presentations. The result attempts to explain the symbols of the baptism ritual, to connect parents to the parish, to increase the awareness of their responsibility to raise the child in faith, and to support them at a critical time in their life.
Although the parish means well, the programs often fail to elicit a warm response. Parents of the newborn size up these sessions for what they are--requirements, "classes you have to take," hoops to jump through if they want their kid baptized. Consequently a parent often comes prepared to do the minimum with the least involvement and commitment. Disinclined to meet new people or share stories, they often want to get in and get out, skip the refreshments and get home.
Still, a parish soldiers on. From its point of view, the couple is making a commitment, and the parish wants to reach some understanding with parents about that commitment.
ƒ Additional Requirements
Individual parishes or dioceses may make other demands on a couple beyond the church law. For example, some may require that the parents' marriage be recognized by the church, that the parents attend Mass or verify their membership in the parish, or that they be confirmed. Unable to verify if parents have the proper interior disposition to share their faith with children, parishes may expect some show of exterior devotion in hopes that it will take root. It rarely works. Parents who do not have habits of faith will not acquire them because of some required behaviors; they may, however, perform whatever actions they need to get their child baptized. Then stop.
One can appreciate the parish's dilemma. To a parish, baptism means the beginning of a lifetime share in what the community has to offer; to a family baptism may mean a Sunday afternoon event. If a parish experiences many couples who appear for baptism and disappear afterwards, its staff tends to feel used and betrayed after its offer of service. When a couple calls the parish office for information about baptism, they may hear more about requirements than words of congratulations from the streetwise staff. A disillusioned parish staff grown cynical by its failure to connect new families to parish life may want to feel happy about a new birth, but it may also remain unable to overcome its fear that the ritual will ultimately be empty.
ƒ The Ritual Questions
Because of this fear of irrelevancy, the baptismal liturgy includes a number of questions for parents and godparents alike. "What are you asking the church today?" "Do you understand what you are undertaking?" "Will you assist in the duty of Christian mothers and fathers?" "Will you renew your own baptismal vows?" "Is it your will that this child be baptized in the faith of the church?" These questions do not simply attempt to get people better acquainted. Because of their frequency, they carry a tone of mistrust. The liturgy asks the parents again and again if they really desire baptism for the child. It reminds them again and again what baptism means and the responsibility it carries. Again and again, parents agree to whatever the church asks, and the child is baptized.
Although the questions reduce responsibility to a formality, their importance stands tall. They establish a set of roles. The church safeguards the sacraments. The parents safeguard the child. Baptism establishes a covenant between the child and the community, so both parish and family take the opportunity to express their part in the covenant. The ritual questions may seem superficial, but they give people lines worth reciting.
In our history as a church, infant baptism has not always faced these problems. The church originated the practice without articulating much expectation of the parents.
We have ample evidence that Christians baptized infants as early as the third century. Before that time there is no clear proof that infants were excluded from baptism. It's safe to assume that infants were baptized from the beginning. Even in the Acts of the Apostles we find tantalizing accounts of individuals who were baptized with their household. The bible never tells the ages of those in the household, but it does not exclude the possibility of infant baptism. In fact, Jesus' love for children and respect for their spirituality indicate he included them in his embrace.
In the first few centuries after Christ, the Roman church gradually established two baptismal occasions, Easter and Pentecost. The individual's baptism thus participated in the bigger story of resurrection, eternal life, community, and mission. Although people could be baptized at other times of the year because of poor health or their distance from a cathedral, the church preferred to gather those to be baptized, infants and adults alike, to the bishop's celebration of Easter or Pentecost. So at first, the church did not feel the urgency to baptize every baby quickly after it was born. It was customary to wait at least until the season for baptism. For many centuries, the baptism included communion as well, even for infants.
In time, though, the church grew nervous about the large number of infants dying without baptism, so it became normal to baptize children soon after birth, even apart from the traditional occasions. No longer relaxed about the time for baptism, the church urged parents to keep water handy at the time of birth and to know the baptismal formula in case the child was born dying. However, in some places, the church still urged that children born just before Easter and Pentecost be baptized on those dates, to honor the old tradition. But the occasion for baptism had shifted from a season of the church year to the time of an individual's birth.
Strangely, though, throughout all this time, we never had a rite truly suited for infant baptism. We just adapted the rite for baptizing adults. Clear up to the twentieth century, when parents presented a child for baptism, we asked the child, "Do you reject Satan?" "Do you believe in God the Father almighty?" The godparents answered yes. Only since Vatican II have we had a rite for the baptism of infants that asked the parents and godparents to renew their own baptismal promises, not to play ventriloquists answering for the child. The texts that accompany the anointing with chrism, the clothing with a white garment, and the lighting of a baptismal candle from the Easter candle, however, are still addressed to the child.
In any event, the early history of the church witnessed a time when baptismal waters flowed over virtually any child whose parents requested the sacrament. We have no record of preparation sessions or even ritual questions to parents. Both parents and the community of the church zealously desired the baptism of infants. Over the years, experience and suspicion have brought about parish requirements and societal pressure on parents.
