Can a Child Be Baptized Catholic, If One Parent Strenuously Objects?

Q: My ex-wife and I met, married in, and agreed to raise our children in the Mormon faith.  About three years ago she decided to leave me and returned to the Catholic Church after 25 years in the Mormon Church.  She took our son and had him baptized in the Catholic Church without my knowledge.

After I found out I spoke with the priest and asked that no more Catholic sacraments be administered to my son without my consent.  I later learned that First Communion was administered as were also Last Rites prior to an operation.

I want to be involved in all aspects of my son’s religious upbringing.  Does canon law allow me any rights to be involved with parish decisions regarding my son?  And how well founded is the hope that my son will be raised Catholic, if only my ex-wife is the one teaching him Catholicism and I’m still teaching him Mormonism?  –Bryan

A: Unfortunately, this sad and complicated family situation is not unique.  What does canon law have to say about a scenario in which a Catholic parent wants to raise the children as Catholics, but the other parent is not Catholic and strongly disagrees?  Let’s take a look.

To begin with, we can immediately see why the Catholic Church wants Catholics to marry other Catholics.  One big reason for this is that the Church is understandably concerned about preserving the faith of its members—and of course when a Catholic plans to spend the rest of his/her life together with someone of another (or no) faith, this can naturally cause the Catholic’s faith to weaken.  That’s why, as was discussed in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic,” the marriage of a Catholic to an unbaptized person is invalid (c. 1086.1), and a dispensation is required for it to take place; while a marriage between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic is prohibited without permission of the competent authority (normally the diocesan bishop, c. 1124).

Another big reason, of course, is that the Church understandably wants the children of Catholic parents to be raised as Catholics.  That’s why the diocesan bishop can grant the necessary dispensation/permission to allow such a marriage only if the Catholic spouse declares that he/she is prepared to remove dangers of defecting from the faith, and to do all in his/her power to baptize the children and raise them as Catholics (c. 1125 n. 1, see “Do Catholic Parents Have to Raise Their Children as Catholics?” for more on this).  The non-Catholic spouse is to be informed of the promises made by the Catholic, and made aware of the Catholic spouse’s obligations with regard to the Catholic faith (c. 1125 n. 2).

If the non-Catholic spouse-to-be is so seriously committed to his own faith that he is determined to try to convert the Catholic spouse, or is particularly adamant about raising any children of the marriage in his own, non-Catholic faith despite the Catholic spouse’s obligations, well, this obviously constitutes a problem!  It’s the sort of issue that ordinarily becomes evident during the couple’s marriage-preparation program, a requirement for all intended spouses before they can marry in the Church (cf. c. 1063 n. 2; see “When Can the Parish Priest Postpone a Wedding?” for more on this).  If it becomes clear to the pastor of the parish that there’s a high probability that the marriage will endanger the faith of the Catholic spouse, and/or that the non-Catholic spouse has every intention of aggressively railroading the Catholic’s attempts to raise their children as Catholics despite the Catholic spouse’s obligations to the contrary, he will naturally intervene in a pastoral attempt to resolve this in advance.  In extreme cases, of course, Catholic authorities will have no choice but to refuse to grant approval for the marriage to take place in the Church—for the spiritual wellbeing of the Catholic party.

But we can see that in Bryan’s case, the situation is sort of backwards.  That’s because his former wife, who was raised Catholic, left her faith and joined that of her husband, and they were married outside the Church (invalidly in the eyes of the Catholic Church, as was discussed in “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?”).  Bryan tells us that his ex-wife was a member of his faith for decades, before returning to the Catholic Church.  While it’s entirely understandable that Bryan is unhappy about her decision, as Catholics we can only be glad that a lapsed Catholic has finally found her way home.  And the newly returned Catholic wife/mother arranged to have their child baptized, intending to raise him a Catholic.

But Bryan indicates that he wants to raise his son as a Mormon—even though his former wife is already raising him a Catholic.  What does canon law have to say about this?

Well, when a child is still an infant (i.e., less than seven years old, as per c. 97.2), canon 868.1 n. 1 tells us that for him to be baptized licitly, his parents, or at least one of them, must give consent.  Parental consent is necessary because when a person is under the age of seven, he is considered to be under the age of reason, still too young to make decisions for himself.  We find here the basic answer to Bryan’s question: if his ex-wife declared that she wanted the child baptized and intended to raise him as a Catholic, canon law says that the baptism is entirely licit, or legal.  (See “Are They Really Catholic? Part II” for more on what liceity means.)

If the boy was over the age of seven when he was baptized a Catholic, there would have been some sort of catechetical instruction, and the child must have given his consent, as was discussed in detail in “Canon Law and Non-Infant Baptism.”  If the child was old enough to agree to become a Catholic himself, that means he has used his own free will and made his decision—even if it was with the overt encouragement of his Catholic mother—and so far as the Church is concerned, nobody on earth can force him to change his beliefs against his will, as that is humanly impossible.  As the Catechism puts it,

God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions…. “he is created with free will and is master over his acts.” (CCC 1730)

Bryan says that when he learned of his son’s Catholic baptism, he “spoke with the priest and asked that no more Catholic sacraments be administered to [his] son without [his] consent.”  Bryan doesn’t mention what the priest said in response; but it’s a safe bet that he explained that since the child is being raised a Catholic by his Catholic mother, it is entirely appropriate for the boy to make his First Holy Communion (after making his First Confession, as we saw in “Can Children Make Their First Communion Before Their First Confession?”) and receive other Catholic sacraments as appropriate.  By this point, of course, Bryan’s son has definitely reached the age of reason—otherwise he would be too young to make his First Communion—and so the decision to do so is technically his, not his parents’.  We certainly might sympathize with Bryan and appreciate his frustration; but canonically, he has no authority to forbid a Catholic priest from administering sacraments to his son without his consent.

If anyone is tempted to object to the Church’s position on this subject, it’s worth noting that it’s quite common for children of any religion to be raised in their faith by only one parent!  Think about it: this happens in every single case where a couple (a) do not share the same faith, (b) have children, and (c) give those children a religious upbringing.  This is certainly not unique to Catholics; in fact, it might be difficult to identify a religion which refuses to allow membership to children unless both their parents are members too.  Let’s try to imagine for a minute what would have happened if the tables were turned, and Bryan’s ex-wife had re-joined the Mormons after living for decades as a Catholic—and was now raising their son in that faith instead.  Would the Mormons prohibit her from doing so, if her Catholic ex-husband protested?

Bryan indicates that he intends to continue teaching his son his Mormon faith, even though the boy (who presumably is living with his mother) is being raised a Catholic.  Again, it’s easy to understand Bryan’s desire to have his boy share his own religion—but we can only imagine the confusion and trouble that this will cause his son.  It also sounds like a recipe for continued friction between the two ex-spouses, and so it may well be an issue for a family counsellor (Catholic or not!) to address, in an attempt to reach an accord.  Speaking broadly, parents should be focused on the wellbeing of their child; and when that conflicts with the parents’ personal preferences, those desires generally should take a back-seat.

So now Bryan has the answer to his question.  If his son is being raised a Catholic by his Catholic mother, Bryan has no authority to forbid Catholic clergy from administering Catholic sacraments to him.  Let’s all say a prayer for this family, and especially that the child may grow up in our faith with a minimum of disharmony in his life.

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