Pope Francis: Infant Baptism Shouldn’t Be Held Hostage

Cardinal Bergoglio (Pope Francis) baptizing babies
I recently read an interesting interview from 2009 with Pope Francis (when he was Cardinal Bergoglio) in ’30 Giorni.’ The interview touches on the pastoral situation of granting baptism to infants whose parents are not canonically regular with the Catholic Church.
I found the interview very encouraging since the Holy Father takes an Augustinian and Thomistic approach to the question. Let’s look at a quote and then I’ll divine into the citations.

Pope Francis says:

The child has no responsibility for the marital state of its parents. And then, the baptism of children often becomes a new beginning for parents. Usually there is a little catechesis before baptism, about an hour, then a mystagogic catechesis during liturgy. Then, the priests and laity go to visit these families to continue with their post-baptismal pastoral. And it often happens that parents, who were not married in Church, maybe ask to come before the altar to celebrate the sacrament of marriage. 

First of all, Pope Francis’ argument is very Thomistic. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that, “Nor is it a hindrance to [any infants'] salvation if their parents be unbelievers.” (Summa theologiae III, q. 68 a. 9 ad 2.) However, Thomas is very explicit that we should never baptize non-Christian children against the wishes of their non-Christian parents. Only if they ask for it. (See the subsequent article 10 in the same question of the Summa).
The Pope’s answer is also very Augustinian. Saint Augustine taught: 
“Little children are offered that they may receive grace in their souls, not so much from the hands of those that carry them (yet from these too, if they be good and faithful) as from the whole company of the saints and the faithful. For they are rightly considered to be offered by those who are pleased at their being offered, and by whose charity they are united in communion with the Holy Spirit.” (Augustine, Epistle 98).
Here Augustine teaches that it is the “whole company of saints and faithful” that really do the offering of the infant, not the parent that carries the child to the church. Moreover, it is not as if we are talking about Jews, Arians, Mormons, or Mohammedans. We’re talking about Catholic people, even though they may not be well catechized or living rightly. 
I like what Pope Francis is saying here. 
I have become discouraged how in the United States, the sacraments are “held hostage” by local parish hierarchies. In some parishes, you have to go jump through hoops and attend classes and get sponsors in special classes and so on. It leads to delayed infant baptism…something that Blessed John Paul II openly condemned.
Holding the sacraments hostage is a new phenomenon. In the old days, a woman would give birth (not in a hospital) and a female friend of the tired mother and the father would walk the infant to the parish church where the infant would be baptized the very same day or the day after. This was the case with Pope Benedict XVI’s baptism shortly after he was born. It is the case of many of the saints. When you read their lives, you often read that the saints were baptized on the day of their birth or shortly thereafter. 
There was no adult catechesis director acting as a sacramental “bouncer” at the parish. There were no pre-scheduled dates for baptism since the clergy were too busy. Infant baptism was performed when it was needed – that is, whenever there was a brand-new infant.
Relating to all this, Pope Francis also shared a touching personal story in the interview:
BERGOGLIO: Just a few days ago I baptized seven children of a woman on her own, a poor widow, who works as a maid and she had had them from two different men. I met her last year at the Feast of San Cayetano. She said: Father, I’m in mortal sin, I have seven children and I’ve never had them baptized. It had happened because she had no money to bring the godparents from a distance, or to pay for the party, because she always had to work … I suggested we meet, to talk about it. We spoke on the phone, she came to see me, told me that she could never find all the godparents and get them together … In the end I said: let’s do everything with only two godparents, representing the others. They all came here and after a little catechesis I baptized them in the chapel of the archbishopric. After the ceremony we had a little refreshment. A coca cola and sandwiches. She told me: Father, I can’t believe it, you make me feel important…I replied, but lady, where do I come in, it’s Jesus who makes you important. 
Is that not beautiful! What a wonderful witness. 
Question for you: Do you agree with what Pope Francis says here? Should we allow parents to bring children to baptism, even if the parents are not fully formed in the faith or live in a canonically irregular situation? Does bringing an infant to baptism imply formal faith on the part of the parent? I look forward to your thoughts. And of course, feel free to disagree with me. Please leave a comment below.
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  • Dan

    TRM writes, “In some parishes, you have to go jump through hoops and attend classes and get sponsors in special classes and so on. It leads to delayed infant baptism…something that Blessed John Paul II openly condemned.”

    I am in favor of required instruction for parents and godparents prior to baptism. The amount of instruction should vary with the state of formation of those involved, and there is no reason this should delay baptism. Once married, children should be expected; why wait until one is holding the baby?

    I think a requirement for infant baptism should be that at least one of the parents is in a state of grace.

    On a related note, what do you think of delaying adult baptism two years while one attends RCIA?

  • (Rev.) Patrick Gavin, O.Carm.

    I would certainly agree with Pope Francis’ Pastoral approach to this situation. However, since Vatican II, there has been a renewed focus on Infant Baptism (in fact, the infant rite proper only came about in 1969!) as initiation into the life of the community of faith and not just exclusively about the forgiveness of Original Sin. Subsequently, the preferred way of celebrating infant baptism is with a number of candidates and their families gathered even during the Sunday Liturgy (emergency and exceptional circumstances may not allow for the ideal). This of course takes more organisation and ideally a “rehearsal” so that the rite(s) are better understood and therefore meaningfull. Every parish has dates and times established and if that doesn’t work it is not difficult to obtain permission to go to another parish. The “sins” of the parents are not to be held against any innocent child BUT…Godpaerents need to be fully involved according to the canons and good models of the faith (only one is required by the way). Baptizing without making any demands on people is something like so-called cheap grace and one can be quilty of “Promiscuous Baptisms!” The Canons say it well: There has to be a “Spes Fundata” i.e., a well founded hope that the child will be raised to know Jesus in the Catholic Tradition. Why require more than what the law articulates (emergency baptisms notwithstanding)? Pope Francis is illustrating by his experience that Pastoral Care is really more art than science. The restoration of the catechumenate has also been a game changer for anyone unbaptized who has obtained the use of reason. Parents then have to make a real commitment to the process as it unfolds over time. This has been the real revolution in the church’s self understanding as an evangilizing and initiating agent into the Paschal Mysteries, drawing people into the heart of Christ which is never merely about any single ritual but a dynamic set of relationships that are forged by grace.

    • Dan

      What Canon law actually says is, “For an infant to be baptized licitly: . . . there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion.” While children are not to be held accountable for the sins (no scare quotes) of their parents, what hope could one have for a child’s upbringing when the parents themselves are living in a state of mortal sin?

  • floodgate

    I think there may be a doctrinal conflict with the view that extra-terrestials could be bapatized and the doctrine of the Incarnation. The Catholic doctrine seems to suggest that God in the person of Jesus Christ took on human form in order to redeem man. One would have to change the focus of Redemption and argue that the intervention in earth’s history was either (a) an act that had cosmic implications or (b) an act that was limited to the human race. Taking the position of (b), one would then have to consider if other Incarnations in cosmic history were needed and in fact occurred.

    • Dan

      There is no conflict because there are no extra-terrestrials that could be baptized. You may as well talk about baptizing dogs and cats. The only ET beings are angelic; the good have no need of redemption, and the fallen are beyond redemption.

      Given a proper context, propositions a and b are both true. Certainly Christ’s intervention in earth’s history has cosmic implications, as did Adam’s fall (Gen. 3:17; Rom. 8:22). However, with regard to the redemption of souls, the object of Christ’s sacrifice is the human race.