Should we ever refuse baptism?

Should we ever refuse baptism? January 11, 2016

The title of this post says it all:  should we ever refuse to baptize someone?  In particular, if parents present a child for baptism, are there ever grounds for refusing this request?

My initial response is no:  we should never refuse such a request.  But, as I was preparing my homily for this week, I was trying to make sense of why Jesus was baptized, and this led naturally to reflecting on what our own baptisms means.  In my reading, I was struck in passing by the fact that Rahner, in his Theological Dictionary starts his article on infant baptism by talking about baptism not in terms of the forgiveness of sins, but rather in terms of incorporation into the Church.  He closes the article by noting, “Except in danger of death, the Church does not allow a child to be baptized if there is no guarantee of his Christian upbringing.”  Canon law states

For an infant to be baptized licitly…there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion; if such hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be delayed according to the prescripts of particular law after the parents have been advised about the reason.  (868.1)

What is unclear is what does it mean to “be brought up in the Catholic religion”?  On what grounds can you determine if a child will not be able to fulfill the incorporation into the Church that occurred in baptism?  Presumably, this would be the case if the parents motivations were completely at odds with what the Church intends by baptism.  But how do you sort out the good motives from the bad ones?

Is the sinful state of the parents sufficient grounds to deny baptism?  Pope Francis has spoken out forcefully on this subject, emphatically telling a group of new ordained priests,

It is never necessary to refuse baptism to someone who asks for it!

On the other hand, Bishop Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, has moved in the opposite direction.  Last year, he instructed all of his priests that when a gay couple presents a child for baptism, this matter must be referred to his office for a formal decision.  Presumably, he wants to leave open the possibility that he will deny baptism in some cases.  This case is important, but is clouded by the culture wars.

I don’t have any solid answers.  Shooting from the hip:  if we take a more Protestant view of baptism in terms of personal salvation, then it is not clear that there would ever be grounds for denying baptism.  On the other hand, if we think of the sacrament also in terms of the community, then we should think about what this membership entails.   And this, in turn, suggests there may be grounds for saying no.  But for the life of me, I am stuck at this point.

Your thoughts are eagerly solicited.


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  • Mark

    It doesn’t seem like it should be denied if the parents are really asking.

    Where I could maybe see this applying is if, say, the priest finds out the parents are not believers and are just doing it to please the grandparents or something like that.

    But of course, they never look for those things. They look for opportunities to continue their agenda of shaming relationships they don’t approve of…

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      What do you mean by “really asking”? Also, as I noted, I hiding under the culture wars aspect of Morlino’s decision is a serious theological question which I am really stuck on.

      • Mark

        Well, by “really asking,” I suppose I mean they request it with some at least implicit intention that the children will be brought up in the Catholic community, exposed to Catholic practice, with some sort of Catholic identity, etc.

        It shouldn’t have to be the particular [narrow] Catholic identity that the orthodox define. As long as there is the intention to create a connection to the Church community, that is something we can worry about later.

        If two gay men who go to Mass every week bring a child to be baptized…I think it is just mendacious to say that the fact that they are living as a gay couple means “the child obviously won’t be raised Catholic” almost as if that is “by definition”…when being a Christmas-and-Easter straight couple is, on the other hand, apparently enough.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

          Mark, your point is well taken, but I think there is a different tack I want to explore. Because it also ties in with some other comments, I am going to go to the bottom and start a new thread.

  • Julia Smucker

    This question takes me right back to grad school. Have you ever read any Louis-Marie Chauvet? He has wrestled with this considerably as both a sacramental theologian and a pastor in the context of modern-day France, where many nominally Catholic parents request baptism, often with very mixed motives. He navigates between the importance of connecting baptism to discipleship (which is also of paramount importance for me as a Mennonite Catholic!) and the danger of pushing people who may already be on the edge of the Church even further out. He basically concludes that any request for the sacraments should be taken as an opportunity to invite people more deeply into the life of the Church, even (or perhaps especially) if that isn’t their original motivation. He never specifies exactly where the line should be drawn if there are ever cases when the request should be refused, but when I read him I very much appreciated how seriously he takes the question. I find his analysis helpful for thinking of it as an invitation to discipleship rather than a simple screening with only a yes or no answer possible. Or put another way, if the answer is no, that shouldn’t be the end of the story but a starting point for considering how to help them get to yes.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Julia, thank you. I have never read Chauvet: what do you recommend? The university library only has Symbol and Sacrament. I like this focus on discipleship and drawing people closer to community through the sacrament. There is another aspect, though, that I want to explore. I think I will do it in the main commbox at the bottom.

