Infant baptisms in the Church

| Father Michael Van Sloun | May 17, 2017 | 0 Comments

Even with parish classes that help prepare parents for their children’s baptisms, the curriculum might not closely examine the Church’s teaching and historical practice regarding infant baptism. The following is meant to help Catholics be more conversant in the Church’s practice and to motivate Catholic parents to prioritize their infants’ baptisms.

Historical roots of baptism

The earliest people to be baptized were adults. After Peter delivered his Pentecost speech, “Those who accepted his message were baptized” (Acts 2:41). It is presumed that these converts were adults because they had to be old enough to accept the message.

After Peter’s second speech, “Many of those who heard the word came to believe” (Acts 4:4), and infants are not old enough to hear and comprehend. After the apostles worked signs and wonders, “Men and women were added” (Acts 5:14). The Ethiopian court official was an adult convert (Acts 8:38). So was Saul (Acts 9:18) and Cornelius (Acts 10:48).

But almost immediately, baptism was extended to children, most likely also to infants. When Paul preached in Philippi, not only was Lydia baptized, but also “her household” (Acts 16:15), which typically includes a mother, father and children. They were baptized on the basis of Lydia’s faith, including the children who, if very young, would not have been old enough to decide for themselves. Other examples of household baptisms include the families of the jailer (Acts 16:33), Crispus (Acts 18:8) and Stephanas (1 Cor 1:16).

“The practice of infant baptism is an immemorial tradition of the Church. There is explicit testimony to this practice from the second century on” (No. 1252, Catechism of the Catholic Church).

A family of faith

Canon law states that “Parents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks” (Canon 867.1). This teaching is based on the high rate of infant mortality over the centuries (even in some areas today), the need to blot out original sin and the desire to access sacramental grace as quickly as possible. The urgency for baptism within “the first few weeks” has been modified somewhat in light of improved infant survival rates, yet baptism is a rebirth in the Spirit — the gateway to the other sacraments — and incorporates a person into the body of Christ, the Church. “The Lord himself affirms that baptism is necessary for salvation” (No. 1257, CCC; see Jn 3:5). These rich graces and spiritual advantages should not be delayed or withheld, but received at the soonest possible time.

The Church also teaches that “For an infant to be baptized licitly, the parents or at least one of them … must consent; [and] 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” (Canon 868.1, 868.2).

If the parents are members of the Church, their children should be members with them, and if the parents are practicing their faith, their children should be able to practice the faith with them. Shared belief and practice unites the family.

Learning and choosing faith

Some parents and Christian groups oppose infant baptism and think that the sacrament should be delayed until adolescence or adulthood, a time when people are more able to maturely and freely decide on their own to be a Christian.

A person can learn the faith as an adult, but it is easier when a person is young. It is much like learning a foreign language or playing a musical instrument — it is more easily assimilated at an early age, which is evident in school curricula in which foreign languages and music lessons are taught in the primary grades. Children assimilate the faith of their parents. If the parents believe in God, say their prayers, go to Mass and love each other, the children will follow them. Then, when they are older, when the time comes for them to choose for themselves, because they have learned the language of faith and value what it means to be Catholic, it is much more likely they will choose the Catholic faith for themselves.

Father Van Sloun is pastor of St. Bartholomew in Wayzata. Read more of his writing at CatholicHotdish.com.

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Category: Faith Fundamentals