Is Infant Baptism Pastorally Responsible?


(Doctrine and Life, January 2012, pp.40-44)


Every priest engaged in parish work is well aware – sadly, wearily or angrily – of being asked to baptize children of parents who rarely or never appear in the church. Older children of theirs show no sign of being reared in the faith. And so the priest asks himself, ‘Is it just or honest of parents to undertake on behalf of their child an obligation they themselves give no sign of fulfilling? What sense of pastoral responsibility facilitates that? Should I perform this baptism?’

Every priest has had experiences with parents and godparents who are clueless about the baptism ceremony, unable to respond to prayers, even join in the Our Father, their behaviour in the church making it patently clear that it is unfamiliar territory to them. Baptism ceremonies have become quasi-secular rites of passage, the occasion for a family get-together which commonly ends in the pub. A judge in an Irish court recently asked whether ordination wasn’t the only remaining sacrament not celebrated with drunkenness.

An official directive

The instruction Pastoralis Actio on Infant Baptism from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, (October 20, 1980; AAS 72, pp. 1137-1156) has this, among other things, to say on the subject:

Assurances must be given that the gift thus granted [baptism] can grow by an authentic education in the faith and Christian life, in order to fulfil the true meaning of the sacrament…. But if these assurances are not really serious there can be grounds for delaying the sacrament; and if they are certainly non-existent the sacrament should even be refused. (n.28)

The Church can only accede to the desire of these parents if they give an assurance that, once the child is baptized, it will be given the benefit of the Christian upbringing required by the sacrament. The Church must have a well-founded hope that the Baptism will bear fruit. (n.30)

If hope – any hope – is to be well-founded, it needs a basis in reality. Wishful thinking is not reality. A simple desire to have a child baptized is not sufficient evidence of a commitment to educating him or her in the faith. If parents ask for baptism because of pressure from grandparents, does that constitute a well-founded hope that the baptism will bear fruit? Or because they want to get the child into a Catholic school? Or because there is still a lingering fear that, if the child dies unbaptized, s/he will go to hell or limbo, so you’d better not take the chance? Or because parents believe that children thrive after baptism, that it is good for them physically? Or that it’s unlucky not to be baptized? I don’t think so.

Is it sufficient that the child will go to a Catholic school?

For a long time Irish schools did excellent work in catechizing children and preparing them for the sacraments. One might say they did the job too well and became victims of their own success, because an unintended side effect was that parents felt relieved of their proper responsibility. Many parents today do little or nothing, not only to bring their children up in the faith, but to do almost any parenting. Parental abdication of responsibility for children is evident at many levels. The internet has become the surrogate parent; there is little one-to-one contact between parents and children. Family meals have mostly disappeared, and what mentoring there is, comes, as often as not, from grand-parents rather than parents. (What will happen when that generation is gone?) Family prayer is almost unknown. One could argue that, in such situations, the role of the school is even more necessary. ‘If it wasn’t for the schools, the children would have nothing,’ runs the argument, and, clearly, it has a point.

But many children leave school after twelve or more years of Catholic education with a level of ignorance of the faith that is often startling. At times, one can only wonder how they learned so little in so many years. More seriously, they have been inoculated against it, and repeat the mantra about religion being shoved down their throats as children. It is a school subject they are happy to drop on leaving school. What children retain from religious education, what they internalize and make their own, seems to be what they absorbed at home rather than learned at school. This may be little or nothing, or sometimes a weird folk religion difficult to distinguish from superstition.

The past was different, but many of the cultural props which formerly helped create a Christian milieu now no longer exist. It is not uncommon to find that teachers do not practise the faith in terms of going to Mass or the sacraments. Some teachers choose to live in a parish other than the one they teach in so that this will not be evident. But children do not remain unaware of this for long, and, when that happens, it cannot but give rise to the often-heard complaint that, ‘Religion is all hypocrisy.’ How can children be expected to see it otherwise when teachers (or parents) insist that they make first confession, communion and confirmation when it is plainly evident to the children that those adults do not themselves take Mass or the sacraments seriously? Some teachers are asked to teach Christian doctrine even when they do not believe it themselves. That is unjust to everyone, simply destructive.

The former partnership of home, school and parish was viable and effective. It provided a nurturing environment which enabled the child to grow in the faith. It was good; it worked well in its day. But that day is gone. Parents, for the most part, have opted out of their children’s education, leaving it almost entirely to schools, which have too much expected of them. The schools are unable to fill the gap, and perhaps also increasingly unwilling to attempt it. This creates a no-win situation, and the longer the church remains wedded to it, the weaker it will become. The process is permeated by a demeaning and self-defeating dishonesty, which surely cannot be the basis for pastoral action.

The role of a baptism preparation team

These teams, made up as they are of excellent people, do very good work, but they cannot be asked to make a decision on postponing a baptism where the necessary conditions are not met. They feel – probably rightly – that they do not have the authority to do that. Parents would likely resent such a stance by the team. It would be unfair to ask the team to do it. If anyone is to postpone a baptism on the ground that parents are not ready, it should be the priest.

Why not postpone baptism?

Parents see a postponement as arm-twisting, pressurizing them into going to Mass and the sacraments, because of their desire to have their child baptized. They may comply in order to have the baptism, but do so through gritted teeth, with a smouldering sense of resentment that will assert itself perhaps in a determination, once the child has been baptized, not to go to Mass again.

It has happened, too, that priests who postponed baptism found that parents appealed to the bishop who then contacted the priest and told him to baptize.

I find it demoralizing to perform baptisms in situations where I’m asking myself the question, ‘Who’s the biggest liar here, the parents or me? They are making promises they have given no sign of intending to fulfil – neither they nor their other children take part in the activities of the faith community – or is it me, acting as if I believe what they say, when the truth is that I don’t?’

Let’s get real. Let’s have the courage to take Christ at his word when he said, ‘The truth shall make you free.’ (John 8.32) Will we persist with a charade which belittles the sacrament, demoralizes priests, reinforces parental perception that, in matters of faith, a token will do, and invites ridicule from the public? (I think of the journalist’s remark that the church is like a society of steak-eating professed vegetarians.) If the church, and its priests, are not seen to stand for something, if there is no bottom line, how can we, or what we represent, hope to be respected by anyone?

What should we do?

‘Before people can come to the liturgy, they must be called to faith and conversion.’ (Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, n.9) Sacraments need a basis in catechesis; catechesis needs a basis in evangelization. Conversion is a requisite. I believe we should abandon infant baptism, except in danger of death. In its place, put responsibility where it belongs – with parents; they are the primary educators of their children. When responsibility is placed on people’s shoulders, and they see that clearly, they respond. Create an extended period of preparation, a modified Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, with some help – but only a little – from the parish. Then, if there has been a conversion, and the child reaches a level of maturity in faith, with a sustained spiritual growth, and practice in terms of prayer life and going to Mass, and if the young person asks for it, then baptize. In such cases, there would be a well-founded hope that baptism will bear fruit. This would not normally be before the age of eighteen. Otherwise postpone. I believe this would bring a measure of realism to the process.

Any responses?

[There weren’t any.]



Supplementary material on infant baptism

What we’re doing at present re infant baptism implies that belonging is more important than believing – which is a strange standpoint for a community of faith to take.

Our present practices re infant baptism has a knock-on effect on the other sacraments. First Communion and Confirmation are in the same situation. And, even among the elderly, the pre-Vatican II survivors of Holy Catholic Ireland, have an unthinking, automated and materialistic attitude towards Holy Communion.