      • Julia Smucker

        Ah yes, Symbol and Sacrament, aka “le grand Chauvet”. I have read parts of that but am more familiar with “le petit Chauvet”, so nicknamed for being essentially a condensed version of the former tome. The actual title is The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body. That’s where he really gets into the kind of questions you’re asking. I highly recommend it.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

          Thanks: I saw this on Amazon.

  • Melanie Statom

    I vote with Pope Francis…Open the portals of grace….we would never refuse an infant, food or necessary life-saving immunizations, regardless of a family’s willingness or ability to provide for the infant adequately in these areas. Conditions may not be perfect, but we must allow grace to do its hidden work.

  • Thales

    Some undeveloped thoughts that came to mind as a possible answer, but which I’m not sure about:

    Catholicism is a religion of freedom, which respects the conscience of the individual — “conversion” by force is antithetical to it. Thus, forcing baptism on some one who has the will to decline it would be a grave violation of that person’s conscience and a grave evil. (The unconscious person in danger of death is a unique scenario, I think, where there is a presumption that the person would want baptism if he could speak.) So, it’s always wrong to impose baptism on someone who is unwilling to receive it.

    Infant baptism is interesting, as obviously, the child-below-the-age-of-reason cannot willingly choose baptism for himself. But the rite of baptism is pretty interesting — it is clear that the parents and godparents are proxies for the infant, speaking the Creed on behalf of the infant and choosing baptism on behalf of the infant. It’s a little bit like someone naming a power of attorney to make financial or health care decisions on their behalf, and then becoming incompetent to make such decisions, and the power of attorney speaking on the person’s behalf. So I wonder if the logic of infant baptism is that we are presuming that the infant wants baptism and has named his parents/godparents to speak on his behalf — that is, the infant is going to be someone in, say 10 or 12 years, who would have willingly chosen baptism on his own. And the type of person who would willingly chose baptism at 10 years old is someone “brought up in the Catholic religion.” Which is why the Church should look into that element before agreeing to an infant baptism.

    The point that I’m getting at is suppose you have a scenario where the Church knows for certain that the child would not be “brought up in the Catholic religion”, but the parents are simply requesting baptism for cultural reasons or whatever. I think it would be a grave injustice *to the infant* even if the parents were sincerely interested in having baptism for their child, because the Church would be imposing the sacrament on a person (i.e., the infant, not the parents) who is unwilling to receive it. It would be a grave violation of the infant’s conscience (with the parent’s wills/consciences being irrelevant to the calculus.)

    • Julia Smucker

      I recall a professor of mine making a distinction between unwilling and non-willing. That is, an infant being baptized is a non-willing participant in that they can’t yet choose for or against, which is categorically different from being actively unwilling.

      I agree with your point that it would be unjust to the child to have them baptized without any intention of upbringing in the faith. Again, this is not to say that parents should simply be vetted once and for all and too bad if they don’t pass muster, but that anyone requesting baptism – whether for themselves or for their children – should helped toward some understanding of the seriousness of what they are undertaking.

      • Thales

        Very nice distinction of unwilling vs. non-willing. Thank you.

        Despite the position I articulated here, I also find the position of Melanie compelling — the one of wanting to get the baptismal sacramental grace to as many as people as possible. I think that the Church seems to recognize that presumption in favor of baptism in the case of people who are unconscious and about to die, despite not knowing if the person baptized would be willing to receive baptism or not. So David’s question is a very difficult one to which I don’t know the answer.

        • Julia Smucker

          I’d call that an exceptional case, and still if there is any compelling reason to believe a person in danger of death would have refused baptism, it would be unjustly presumptuous to baptize anyway. I guess that raises a question of the burden of proof, which I’m not sure how to answer.

          I did find Tanco’s personal story below very moving, and it undoubtedly adds weight to his argument. I’m sure if someone requests baptism for a loved one in danger of death, it can be presumed the intent is there for that person to die in the faith of the Church. Because it’s the faith of the Church that we are baptized into in any case. And that’s largely why, aside from such exceptional situations, I’m very squeamish about “quamprimum” baptism as a general rule.

