What Makes a Baptism Catholic?

Q1: What makes a Catholic baptism Catholic?

I’m a lay Roman Catholic who just started working as a hospital chaplain, which means I may be called upon to administer emergency baptisms in some cases.  If I baptize, for example, an infant whose parents are Catholic, is that infant considered Catholic?  I assume, I guess, that the Catholic faith is what makes someone Catholic (whether you’re a consenting adult or you’re a child under the age of reason, in which case the Catholic faith of your parents would make you Catholic).  Is that assumption correct? –Nathan

Q2: I am a parish secretary and am responsible for recording sacraments in our books…. I have been coming across students who have just made their First Communion and Confirmation but were baptized in a Protestant church.

I have no information on why these children weren’t baptized Catholic, when or if their parent(s) were received into the Catholic Church and if so, how old the child was at the time.  I suspect in some of these cases there was at least one Catholic parent but he/she for some reason allowed for their child to be baptized in a Protestant church.

I asked our pastor about whether I need to create a record in our baptismal register for these children baptized outside the Catholic Church who are now making their other sacraments. Our pastor didn’t understand what I was talking about and said I only need to record in the First Communion and Confirmation log books. To my knowledge, these children never made a profession of faith/were officially received into the Catholic Church.

I am confused about this. Is there more information that these parents should be providing to our parish about the circumstances of their child’s baptism? Are these children supposed to actually be going through RCIA? I think our pastor might be incorrect in how he views these cases. –Mary

A: We have seen many, many times in this space that the Catholic Church recognizes baptisms performed in non-Catholic ceremonies—provided that they are celebrated validly.  As was discussed in “Inclusive Language and Baptismal Validity,” this involves pouring/immersion using real water, while saying, “N., I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1239-1240).  When non-Catholic Christians are baptized in this way (and they generally are), the Catholic Church considers them to be really baptized.  This is incidentally why, when validly baptized non-Catholics wish to become Catholic, they are not baptized again (c. 869.2; see “Do Converts Have to be Rebaptized?” for more on this).

But as we all know, being baptized and being Catholic are not synonymous.  If Lutheran parents have their baby baptized at their Lutheran church, the baby will obviously be a Lutheran, not a Catholic.  The baptism itself will probably look essentially identical to the baptism of a baby at any Catholic parish; but the Lutheran minister’s intention is to baptize the baby as a Lutheran, and the Lutheran parents’ intention is of course to raise their child as a Lutheran—and that’s what makes the child a Lutheran, rather than a Catholic or a Baptist or anything else.  This is why as a rule, it wouldn’t make much sense for (let’s say) two Methodists, who want to raise their new baby a Methodist, to approach a Presbyterian minister and ask him to perform the baptism!  This is only common sense, and most Christians understand it intuitively.

Consequently, as was discussed at great length in “What Happens if Catholic Parents Have Their Child Baptized in a Non-Catholic Church?” if lapsed Catholic parents have (to cite an imaginary example) their baby daughter Lizzie baptized by a non-Catholic minister in a non-Catholic ceremony, the baptism may very well be valid … but the baby is certainly not a Catholic.  Quite the contrary, the baby is naturally a member of the Christian community in which he was baptized.

If the lapsed-Catholic parents later wish to return to the Catholic Church, that’s great!  They can go to confession and straighten everything out, and they’ll be welcomed back.  But they also need to straighten things out regarding Lizzie, who is still a member of the non-Catholic denomination in which she was baptized.

We saw in “Canon Law and Marriage Records,” that every parish is required to keep records of baptisms, marriages, and deaths (c. 535.1), and some dioceses and/or Episcopal Conferences mandate that parishes in their territory keep other registers as well—for first Holy Communion, for example, or confirmation.  Obviously, there is no record in any Catholic parish’s baptismal register of a baby who was baptized in a non-Catholic ceremony.  If, therefore, our fictitious baby Lizzie’s lapsed-Catholic parents return to the Church, they’re naturally bringing Lizzie into the Catholic faith with them, and so something has to be noted in the parish records to this effect.  Otherwise, there is no proof that Lizzie has ever become a Catholic, and so she is logically assumed to still be a member of the faith in which she was baptized.  The precise way that this Catholic parish record-keeping is to be handled can vary from country to country, or from diocese to diocese; but the bottom line is that there must be a record made of this somewhere at the family’s Catholic parish.

Note that if the lapsed-Catholic parents return to the Catholic Church after Lizzie is seven years old, things get much more complicated.  That’s because as per canon 97, a child is considered to have reached the age of reason by the time he completes his seventh year; and at that point, as we saw in “Canon Law and Non-Infant Baptism,” he is legally presumed to be able to make the decision to become a Catholic himself.  This is why a non-Catholic child who is seven or older technically has to go through the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) program, and be received into the Catholic Church basically like an adult.  Lizzie’s parents, in other words, could make this decision on her behalf when she was younger and unable to choose for herself; but now that Lizzie is able to understand, her parents can no longer make the choice for her.