Is there another way of handling the baptism of infants? Other possibilities have been proposed.
ƒ The catechumenate
The catechumenate poses an intriguing possibility. In some ways it seems the perfect solution to the problems surrounding infant baptism. It offers a lengthier period of preparation for both children and parents, culminating with baptism at Easter. It would increase the possibility that families will truly become more active with their faith. It would bring children to baptism at an older age when they could celebrate it with understanding and remember it with joy. This would also place Catholic baptismal practice in line with those churches who oppose the baptism of those who cannot profess their own belief.
Catholics impressed by the liturgy of the catechumenate from the rite of acceptance to the rites of initiation sometimes express remorse that they did not celebrate their baptism this way. In fact, they did, but in a smaller way. The rite of infant baptism actually includes segments of the catechumenate. We ask the name of the child, borrowing from the rite of election. We sign the child with the cross, borrowing from the rite of acceptance. We anoint the child with the oil of catechumens, borrowing from the word services of the period of the catechumenate. Of course, we celebrate these rites with more splendor when the subjects are adults, but still, infant baptism takes young children through a decidedly condensed version of catechumenate rituals.
Sometimes we are romanced by the rituals of the catechumenate. But ritual derives its potency from lived experience. The rituals of the catechumenate impress so much because they celebrate an interior rite of passage. The rituals are expressive when conversion is sincere. One cannot expect to import the liturgies of the catechumenate profitably for an infant without considering the personal call to holiness which they complete. Having more rituals will not more effectively bind the family to the parish unless they undergo interior conversion. Parents who do not attend church will not form the habit by the mere observance of rituals.
Still, is the catechumenate right for Catholic infants? Historically, no. The catechumenate established a period of preparation for those outside the Christian household to turn from their former way of life and accept Christ. The catechumenate conformed to adults who already had a system of belief, to challenge that belief, to present the Christian alternative, and to win acceptance. The catechumenate offered a period of conversion.
Infants do not fit that equation. They do not already hold one belief structure that needs to be challenged. They are infants within the Christian household. They need catechesis, commitment to the Christian way. They need to overcome childish desires and wants. They may possess a natural inclination to sinful behavior, but they also possess a natural spirituality which finds sustenance from its earliest years in the family's belief in Christ. Catechumens move from outside the Christian community to inside; infants, even unbaptized ones, are already under the influence of Christianity. We speak about "ongoing conversion" or "a lifetime of conversion," but the conversion which the catechumenate addresses is more basic--a conversion from a life without Christ to a life led by Christ. Infants don't exactly qualify.
So, although a catechumenate for infants would provide the merit of catechetical development, it would fail to imitate what catechumenates are designed to effect: conversion. By calling the catechetical formation of Christian children a catechumenate, we would demonstrate a lack of appreciation for what a real catechumenate is.
ƒ Letting the Child Choose
Sometimes parents, especially those from two different religions, delay baptism to let their children choose which faith they wish to embrace. At first it sounds as patriotic as the Bill of Rights. But it makes one wonder, if parents differ on nutritional theory, would they let the child choose which foods to eat? Or if the parents differ on approaches to discipline, would they let the child choose which punishment to accept? Churches are not like colored clothing, options which the wearer may select at whim. Churches represent values, beliefs, relationships, responsibilities, and the human response to mystery. Children need direction from their parents.
Besides, are such parents really offering the child a free choice? Will they sit peacefully if a child elects not to be baptized at all? Or will they find themselves behaving like parents of children who don't want to be confirmed, insisting that they make the preparations anyway, like doing homework, practicing music, or playing a sport? Most parents have a better than passing interest in the religious beliefs of their children. A child deserves to have a religious family from birth.
The problem with infant baptism is that we have placed some high expectations on it. We value baptism so much that we expect Catholic parents to offer it to their children. But in doing so, we have entered a battlefield of belief. Even parents who do not value active church membership still seek a passive church membership for their children. Amenable to doing the minimum with their faith, they accept a favor the church offers: the baptism of their children. Of course, baptism is anything but a minimum. It's a maximum. It is life in Christ, sharing in the body of Christ, and commitment to a way of life.
In the end our choices are simple.
1) We can baptize fewer babies. Parents who do not actively participate in Catholic life might profitably delay the baptism of their children. Their children would be more likely candidates for a catechumenate. In need of more Christian environment, instruction, and formation than they'll find at home, they could discover it all in a slower approach to baptism.
2) Or we can baptize and hope for the best. This method generally produces positive results in active Catholic families. And in fact, when parents are distant from religion it's their kids who often bring them back. Children are the best evangelizers. They raise questions and create wonder. They inspire belief and provoke a sense of community. In the borderline cases where baptizing infants may not exactly fit the family's lived experience, baptism may be what the family needs most. Supple enough to the Word of God to approach the church for baptism, they may be drawn to greater things if they meet at church the welcoming and forgiving body of Christ.
article first appeared online in Catholic Practice (1997).
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