          The essential thing is that there be some intention for discipleship (that is, that a person’s life be lived as a Christian, with all that entails, for however long that life is), if not on the part of the person being baptized, at least on the part of the person requesting baptism and the person baptizing. Absent of this, the sacrament is reduced to magicalism.

          • Agellius

            Julia writes, “The essential thing is that there be some intention for discipleship … Absent of this, the sacrament is reduced to magicalism.”

            Precisely! Baptism alone doesn’t save. Baptism together with faith and repentance of sins is what saves. Without the latter two, or the expectation of them later in life in the case of an infant, baptism is just plain superstitious.

  • Thales

    To follow-up on my post:
    I’d like to hear more about the context of the Pope’s statement: “It is never necessary to refuse baptism to someone who asks for it!” Obviously that is correct for people who have the ability to ask for it *for themselves.* But is the Pope referring to scenarios where someone is asking for baptism, not for themselves, but for another? If there is a family asking for baptism for a reluctant family member, I think it would be wrong to force the family member to be baptized, because the family member would not be asking for it for himself or herself. And as I suggest in my previous post, with infant baptism, we are presuming that the infant is asking for it for himself or herself — but if there is reason to think the infant is not asking for it, then it would be wrong to baptize, even if there were family members asking for it.

    I realize that my distinctions are probably too abstract. And I realize that they aren’t really responding to the pastoral challenges hinted at by David. I’m pretty much with David at being stuck on what the proper response is in specific situations. But I still found it useful to consider the problem from the perspective of respecting the conscience of the individual and only giving the sacrament to one who freely chooses it — and thus not giving baptism to an infant who (we believe) would not freely choose it, for the important reason that the Church greatly respects the freedom and conscience of the infant.

    I think Julia’s comment is great, and really like the notion that, pastorally, there should not be a “yes or no” answer, but instead, an invitation to discipleship.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Thales, the comments I quote came in a speech to newly ordained priests, but pastorally, Pope Francis confronted this as archbishop in Argentina. As I recall it, he got quite angry with priests who were refusing to baptize the children of unwed mothers. I cannot remember if he has specifically addressed the question of gay parents—he may have, or it may be that, given our current preoccupation with gay marriage, others have drawn inferences in this area of what he would say.

  • Brian Martin

    (Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”)
    He didn’t say…only the children whose parents are right with God, not those kids whose parents are Gay or whose parents are in an irregular union, or whose parents are homeless or churchless, or whose parents voted democrat…….
    But then I have always felt the same about communion as well…it is spiritual food…

    • Agellius


      Communion isn’t just spiritual food. In fact it’s spiritual food only because it’s first a sacrifice.

  • Melanie Statom

    Children do not need to attain the age of reason before we feed and care for them, especially injured ones. It is our duty and obligation to feed, nourish and care for them. Is this care and essential, vital nourishment an infringement on their “freedom”? Love provides. The sacrament of Baptism, opens and restores a vital capacity in the spiritual life of the person, without which will be a radical ” failure to thrive”. The seed of Christ must be planted before it can be properly nourished, grow and mature. There are ways known only to the God, by which souls will be lead to him. To refuse the implantation and holy opening from the deepest calling of our lives seems contrary to the witness of Christ himself….” Ephphatha…be opened!” To be freed from impediments, is to be made capable of responding to the call of Christ, however it comes.

    • Agellius


      Then why don’t we go out every day and baptize people on the street, whether they want to or no? Why not “plant that seed” and “open and restore that vital capacity in their spiritual lives,” even if they don’t know they need it and have no intention of pursuing it?

      • Melanie Statom

        I am unable to answer in full at this time…off to work….but yours are worthy questions, as they ask deeper more hidden ones as well: ie: ” Are there truly any grounds for infant baptism”? What is actually happening in this sacrament? What makes the Catholic position, radically different than some Protestant views? When I show up at the doctor’s office with my ill child, or incapacitated elder ( especially if I am a designated person of authority within a health care directive, I am in effect, speaking and acting on behalf of my beloved ones…If these same loved ones have reached the “age of reason” as defined by law or are adults of sound mind and, capable of making personal decisions then their personal input will be needed…a personal assent and fiat.

  • Agellius

    The Protestant view (or at least one widespread Protestant view) of infant baptism is that’s it’s a travesty since the baby has no faith in Christ. The Catholic response to this is that that family and sponsors’ faith stands in for the baby’s faith – they make the baptismal vows on the baby’s behalf — until such time as the baby has faith of his own.

