O King Solomon! Pray for us Squabbling Catholics!

Okay, so, via Deacon Greg ala the Italian press (which is you know…the Italian press), here is the latest story that has some Catholics screaming at each other in social media.

The pope baptized a baby. According to “Il Tirreno” the couple requesting baptism for their daughter Guilia may not be sacramentally married. We don’t even know if that report is accurate, or if so what circumstances may be behind the couple being only civilly wed. But that’s enough for battle amongst Catholics.

Read Deacon Greg’s post, because it includes helpful links to canon law and other information. As he writes:

Ultimately, it is left to the prudential judgment of the minister—priest, deacon, bishop or pope—to decide if there is “founded hope” that the child will be raised Catholic. It’s open to debate. A significant number of families who meet with me to arrange baptisms at my parish have not been married by a Catholic priest. I try to find out why, determine what we can do to resolve that situation, and seek assurance that they are serious about their faith and serious about giving the child a Catholic upbringing. After that, it’s in the hands of God.

I often think that as people of faith we need to be more willing to believe that things are in the hands of God, and so we don’t have to get as worked up as we do. We get worked up because we love the faith, we love Christ and want to be sure neither is being disrespected or minimized, and that is certainly a fair concern, but there comes a point — in stories like this, and also when it comes to questions about which Catholics ought to be on the communion line — that I do believe we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and we must not be so insistent upon what is ideal as to scare off those who are currently falling short.

We must always be concerned, always be alert, yes, but we must always err on the side of mercy, because that is what we are called to by Christ. A wonderful example of this can be found in Calah Alexander’s conversion story, wherein a Trappist priest walked the fine line between ideals and mercy, and brought a family into the life of faith for doing it.

I just fled a social media thread of Catholics letting loose on each other because of this baptism story, but I do have an opinion.

As Deacon Greg says, we don’t even know the details and facts of this story; it IS the Italian media, after all. Maybe these parents are waiting for an annulment. Maybe one of them had a profound conversion experience after the civil marriage and is now awaiting an annulment, but wants the child baptized anyway. Shall we say, “too bad, pally, until the annulment is granted and the marriage is sacramental, this baptism can’t happen?”

Yes, it is certainly an ideal thing if a baby is baptized to parents who have been converted, sacramentally married and (best-case scenario) freshly-confessed and in a state of grace. That is a great thing — it’s worth aspiring to.

But sometimes a child’s baptism must be part of a larger process of conversion — again, think of Calah Alexander’s story. In the thread I’m discussing she said pointedly: “. . .the mercy of one priest willing to baptize [her daughter] when everyone else [spouted legalisms] was the springboard for my conversion. [Had her daughter been] refused the mercy of forgiveness because I was a sinner, I would not have converted no matter how much I believed.”

God’s ways are not our ways. We cannot say to people “if you have not achieved the ideal, you have no access to God, and neither should your children.” In scripture, God says he has given Christ the job of judgement. It is not even in the purview of the First Person of the Trinity, any more; God surrendered that to Christ Jesus, and Jesus — the JUDGE — made a point of telling us to “go and learn what this means: I DESIRE MERCY.”

Just as a baby conceived in rape is innocent of the act and ought not be destroyed because of the sin of a progenitor, Pope Francis has made it clear that children are not to be excluded from baptism and membership in the church because their parents — for whatever reason, and we folks in the pews rarely know the full stories behind them — have not managed (yet) to pull themselves together and get it all “just right.” Think of all of the women who have aborted their babies because society has told them “that one was conceived all wrong; it should not live, because it will require something of you!” And think of the women who have chosen to give birth to those children, anyway — even if their hearts were fearful or doubting — and have, through the love that comes with new life, been healed of their wounds, “re-born” themselves and sometimes, yeah, even converted.

Someone in the thread asked if the baptism, performed by the pope, was even “licit” given the “imperfection” of the parents standing proxy. All that is required for a baptism to be licit is for the pouring of water over the head and the Trinitarian formula — “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” This is why even lay people can, in emergency situations, baptize. As to whether parental proxies by imperfectly-Catholic parents are licit, well, I sure hope so because when my kids were baptized I was a pretty messy Catholic, myself, and I am only marginally better, now.

There are so many Catholics who go through the motions and get the church wedding for grandma, and have the baptism because it makes a nice party and it’s “the thing we do”, culturally, but who then completely drop the ball on teaching the faith. They do little-to-nothing at home — not even grace before meals — and then yell at volunteer CCD teachers when their kids don’t know the Lord’s Prayer because it can’t be taught in 45 minute increments to a class of distracted, confused children who meet four times a month.

I’m not going to tell the pope (or any priest or deacon) that they shouldn’t baptize a baby whose parents haven’t checked off all the boxes. I’d rather see the baby claimed for Christ, the portal of grace created within the child, and hope that the parents who sought this baptism are also brought into conformity through that act of faith, however confused.