So if we now look at the non-imaginary situation which Mary describes, even without knowing all the details it sounds like something is definitely amiss.  It would appear—although it’s not completely clear—that the pastor of the parish is essentially administering Catholic sacraments to non-Catholic children, which is blatantly illegal: as we’ve seen so many times before (in “When Can Episcopalians Receive the Eucharist at a Catholic Mass?” and “When Can a Non-Catholic Go to Confession?” for example), canon 844.1 spells out the general and unsurprising rule that Catholic ministers licitly administer the sacraments to the Catholic lay-faithful alone.

Note that there is more to the equation here than “just” violating canon law. By willingly administering Catholic sacraments to children who are baptized non-Catholics, without explaining to the parents the need for the child to become a Catholic, the pastor of Mary’s parish could be sending to confused lay-faithful the signal that it’s okay to wander in and out of the Catholic Church, as if there isn’t any big difference between being Catholic, and being protestant.  Sadly, this is the textbook definition of the “false irenicism” famously referenced by Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio:

Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded. (UR 11)

It’s very likely that the clergy of the non-Catholic churches where these children at Mary’s parish were baptized would totally agree, and they might perhaps be highly offended at what is happening if they found out.  After all, ecumenism is a two-way street!

Either you’re a Catholic, or you aren’t—and if you aren’t a Catholic but want to become one, the Catholic Church has a procedure to do that, which you’re expected to follow.  Mary’s hunch is correct: as we’ve just seen above, if these children have already passed their seventh birthday, the pastor of Mary’s parish cannot legally allow them to receive the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion without first putting them through a child-adapted version of RCIA.  Once again, different dioceses around the world have different methods of handling this; but not handling it at all is not an option!

Now that Mary knows that what is happening at her parish is canonically wrong, what should she do?  It will probably require a lot of tact and diplomacy, but her best move is to contact the diocesan bishop and alert him, as politely as possible, to the fact that there’s a very real, ongoing problem at her parish.

Let’s look now at Nathan’s question.  Nathan is a lay chaplain at a hospital, and he is being completely reasonable when he surmises that he may be called upon at some point(s) to baptize a Catholic patient in danger of death.  (Note that as canon 860.2 tells us, performing Catholic baptisms in a hospital is not ordinarily to be permitted, except in a case of necessity.  That’s because the proper place for a baptism, apart from a case of necessity, is a church or an oratory, as per canon 857.1.)

Nathan also realizes that not all patients at the hospital are Catholics—and so it could very well happen that he might be asked to baptize someone whose family is not Catholic, and/or who wants to be baptized a member of some non-Catholic Christian denomination.  How would this work?

The easy answer is, if Nathan baptizes someone in the hospital in danger of death, and the person then dies, it frankly doesn’t make a lot of difference, does it?  The whole point of baptizing a dying person is to ensure that he/she can get to heaven; and in such an emergency situation, the question of whether the person’s family is Catholic or non-Catholic isn’t much of an issue.

But of course in practice, it’s not necessarily that simple.  If a Catholic parent wants Nathan to baptize a child in danger of death, or a dying adult wants to be baptized Catholic, this means that when Nathan baptizes them, they’re baptized Catholic.  And canon 878 requires Nathan to notify the local parish priest of a Catholic baptism that was performed in the hospital under emergency circumstances, so it can be entered into the parish baptismal register (as per c. 877.1).  As we’ve already seen above, when Catholics receive the sacrament of baptism, there always has to be a record of it somewhere.

If the Catholic parents of a child baptized in danger of death don’t live in the parish where the hospital is located, and the child survives, the parents are presumably going to notify their own parish priest about what happened (although the baptism will actually be recorded in the register of a different parish), and then of course they will raise the child Catholic.

But on the other hand, if Nathan baptizes a person in danger of death, and that person never intended specifically to be Catholic (let’s say the person’s family were all Baptists), or the parents of a surviving child who was baptized in danger of death are not Catholics… then the baptized person won’t be a Catholic.  It will thus depend on what they want.

It should be observed that in the diocese containing the hospital where Nathan works, it’s likely that the bishop has established some sort of practical norms on this subject that Nathan is to follow as well.

The basic take-away from all this is that when a person becomes a Catholic, a record must be made of that fact.  Circumstances may certainly vary, depending on whether someone becomes a Catholic after being a member of some other faith, and whether a person becomes Catholic as an infant or later in life; but regardless of the details, every Catholic should be able to point to a record in a parish registry somewhere, proving that yes, he really is a Catholic.

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