    But if the family and sponsors have no intention of raising the baby as a Catholic, then they evidently lack faith themselves, and therefore their faith can’t stand in for the baby’s.

  • Chris Sullivan

    Pope Benedict once remarked that he was much stricter about whom who would baptise when he was a young priest but maturity and experience led him to change his practice to be as generous as possible, recognising the ability of God’s grace to work in situations legalists would frown upon.


  • Tanco

    I was baptized by a priest, in a Catholic hospital chapel, a few hours after my birth. I am a twin, and one of us was ‘weak’ (I was small but healthy). It was decided that both of us would be baptized, and not just my brother. A nursing sister stood in as a godparent and recorded the baptisms in the hospital register.

    Both I and my brother survived and are quite healthy. I firmly believe that my father did the right thing by flagging down a priest in the hallway and asking him to baptize his newborns. Yes, I do understand that Limbo does not exist. Still, why is it not salutary that we twins received regenerative grace in the holy sacrament? How could this not be to our benefit? Even the youngest and most fragile of us are called to die in Christ and “rise from the waters” in a foretaste of the Resurrection (well, my brother and I were probably baptized by pouring, so the latter is metaphorical).

    It is clear that my father’s plea signified that he was willing to raise his boys in a religious home. Otherwise, I doubt my father would be so solicitous. I am convinced that infants should be baptized as soon as possible (within a few days of birth, even), so that the profound graces of the sacrament are received. I do not understand, and find it faintly ridiculous, that the grafting of the infant onto the body of Christ and incorporation into the royal priesthood should depend on the estimation of a “Christian home”.

  • Tanco

    David, let me ask your opinion: do you think that Pope St. John XXIII, then Cardinal Roncalli, was wise to not baptize a Jewish child presented to him by the child’s Catholic foster parents? I would say that Cdl. Roncalli was wise not to do so, given that this episode took place soon after the Shoah. The baptism of a Jewish child would contribute to the erasure of Jewish identity already effected in great part by the evil of the Holocaust. How would Roncalli’s actions influence the question of the baptism of a child of a same-sex union/marriage? At the moment I’m a bit over caffeinated, so I can’t offer any meaningful opinion or even cogent thought 🙁

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      I am not familiar with this anecdote, so I have to think about this. On the surface they do not seem at all similar, but there may be something deeper going on. I just dropped by to see if anything needed to be approved, so let me go off and think about it.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Tanco, I have thought a bit more about this example and it ties in with some other things I have been thinking. See my big comment in a box below.

  • Melanie Statom


    “He [Jesus] came to save all through himself; all, I say, who through him are reborn in God: infants, and children, and youths, and old men. Therefore he passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, sanctifying infants; a child for children, sanctifying those who are of that age . . . [so that] he might be the perfect teacher in all things, perfect not only in respect to the setting forth of truth, perfect also in respect to relative age” (Against Heresies 2:22:4 [A.D. 189]).

    “‘And [Naaman] dipped himself . . . seven times in the Jordan’ [2 Kgs. 5:14]. It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [this served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as newborn babes, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:5]” (Fragment34 [A.D. 190]).


    “Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them” (The Apostolic Tradition 21:16 [A.D. 215]).


    “Every soul that is born into flesh is soiled by the filth of wickedness and sin. . . . In the Church, baptism is given for the remission of sins, and, according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants. If there were nothing in infants which required the remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of baptism would seem superfluous” (Homilies on Leviticus 8:3 [A.D. 248]).

    “The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of the divine sacraments, knew there are in everyone innate strains of [original] sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit” (Commentaries on Romans 5:9 [A.D. 248]).

    Cyprian of Carthage

    “As to what pertains to the case of infants: You [Fidus] said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born” (Letters 64:2 [A.D. 253]).

    “If, in the case of the worst sinners and those who formerly sinned much against God, when afterwards they believe, the remission of their sins is granted and no one is held back from baptism and grace, how much more, then, should an infant not be held back, who, having but recently been born, has done no sin, except that, born of the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of that old death from his first being born. For this very reason does he [an infant] approach more easily to receive the remission of sins: because the sins forgiven him are not his own but those of another” (ibid., 64:5).

    Gregory of Nazianz

    “Do you have an infant child? Allow sin no opportunity; rather, let the infant be sanctified from childhood. From his most tender age let him be consecrated by the Spirit. Do you fear the seal [of baptism] because of the weakness of nature? Oh, what a pusillanimous mother and of how little faith!” (Oration on Holy Baptism 40:7 [A.D. 388]).