Can a baby’s baptism be used by God to convert the parents? It may seem like a lot of responsibility to put on a baby, but then again, we live in an age where most adults have never grown up; sometimes that process only begins with a baby. And it wouldn’t be the first time God has created an infant with a job to do.

For the rest of us, who fret and grow anxious and get into battle with each other every time some poorly written, half-assed article comes down the pike, let us remember to pray as did Solomon: “give me an understanding heart.”

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  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I’m with you. I’d rather see the baby claimed for Christ. Why punish the child? If the parents are going to the effort of baptizing him, then there is something in their heart which may grow. Let us hope and pray.

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    I’m happy that the pope is baptizing children from invalid marriages, but I’d rather the Francis would do so in private. Though he was clearly interested in welcoming the children to the faith when he said:

    “I just want to tell you this, you have the duty to transmit the faith, the most beautiful inheritance that you will leave to them.”

    At the same time he is also sending the message that a valid marriage is not important, as if it were merely a piece of canonic paper.

    This lax attitude is actually quite typical in Latin America, where I hail from. Which begs the question about who were those priests refusing to baptize the children of unwed mothers. Perhaps there was only one or two priests that would do this in all of Buenos Aires, I’d wager.

  • Andrew

    There I was, reading this article, trying to enter into the spirit of it, remembering times when I too have been to legalistic and only too willing to “squabble,” when I read this gem:
    “and then yell at volunteer CCD teachers when their kids don’t know the Lord’s Prayer because it can’t be taught in 45 minute increments to a class of distracted, confused children who meet four times a month.”

    Not only does Scalia tidily sum up the current state of Catholic religious education (yes, parents, I am talking to you), but she left me defenseless against the sudden humor. Bravo!

  • Almario Javier

    “All that is required for a baptism to be licit is for the pouring of water over the head and the Tridentine formula”

    Don’t you mean “Trinitarian”? Much as I (and the Holy Father, and the Holy Office, and every priest I’ve known) loves the teachings of Trent, the formula for baptism is much much older than that wonderful Council.

  • MeanLizzie

    Yep, thanks for the heads up. This is what happens when one is writing too fast and in a um…mildly irked state. :-)

  • Cincinnatus1775

    That baby needed to be claimed for Christ, and those of us outside of the situation should trust the Pastor’s judgement that the rest will get worked out. But more appropriately, we should remember Jesus’ admonishment of Peter at the end of John’s Gospel: “what is that to you? Follow me!”

  • Nan

    Sacraments are public acts. It’s a public statement that this baby is part of Christ’s family. If you read In the light of the law and Fr Z, you’ll see that the baptism was requested months ago and there are plans to be married in the church. We don’t know the whole story and will never know.

    Also note that the priest may determine that a situation is an emergency for any sacrament and do what he finds to be necessary. By your standards I should never have received my First Communion because, although I was prepared for it with our Mass lesson and first confession, my family had stopped going to church so I didn’t receive with my class. I received Communion on a Saturday morning, outside of Mass, with only my mom and the priest present.

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    Your notions of what constitute a sacramental public act are wrong.

    This is the first time that Francis publicly baptizes children, but he’s been doing that in private for months.

  • Chris Nunez

    Boy! You really spun a whole long story out of this simple baptism. Good on Papa Francis… This is what we’re all about!

  • Adam Frey

    I have a thought: only Catholics in a state of grace should be permitted to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation.

  • Nan

    Excuse me, are you telling me that my parish priest is giving me misinformation? This is the first feast of the Baptism of the Lord over which he has presided as pope. Baptism is typically celebrated either during or after Mass, with family present. That doesn’t sound terribly private to me.

  • James

    “Not being sacramentally married” can mean a lot of things. Like the case of two Protestant converts who were divorced and remarried before their conversion.


    As Dr. Ed Peters pointed out, Canon Law (Church law, not God’s law) on marriage is a mess. It seems like the couple is trying to work through the mess and has a baby that needs baptism.

  • MB

    Wow, Just wow! I have a week-old grandson, born to yet-unmarried 18 YOs. His Baptism will be in 4 days. Pope Francis’s words, to me, have been saying that we need to welcome all the people we can into the church. We shall not judge other people, but we can encourage them to turn towards God. I am thrilled that my Grandson was given life, I am thrilled that he is being Baptized quite voluntarily on the part of his parents. I pray that as the whole family grows that they will attend Mass more than occasionally. My son has been a weekly Mass attender before he moved out. Mamma is the daughter of a fallen away Catholic. If we are going to draw her in, we need to be welcoming, warm and suspend judgement.

  • echarles1

    When in doubt leave it local. For every ‘scandal’ of a priest’s pastoral act there might ten miracles.

  • FW Ken

    I hope thus couple finds their way into Holy Matrimony and lives a joyous life in Christ. God bless them.

