Can a Baby be Baptized Against the Parents’ Wishes?

This column was already written, and set for publication, before Pope Benedict’s resignation announcement on Monday.  The next column–to be published a week from today, hopefully–will address issues pertaining to the upcoming conclave.

Q:   Some Jewish people in my city complained to the local Catholic hospital, saying they were afraid to bring their sick children to the emergency room, because the hospital staff might baptize them.  The hospital staff publicly agreed never to do this.

I had always assumed that you can’t baptize a baby without at least one parent’s consent, so I thought the hospital would simply say, “Don’t worry, we’re not allowed to do that anyway!”  But the wording of the hospital administrators’ response seemed to suggest that they really could baptize a sick baby if they wanted to.  Can a baby be baptized Catholic, even if the parents aren’t Catholic and don’t want the baptism?  –Greg

A:  Under certain circumstances, yes.

Before getting into the law regarding this particular situation, it’s important to be aware of the legal distinction between the validity of an action, and its liceity.  These terms were discussed in greater detail in “Marriage and Annulment,” but in short, it is possible for an action (like baptism) to be valid—that is, for it really to take place—but at the same time to be illicit, or illegal.  In other words, maybe you technically can do something, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should!

As has been noted in previous columns (such as “Inclusive Language and Baptismal Validity” and “Sacraments and Personal Identity,” among others), of all the sacraments, baptism is the easiest one to administer validly.  Unlike the other sacraments, a baptism can be performed by anyone, cleric or not.  So long as the person has the correct intention, and says the proper formula of words, while correctly performing the required action (i.e., pouring or immersing the person in water, c. 849), the baptism is valid.

Having said that, however, canon 861.1 states clearly that the ordinary minister of baptism is a bishop, priest, or deacon.  And at the same time, canon 530 n. 1 observes that within the context of everyday parish life, baptisms are especially entrusted to the pastor of the parish, as one of the specific duties of his office.  This isn’t a contradiction of the theological statement that anybody can baptize—they can!  But under normal circumstances, the ordinary minister is the one who not only can baptize, but should.  Put differently, in a normal situation, the bishop, priest, or deacon is the one who baptizes both validly, and licitly.

This means that ordinarily, apart from an emergency situation, lay persons can baptize validly—but the baptism is illicit.  In other words, such a baptism really does take place, and so the baby (or adult, for that matter) is truly baptized—but the lay baptizer violated the law in performing the baptism.

Now, we all know that situations arise when (let’s say) a newborn infant has such grave health problems that his death appears imminent, or a child who has not yet been baptized falls so seriously ill that it is reasonably feared that he might die.  Canonically, this sort of scenario is quite a different matter!  If it seems that an unbaptized person is going to die, then any legal issues regarding the “ordinary minister” fly right out the window.  The Church’s sole concern at such a moment is for the spiritual welfare of the dying person—everything else takes a back seat.

That’s why canon 861.2 states clearly that in case of necessity, any person with the requisite intention can perform a baptism, not just validly, but also licitly.  If the person intends to do what the Church requires, that is good enough.  There’s no time to waste—a dying person needs to be baptized ASAP!

Another danger-of-death scenario in which the Church’s ordinary laws likewise do not fully apply involves hearing the confession of a dying Catholic.  As was discussed in “Can All Priests Always Hear Confessions?” when someone is dying, he can confess his sins to any priest—including one who has been laicized and no longer functions as a priest, or even a priest who is excommunicated or suspended (c. 976)!  In a normal, everyday situation, of course, the regular laws are in force; but any situation involving a dying person is out of the ordinary.  Once again, the spiritual wellbeing of the dying person is paramount.

With all of this in mind, let’s now look at the role that parental authority plays in this equation.  For an infant to be baptized licitly in a non-emergency situation, at least one of the parents (or a legal guardian) must give consent (c. 868.1 n. 1).  This means that in general, if both parents do not want their child baptized, it is not lawful for, let’s say, a grandmother or babysitter to baptize him.  True, if the grandmother or babysitter does it anyway, and does it properly, the baptism is valid—but it was done in violation of the law.

This is because the parents of an infant have the right and responsibility to make decisions for the child, who obviously is too young to decide anything for himself (cf. c. 97.2).  Once the unbaptized person is old enough to reason and make his own decisions, he is not to be baptized unless he himself wishes it (c. 865.1).  If someone were to baptize a person who has reached the age of reason, and has indicated that he does not want to be baptized—doing so perhaps while he was sleeping, and thus couldn’t object—the baptism is valid (assuming it was done correctly), but it is illicit.

So what is to be done in the situation that Greg describes, where an infant is dying and the parents don’t want him baptized?  It should be clear by now that the baptism of such an infant is valid—but is it licit?

During the process of revising the Code of Canon Law, which led to the promulgation of the current code by Pope John Paul II in 1983, the canonical experts entrusted with revising the canons on baptism wrestled for some time with this very question.  Yes, it was agreed that baptizing a baby against the parents’ will is valid.  But far less obvious were the answers to two corollary questions: should it be considered permissible?  And if so, should it even be considered obligatory?

These experts debated this issue on and off for nearly five years!  Should the parents’ wish not to have their child baptized always be respected, even if a Catholic present at the scene could clearly see that the child was about to die?  Or at the opposite extreme, should a Catholic be legally required to baptize a dying child if possible, even if the parents were opposed to it?  Or what?  The legal experts struggled to find the right balance between the rights of a child’s parents, and respect for their freedom of conscience, and Catholic teaching that baptism is necessary for salvation (c. 849).

The end-result of these extended discussions is canon 868.2.  It states that in danger of death, a child is baptized licitly even against the parents’ wishes.  In this specific situation, the Church’s concern for the spiritual welfare of the baby is considered to outweigh the opposition of the parents.  At the same time, however, note that a Catholic faced with this scenario is not required to baptize the baby—so failing to do so is not a violation of canon law.  In other words, the Church holds that Catholic hospital staff can lawfully baptize a dying child regardless of what the parents might want; but a Catholic hospital worker cannot be faulted if he does not do this.

This is why the response of the administrators of the Catholic hospital in Greg’s home-town evidently handled this issue in accord with canon law.  If Jewish parents are (understandably!) opposed to the notion that their child might be baptized in a Catholic hospital, the hospital staff can honor their wishes, even if the child is at death’s door.  At the same time, as we’ve just seen, canon law does not require Catholic hospital workers to defer to the wishes of a dying child’s parents.  The staff is permitted by the law to perform an emergency baptism in danger of death, thus ensuring that the child enters eternity as a child of God.

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