    “‘Well enough,’ some will say, ‘for those who ask for baptism, but what do you have to say about those who are still children, and aware neither of loss nor of grace? Shall we baptize them too?’ Certainly [I respond], if there is any pressing danger. Better that they be sanctified unaware, than that they depart unsealed and uninitiated” (ibid., 40:28).

    John Chrysostom

    “You see how many are the benefits of baptism, and some think its heavenly grace consists only in the remission of sins, but we have enumerated ten honors [it bestows]! For this reason we baptize even infants, though they are not defiled by [personal] sins, so that there may be given to them holiness, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, brotherhood with Christ, and that they may be his [Christ’s] members” (Baptismal Catecheses in Augustine, Against Julian 1:6:21 [A.D. 388]).


    “What the universal Church holds, not as instituted [invented] by councils but as something always held, is most correctly believed to have been handed down by apostolic authority. Since others respond for children, so that the celebration of the sacrament may be complete for them, it is certainly availing to them for their consecration, because they themselves are not able to respond” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists 4:24:31 [A.D. 400]).

    “The custom of Mother Church in baptizing infants is certainly not to be scorned, nor is it to be regarded in any way as superfluous, nor is it to be believed that its tradition is anything except apostolic” (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 10:23:39 [A.D. 408]).

    “Cyprian was not issuing a new decree but was keeping to the most solid belief of the Church in order to correct some who thought that infants ought not be baptized before the eighth day after their birth. . . . He agreed with certain of his fellow bishops that a child is able to be duly baptized as soon as he is born” (Letters 166:8:23 [A.D. 412]).

    “By this grace baptized infants too are ingrafted into his [Christ’s] body, infants who certainly are not yet able to imitate anyone. Christ, in whom all are made alive . . . gives also the most hidden grace of his Spirit to believers, grace which he secretly infuses even into infants. . . . It is an excellent thing that the Punic [North African] Christians call baptism salvation and the sacrament of Christ’s Body nothing else than life. Whence does this derive, except from an ancient and, as I suppose, apostolic tradition, by which the churches of Christ hold inherently that without baptism and participation at the table of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and life eternal? This is the witness of Scripture, too. . . . If anyone wonders why children born of the baptized should themselves be baptized, let him attend briefly to this. . . . The sacrament of baptism is most assuredly the sacrament of regeneration” (Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants 1:9:10; 1:24:34; 2:27:43 [A.D. 412]).

    Council of Carthage V

    “Item: It seemed good that whenever there were not found reliable witnesses who could testify that without any doubt they [abandoned children] were baptized and when the children themselves were not, on account of their tender age, able to answer concerning the giving of the sacraments to them, all such children should be baptized without scruple, lest a hesitation should deprive them of the cleansing of the sacraments. This was urged by the [North African] legates, our brethren, since they redeem many such [abandoned children] from the barbarians” (Canon 7 [A.D. 401]).

    Council of Mileum II

    “[W]hoever says that infants fresh from their mothers’ wombs ought not to be baptized, or say that they are indeed baptized unto the remission of sins, but that they draw nothing of the original sin of Adam, which is expiated in the bath of regeneration . . . let him be anathema [excommunicated]. Since what the apostle [Paul] says, ‘Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so passed to all men, in whom all have sinned’ [Rom. 5:12], must not be understood otherwise than the Catholic Church spread everywhere has always understood it. For on account of this rule of faith even infants, who in themselves thus far have not been able to commit any sin, are therefore truly baptized unto the remission of sins, so that that which they have contracted from generation may be cleansed in them by regeneration” (Canon 3 [A.D. 416]).

    NIHIL OBSTAT: I have concluded that the materials
    presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors.
    Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004
    IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 827
    permission to publish this work is hereby granted.
    +Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Okay, I will let this through, but perhaps you can explain why you are posting all of these quotes.

      • Melanie Statom

        I have found it very helpful to review some of the early church father’s views on infant baptism and would hope others might find it helpful when grappling on the issues unfolding in this discussion.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

          Sounds good. In the future, preface long quotes with your intentions, please!

        • Julia Smucker

          I do find this helpful and very interesting. I’m sort of tempted to store all this up as ammunition against the popular Anabaptist narrative according to which everything bad (which in this narrative would include infant baptism) happened post-Constantine. But I don’t really want to give evidence to the assumption that converts make bad ecumenists.

          • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

            Well, you could also actively look for quotes supporting the other position. My understanding is that they exist, but I do not know how many or from when in the patristic period. I listened to a lecture by an evangelical church historian from Reform Theological Seminary, and his point to his students (most of whom seemed, from the tenor of his lectures, to be uncritically anti-Catholic) that the historical record on this question is very, very complicated, and do not expect that it will fit your ideological preconceptions.

          • Melanie Statom

            What comes nearest the truth and witness of Jesus Christ, who left us the mandate to baptize ” in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in his last words upon this earth? How do we interpret, ” Let the children come near me. ” Are they allowed only to hover near? Are they allowed to be touched by Him? Is his “touch” reserved only for those who have attained the age of reason? Is his touch a veritable “baptism” for anyone who receives it? Did he ask permission of the parents to touch the children who were brought to Him? Would he have received any child who wandered over to him? A rich resource for a Catholic view are the homilies on Baptism given by Pope Benedict ( see: The Hidden Treasure of Pope Ratzinger: The Homilies on Baptism” for links to these original documents at

        • Julia Smucker

          Very true.

          To the extent that the narrative relies on a negative factual truth claim, i.e. that the that the early Church did not baptize infants, it’s a claim that’s much harder to prove than to disprove. But I know there were a few patristics such as Tertullian who opposed it. And I definitely know the record is complicated enough to find pretty much whatever one wants to look for.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

    [This comment was delayed by the quest for a star rhombicosidodecahedron. Don’t ask!]

    Thanks everyone for your comments. I want to explore a different take on this problem that was suggested to me by the comments of Mark, Julia and Tanco. It seems to me that if we talk about baptism in terms of discipleship and community, then there needs to be a certain degree of symmetry: baptism will also be about how a community sees itself, both in terms of membership and identity. Therefore, the sacrament should help the community grow in its own faith even as, in the sacrament, it is sharing its faith with the person (infant in this case) being baptized.

    So let me consider Tanco’s example from this perspective: why would Cardinal Roncalli refuse baptism to the (adopted?) child of Catholic parents. (As an aside: I cannot track this incident down, but this was a big question during and after the war.) The recent history of the Shoah is the right explanation, but does not go far enough. I would suggest (with, admittedly no evidence) that the cardinal wanted to make a point to the community of believers about how the relationship between Catholics and Jews had to change in light of the holocaust and the Church’s on-again, off-again flirtation with anti-semitism. To baptize the child would establish the “non-willing” conversion of the Jews (in Julia’s terminology) as a good thing; to refuse baptism would be to help, in some small way, the community to redefine its relationship with the Jews.

    So, in light of this, when else might the Church refuse baptism? When, in the mind of its pastors, the act of baptism would significantly mislead the community about what it truly believed. If you look at Bishop Morlino’s instructions to his priests, you can tell that one of his concerns is that baptizing the child of gay parents might cause scandal. I am suggesting that perhaps he has it backwards: what he is really worried about is that it will not cause a scandal, in that they will regard a gay couple with children as normal, or rather, part of the norm. Here I want to be extremely careful, and I am sure that I am going to blow it, so please read this part of my argument with charity! In other words, the problem is not that the parish is accepting of (for instance) Adam and Steve and their child, but rather, that the parish will internalize from the baptism that their relationship is normative and accepted by the Church, when in fact it is not. This is not a universal argument, but rather contingent on the milieu: the ways in which gay marriage has become accepted in the US.

    I am not a big fan of arguments about the risk of scandal, but there are occasions in which I see some merit. A while ago, in a discussion about the Orthodox approach to divorce and remarriage, I tried to make the argument that were the Catholic church to accept this approach, we would have to treat second marriages quite differently—as penitential and for the benefit of souls, and not the joyous occasion that a first marriage would be. (I went so far as to suggest that such weddings would be required to be private, attended only by the bride, groom and a two witnesses.) My thinking is the same as above: such marriages would be allowed, but to allow them to be celebrated publicly and in the same manner as first marriages would lead the community to misunderstand the truth of marriage that the Church teaches.

    I don’t know if this argument works, and I am not sure that I buy it. But it does highlight the communal aspects of the sacrament which I think tend to get overlooked when we just focus on the child alone.

    • Mark

      “why would Cardinal Roncalli refuse baptism to the (adopted?) child of Catholic parents.”

