Can the Pastor Refuse to Baptize Our Child?

Q:  My wife and I are both Catholics and are expecting our first child in three months.  Our parish requires all parents who want their baby baptized to attend an evening class, which conflicts with my work-schedule. Otherwise they told us we cannot have our baby baptized. But both my parents and my in-laws have told us that they never had to attend any such class before we were baptized! Why do we have to do this? The pastor knows us, and can see that we regularly attend Mass on Sundays. Does he have the right to refuse to baptize our baby if we don’t attend this class?  –Tony

A: In “When Can a Priest Refuse to Absolve a Penitent in the Confessional?” we saw that according to canon 843.1, Catholics have the right to receive the sacraments if they opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them. On the surface, therefore, it would appear that Tony’s pastor may not refuse to baptize Tony’s child if Tony sincerely wishes it.

But with every right comes a corresponding obligation, and this right to receive the sacraments is no exception. Canon 843.2 states that pastors of souls have the duty to ensure that those who ask for the sacraments are prepared for their reception.  In the case of parents who present their infant child for baptism, it is the parents who must be adequately prepared, as they are asking for a sacrament on behalf of another person who is too young to request it for himself.

What is the primary purpose of baptizing an infant? The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that Christ Himself affirmed that baptism is necessary for salvation (CCC 1257), and that even innocent children, who are born with original sin, need baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and to become children of God (CCC 1250). Since canon law follows theology, it should not be surprising that this teaching also appears in the Code of Canon Law, as canon 849. Parents should want their children baptized because they want them to be freed from original sin, and made members of the Church.

But unfortunately, in many cases nowadays, parents who ask for their children’s baptism do so for cultural reasons rather than spiritual ones. Too often, religiously indifferent parents ask for their child’s baptism merely because they are being pressured by their own parents to have their child baptized. In some cultures, the celebration of an infant’s baptism is an important social event, quite separate from its religious significance, and baptism is for this reason requested by parents who no longer practice their Catholic faith themselves. In such cases the spiritual importance of this sacrament is being lost.

The Church seeks to avoid situations in which a child is baptized a Catholic, but then, due to the negligence and indifference of his parents, is not raised to practice the Catholic faith. For this reason canon 868.1 n.2 notes that for a child to be baptized, there must be a realistic hope that he will be brought up in the Catholic religion. If such hope is lacking, the baptism is to be deferred—and if, at some point in the future, the parents can provide grounds for hope that their infant will in fact be raised as a Catholic, the priest may then proceed with the baptism.

This requirement routinely presents practical problems for pastors who are faced with non-practicing Catholic parents seeking baptism for their children. A priest is obliged by law to determine that there is reason to believe that somehow the child will in fact be raised Catholic, or else he must tell the parents that their baby may not be baptized. At the same time, denying the parents’ request requires great pastoral sensitivity and tact, since a priest does not want to drive such parents away from the Church for good.

Deciding what constitutes a “realistic hope” that the child will be raised Catholic is often a difficult judgment call, and sincere priests may at times differ about what to do in a particular case. It cannot be automatically assumed that there is no hope of the child’s Catholic upbringing simply because the parents themselves are less than perfect Catholics.  For example, the fact that the child’s parents were not married in the Catholic Church, or perhaps are not even married at all, may not necessarily indicate that they have no intention of raising their child as a Catholic. God alone knows whether, in some cases, the decision of lapsed-Catholic parents to educate their children in the Catholic faith may actually bring about a return to the Church on the part of the parents themselves! Over the years, some pastors have told me that they feel that the mere fact that such parents phone the rectory to arrange a baptism, is in itself an indication that they have not totally severed their connection with the Church, and constitutes a reasonable hope that they will bring up their child as a Catholic. Others will disagree, wanting to see stronger evidence that the baptism is not simply being sought to please other family members, or to satisfy social expectations.

To avoid confusion and inconsistency, it has become the norm for U.S. dioceses to require parishes to hold mandatory classes for parents requesting infant baptism, in order to ensure that (1) all parents truly understand the spiritual obligations that their child’s baptism will place on them, and (2) the pastor may have the opportunity to determine whether it may be unrealistic to hope that the children of the parents attending the class will be raised as Catholics. The development of these classes no doubt took place after Tony and his wife were baptized, which explains why their own parents were not required to take one.  Attending such a class, and participating in it, shows the pastor that parents are properly disposed for the baptism of their child; adamantly refusing to attend it may be interpreted as a sign that they are not.

Keep in mind that, while Tony may have a right to have his baby baptized, Tony’s pastor simultaneously has an obligation to ensure that the sacraments are celebrated properly in his parish. In fact, canon 851 n.2 notes that the pastor is required to see to it that the parents of a child who is to be baptized are suitably instructed on the meaning of this sacrament and the obligations connected with it. A mandatory class is an obvious way to do this.

It may require some inconvenience and sacrifice to make arrangements to leave the workplace in order to attend the class. But given the tremendous spiritual importance of the sacrament of baptism to a child, surely it will be well worth it!

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