I received a question last week about infant baptism and the difficulties involved when parents are not practicing the faith. In my pastoral experience inquiries of this nature would come from the grandparents, most often practicing Catholics, who are deeply concerned about the destiny of an infant grandchild when the natural parents are not practicing the faith. Another scenario is the presentation of a child for sacraments of initiation when the family has no intent to follow through, but this is a slightly different problem that deserves my full day’s attention and I will talk about this next Monday.
The problem here today is the “third party involvement,” that is, the grandparents (generally speaking) and the possibilities and limits of their good faith in seeking baptism for a grandchild. Let me begin with a civil law observation: unless third parties are legally recognized as guardians of a child, in loco parentis as they say, no church minister can perform a sacrament without the consent of the legal parents. A secret baptism without parental knowledge) is fraught with civil dangers, among other things, for both the agents seeking the baptism and the cleric or other person performing the act. A court may subpoena sacramental records. An early episode of Law and Order involved a psychiatrist’s report to a Church Tribunal regarding the mental state of an applicant. And yes, I have heard those stories, too, about babies baptized at a home in the sink under the advice of a church minister, but please familiarize yourselves with present day family law (civil), which varies from state to state.
From the pastoral vantage point, what is a pastor or other minister to do when the situation presents itself? The first thing I would do is get something of a family history. If you are approached by a relative, remember that in all possibility this matter was discussed (with varying degrees of intensity) within the family before it came to you; it is worth your while to find out, if you can, why the parents have chosen not to do this. Once in a while a general question about the grandparents’ concern will elicit information about the baby’s household, such as heroin or other substance use, neglect, illness of a caregiver, extreme poverty, or genuine physical harm. You may have a situation where you have a duty to report to protective services the conditions of the home of the child. In other circumstances, the child’s parents may have significant needs that you can address through your parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society—a very concrete way to restore broken relations between the Church and an adult couple or single parent where tension has existed for whatever reason. I need to add here that Canon Law Codes 864-871 on this subject need reworking, especially 868.
One major obstacle that probably causes reluctance in parents seeking infant baptism is their own status. Can Catholic parents in irregular marriage situations or, say, single mothers, seek infant baptism for their child? There is no expressed prohibition; what I see in some church bulletins is an offer to assist with an annulment and the “convalidation” or sacramentalizing of the marriage included in the parish’s baptismal guidelines—and I tip my hat to those parishes. Such couples are demonstrating a concrete willingness to participate in the full life of the church. I have seen ceremonies where the baptism of a child and the blessing/sacramentalizing of the parents’ marriage are performed at the same time as one unified event, a satisfactory procedure all things being equal.
Most situations are not quite so involved; it is more along the lines of personal tensions between a parent or parents of adult children and the children themselves. The religious question is often a sidebar to unresolved family issues; the adult child may resent the parents’ trying to “tell me what to do.” I might recommend some counseling or advice to grandparents on how to find a healthy balance. Within such third party assistance, it might even be possible to negotiate some kind of an arrangement whereby the grandparents would assume the faith formation of the grandchild, promising to take the child to Sunday Eucharist and religious formation, as well as assuming the parental catechetical role. Whether all individual pastors would approve of such an arrangement is hard to say, but it does seem to me to meet the standards of Canon Law Codes 872-874. If a priest or parish refuses a reasonable request, a Catholic is free to consult another local parish community.
The tension surrounding infant baptism is the fear of many that if an infant should die before baptism, he or she would be consigned to Limbo or denied the joy of heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in one of its finest moments, addresses this fear in para. 1261. Interestingly, the same paragraph states with considerable force that undue impediments should not be placed in the road for infants and children receiving baptism. Over the past half-century following Vatican II there has been a prolonged controversy about sacramental discipline. On the one side is the liturgical belief that sacraments must mesh with the present day disposition of the person receiving the sacrament. Thus, many parishes have strict policies about admission to certain sacraments—e.g., parents of infants must be practicing the faith before their child will be baptized—the idea being that there needs to be an inherent honesty in sacramental discipline. Without a realized faith, the pouring of baptismal water is a form of Christian magic.
On the other hand is the school of thought that no opportunity for evangelization should be overlooked, particularly in times of sacramental celebration. This attitude looks upon sacraments as the first step in a long process of Christian living, and does not demand perfection at the starting line. This is a bit of a caricature, of course. The truth lies in the middle: we celebrate sacraments without hypocrisy as much as possible, but our chronic sinfulness, weakness and ignorance is what makes sacraments necessary in the first place. Don’t be scandalized that different priests may vary in their judgments of “where the middle is.” I’ve been there.