      This is sort of a big misrepresentation. The question, as far as I can tell, was about whether to return baptized Jewish children (some were baptized while being protected in Catholic custody I guess, or even baptized TO protect them) to their parents or relatives after the war (or to insist on keeping them and raising them Catholic). It was similar to the Mortara affair:

      Unless Tanco is thinking of some sort of example that I can find no record of…

      “If you look at Bishop Morlino’s instructions to his priests, you can tell that one of his concerns is that baptizing the child of gay parents might cause scandal.”

      I think your explanation of Morlino’s logic is correct, it’s just a terrible logic. “We won’t baptize the child of gay parents who want to raise their children Catholic because we don’t want to make that seem normal.” Too bad, it is. What if the child is one of their biological children? It’s excluding the child because its familial context makes conservatives mad. It’s the exact same reasoning as excluding the children of single mothers that Francis has rightly condemned. It’s this weird pharisaical purism, trying to keep “that situation” out of the Church. Note that they’re not excluding the gay men themselves from being baptized (probably they already are in such a situation). They’re excluding the child, arbitrarily.

      “My thinking is the same as above: such marriages would be allowed, but to allow them to be celebrated publicly and in the same manner as first marriages would lead the community to misunderstand the truth of marriage that the Church teaches.”

      Well, having a baptism in private is rather different than having it denied entirely!

      Still, it’s unclear why this would apply to the *child* of a gay couple. The parents don’t really matter in baptism. It’s about the baptized, the minister, and the godparents. The parents don’t even really theologically factor in at all. They’re not technically even an essential part of the ceremony. So while I could even imagine a rule (though I find it unnecessary) that we would publicly baptize the children of gay couples but ask the couple themselves not to attend and the child will just be brought by the godparents. But deny it to the child, or require private celebration, in a way that makes *the child* the object of the censure rather than the parents…just seems totally misplaced.

      I understand your marriage suggestion. I have a similar proposal regarding cases where an external forum annulment has been denied, but where the couple is still convinced their first marriage was invalid (either canonically, or “in spirit”). The “internal forum solution” might require the discretion of a sort of private second marriage that was meaningful in the couple’s own moral life but, yet, not publicly recognized or known.

      But I think, again,the analogy would apply more to a situation of, say, someone in an irregular situation who wanted to be baptized themselves (ie, do it in private). Not to their children.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

        When I searched, I also only found the question of returning Jewish children. However, even if apocryphal it did get me thinking.

        With regards to your assertion that the parents have no role in the baptism: I disagree. In prepping last week I reread the whole baptismal liturgy and it really does involve the parents in a central way. Godparents are more than witnesses, but they are still secondary to the parents. See in particular the blessing of the parents that ends the liturgy.

        And why is the fact that gay marriage now a secular reality mean that the Church must acknowledge it internally? Perhaps it should, but I don’t think you can simply claim this as a given. Again, it is not the child I am concerned about, directly, but rather the community: how is their faith shaped, or not shaped?

        But, in thinking about the analogy with marriage more carefully in light of your comments, perhaps the correct response (in terms of my thoughts, not necessarily “correct” in an objective sense) would be to require private baptism in this case. This is pastoraly challenging, and would, in practice, cause as many howls of anguish as any suggestion that second marriages cannot be big Church affairs.

        • Mark

          The Novus Ordo emphasis on the parents is sheer theological innovation based on modern notions of parental rights. The baptized infant is really, ritually, supposed to be treated no differently than a tiny Catechumen except that the godparents speak for him. Distinguishing infant baptism liturgically from adult is already part of the problem as it looks like “admitting” that they’re “two different things.”

          “And why is the fact that gay marriage now a secular reality mean that the Church must acknowledge it internally?”

          I never said that. The fact that must be acknowledged is the *existence* of *children* being raised by gays (whether those gays are married or not).

          I simply have no idea how baptizing a child somehow involved an “acknowledgment” of anything about the parents whatsoever.

          The most I can grasp at is this strange series of leaps where, for totally different reasons, we require that there be good hope of a child being raised Catholic and then don’t want to imply that certain situations constitute such hope.

          But that’s putting 2 and 2 together in a way that’s very indirect in terms of implications and which already involves getting “tangled” in our own rules. The “must be good hope” rule is about preserving the integrity of the sacrament, it was never implemented to be a pedagogical moment about what we believe is sufficient for such hope (which would involve turning concrete specific people into abstract hypothetical “lessons” or “examples”).