    One nit to pick: the priest was probably a Christian of the Common Observance rather than a Trappist – Cistercian of the Strict Observance. The latter seldom do pastoral work outside the monastery.

  • Frank

    Beautiful reflection. Thanks. This kind of thing is why I read you.

    You know, “things are in the hands of God” could also be applied with great profit to the Jamie Stiehm brouhaha, including jackboots.

  • pesq87

    FWK: I assume you concluded (accurately) that last month the blogger running another forum here on Patheos stopped our conversation from continuing by preventing any of my replies to you from going through. Eventually I had to give up. Unlike the Elizabeth Scalia, she is unwilling to facilitate honest, informed public debate of issues. I tried….

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    No, I’m not. Though he’s wrong, it’s not misinformation, for then he’d have to know that pope Francis has baptized children before at his residence’s chapel.

  • Flee Bus

    I’ve been to the baptism of three nephews born to unmarried parents (even in the civil sense) here in Italy. The priest was only too happy to do so – I suppose he put his Christianity before his Catholicism.

    You talk about the “Italian Press” in a pretty dismissive way – what makes the Italian press so bad? In comparison to a culture that gave us Fox News and the National Enquirer?

    Having soaked up a fair amount of Catholicism here in the land of its birth (Catholicism that is, not Christianity obviously) I’ve had conversion (from Anglicanism) on my mind for some time, attend church regularly and am in touch with some local clergy.

    But whenever I read about it online I often feel repelled and wonder what the hell I am doing wanting to join this bigoted bunch. Not as a result of this piece in particular, but the debates etc, and increasingly I realise that this has less to do with Catholicism per se than American culture.

    Americans dominate the blogosphere and apart from the fact debates tend to focus on things like homosexuality, women, abortion, etc, underneath this there is an obsession with rules of a very binary nature. You can do this you can’t do that, if you do this you’re not a “proper” Catholic etc. It’s so depressing!

    Then I realised – it’s because you’re all Puritans! Beneath the Catholic veneer you are cultural Calvinists! It’s not Catholicism, with all it’s faults and forgiveness, it’s pitiless Protestantism!

    You may sneer at the Italians, but perhaps for all their inconsistencies they created a religion with a place for everyone, and not just the Elect.

  • Rudy U Martinka

    In my opinion, King Solomon would not judge this matter because he knew that to engage in a discussion about personal religious beliefs would be a volcanic issue that could erupt rage in his kingdom that he would then have to contend with. During his reign. peace prevailed. He allowed his wives to continue to worshiping their Gods. Later in history, religious clerics decided he was wrong to do so and the result is what we read about every day in news reports about religious hatred in the Middle East.

    My accolades to our new Pope.

    Regards and good will blogging

  • Guest

    Can a baby’s baptism be used by God to convert the parents?

  • Christine

    ‘Can a baby’s baptism be used by God to
    convert the parents?’ This is exactly what happened
    at my husband’s (Anglican) baptism, when his parents understood the promises
    they were making on his behalf. They have been devout Christians from that day
    onwards – nearly 60 years ago.

  • nannon31

    No…Catholicism as debating society that veers toward exclusion can be found in many Italian papal documents of the past….like Pope Leo X’s 1520 endorsement of burning heretics in Exsurge Domine. Splendor of the
    Truth by John Paul II rejects that in section 80 but don’t dump all Catholic neuroses on the US. Cornelius Jansen and many other debate/ obsessives were there in Europe. Catholicism is like a geode….beautiful in the necessary core but having a depressing outer surface via human nature that is uglier than the core. It’s a marriage between God and a not yet perfect Bride with Catholic apologetics people often covering the Bride with makeup…” well Protestants burned people too” etc. Geode or coconut which also has a nice center but an ugly surface covering. Don’t look for perfection in the Church….her Holiness is in the core, in the sacraments, in the treasure of graces etc….the outer shell…us…can be Holy at tîmes and can fail at times. The internet because it is words veers toward debate. Millions of Catholics here and in Europe ignore it for that reason.

  • Cynthia

    A friend of mine has a niece who bore a baby out of wedlock. The parish priest refused to baptize the baby, a Lutheran pastor was more than happy to baptize her and now the family is considering leaving for the Lutheran church.

  • Gail Finke

    We do have a mindset influenced by Protestantism, and most American Catholics don’t know that it’s “American” — they think everyone is like this. For instance, we are big on everyone being at Mass on time and staying until the end, something I understand is not important in a lot of European countries. And we want everyone to go up to Communion row-by-row, in an orderly line. And we have a hard time with people staying in the Church who break Church rules — although we are far more comfortable with it than Protestants. At the same time, our dissidents are more dissident, in a way, because they also have the feeling that they “ought” to leave, so they stay with the purpose of dissenting AND with the purpose of changing the rules — because we like to follow rules. I think that is why we have so many fights — we all want to be right because our American view is that there are rules and we should all agree on them and follow them.