          You’re trying to “salvage” it, I guess, as a pedagogical moment sort of thing because of your nouveau theology, because it seems you’re uncomfortable with literalist/scholastic notions like “preserving the integrity of the sacrament.” With the idea that there could be some objective duty to make sure that the sacred grace is not being handed out only to be cast into the profane world with no further nurturance, that pearls are not cast before swine, as it were.

          But if you’re already going to discard that traditional notion in favor of community-based-whatsit…then there’s no need to “save the appearances” of the traditional discipline in this regard. It’s not dogma, so if you’re going to discard the scholastic context in which it makes sense, just discard the whole thing.

          This is one of those cases (like theology of the body, I’d argue) in which trying to keep an old rule in a new “less stodgy” or “less superstitious” framework actually winds up, ironically, leading to stricter and more expansive restrictions than in its original framework.

      • Tanco

        David, I apologize. Indeed the example I gave was apocryphal, told to me by a brother when I was in school. I will give better diligence in the future and not tell childhood stories. However, you are right that the baptism of Jewish children in the immediate postwar period was (and still is) an important question.

        Mark [January 16, 2016 9:04 pm]: “I think your explanation of Morlino’s logic is correct, it’s just a terrible logic. ‘We won’t baptize the child of gay parents who want to raise their children Catholic because we don’t want to make that seem normal.’ Too bad, it is. What if the child is one of their biological children? It’s excluding the child because its familial context makes conservatives mad. It’s the exact same reasoning as excluding the children of single mothers that Francis has rightly condemned.

        I’d say that Pope Francis and Bishop Morlino are taking widely divergent but related positions. Certainly I agree with Good Pope Francis (many years!) over Bishop Morlino. The Holy Father’s actions suggest that for him the importance of the grace of baptism situationally supersedes questions of “scandal” or even the participation of the parents and godparents in the temporal Church. The priest who baptized my brother and me did not ask my father if he’s a tithing parishioner. Rather the priest unilaterally conferred the sacrament on my brother and me for our salvation only.

        I do not care to know Bishop Morlino’s personal views on homosexuality. His sentiments are irrelevant. Rather, Bishop Morlino is ostensibly concerned with his perception that homosexual relationships are legally scandalous, from the position of the “natural” (scholastic) law. The gay couple can be seen as a coterminous symbolic representation that remind the Bishop and some others that the adjudicated laws of the United States are not synchronous with the idealized moral governance of the Church.

        Example: frequently a pro-choice friend will ask me why the Church strongly condemns abortion. Yes, abortion is a grave violation of the fifth commandment. However, the legality of abortion in Roe militates against the natural (scholastic) concept of the just Catholic state. Similarly, the presence of a gay couple at the baptism of their child presents their marriage (should they be married) as an ecclesiastical validation of Obergefell, which likewise militates against the just Catholic state. I would say that the hierarchical Church today, and especially in the United States, is less concerned with the personal commission of sin, but rather the “scandal” (?) of validating secular laws which apparently violate the “natural/scholastic law”.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

          No worries about the anecdote. Even if not true, it helped crystallize my thinking on discipleship and community.

          ” The Holy Father’s actions suggest that for him the importance of the grace of baptism situationally supersedes questions of “scandal” or even the participation of the parents and godparents in the temporal Church.”

          I think this is a pretty good read, especially since it suggests that there are issues which need to be balanced here. I wish we had a better word than scandal, which has a lot of connotations that do not seem appropriate here. As I noted in my comment, the problem for Morlino seems to be the lack of scandal (with a different sense). The thrust of your argument leads to a bigger question: when should the Church draw a line in the sand when secular law and Church teaching on morality and the just state collide?

      • Tanco

        Let me say this additionally: it is good I am not clergy. If a gay couple, or a single mother, or any person in an “irregular situation” were to request the baptism of their child, I would gladly baptize the child right then and there. No unbaptized child or adult should be refused grace and salvation! I would not wait to confer with the bishop.

        I suppose that if I were a clergyman of Morlino’s diocese, I would be reprimanded. However, in life there are much higher imperatives than the insecurity of a man.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

          “I suppose that if I were a clergyman of Morlino’s diocese, I would be reprimanded.”

          At the end of the day, I suspect that I would as well. But, as you can see, I really do fret over these questions, because I think there is something to worry about.