Can Non-Catholics Serve as Baptismal Sponsors?

Q1: A friend of mine is Presbyterian.  He recently mentioned to me that he is the godfather to the child of Catholic parents.  But how could a Presbyterian be allowed to become the godparent of a Catholic baby?  I thought the whole purpose of godparents was to protect the baby’s Catholic faith if something happened to the parents.  –Andy

Q2: Our daughter is expecting her first child. She spoke to a priest at her parish about having the baby baptized, and among other things she mentioned that she and her husband are having difficulty finding a good Catholic man to serve as the baby’s godfather. Maybe my daughter got confused, but she tells me the priest said that you don’t need to have a godfather, but can have two godmothers instead if you want to. That didn’t sound right to me. Is it correct?  –Alicia

A: Probably all of us are familiar with the typical Catholic infant-baptism scenario, which involves a Catholic godmother and godfather chosen by the child’s parents. But let’s take a look at what is actually required at a Catholic baptism by the Code of Canon Law. The canons on this topic are fairly straightforward, so a brief overview will provide answers to both of the above questions.

In so far as possible, a sponsor is to be assigned to a person who is to be baptized (c. 872). The law does not absolutely require a sponsor in every case, and we can easily think of scenarios in which there simply would be no time to find one. The case of a dying newborn, for example, who is quickly baptized by the hospital staff, clearly does not require that a sponsor be found before the baptism can take place. Note that the absence of a sponsor has no effect on the validity of a baptism.

Canon 873 notes specifically that one sponsor, either a godfather (patrinus in Latin) or godmother (matrina) is sufficient, but that there may be one of each. It is not, therefore, necessary for Alicia’s daughter to find a godfather for her baby so long as the baby will have a godmother.

What is the purpose of a baptismal sponsor, anyway? Canon 872 describes the sponsor’s job, for both an adult baptism and that of an infant. The role of the baptismal sponsor in the case of an adult is to assist the person in Christian initiation. This is why a sponsor is ordinarily involved in some way throughout the full period of RCIA formation of the person seeking baptism, not merely on the day of the baptism itself. For an infant, a sponsor is to present the child for baptism together with the child’s parents, and to help him live a Christian life fitting for a baptized person, and to fulfill faithfully the duties inherent in his baptism. In other words, a sponsor is not supposed to disappear from the baptized person’s spiritual life after the baptism takes place. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “faith must grow after baptism,” which indicates the important role that a sponsor is to play in the ongoing spiritual development of the newly baptized person (CCC 1254-1255). Thus Andy’s understanding of the general role of a Catholic child’s godparents is essentially on the mark.

Consequently, godparents must possess the requisite characteristics if they are properly to fulfill such an important role. The requirements for a baptismal sponsor are described in canon 874.1. The person who is asked to assume the duties of a baptismal sponsor must be willing to fulfill them; he must be at least 16 years old, and be a Catholic who has already been confirmed and received his first Holy Communion; he cannot be under any canonical penalty (such as excommunication); and finally, a sponsor may not be the father or mother of the person to be baptized.

In other words, Andy’s Presbyterian friend, who asserted that he is the godfather to a Catholic child, cannot in fact have legally been the child’s sponsor. But before we jump to conclusions and assume that the family’s pastor somehow erred in permitting a non-Catholic to stand as godfather to a Catholic infant, it is necessary to take a look at canon 874.2, which conveniently addresses this very question. A baptized non-Catholic may be permitted to serve at a Catholic baptism, but only in company with another, Catholic sponsor, and simply as a witness. In other words, canon law permits the parents of an infant to choose a Catholic and a non-Catholic Christian as “godparents,” and exteriorly they may both appear to assume these roles at the actual baptismal ceremony. But in the parish’s baptismal register, only the Catholic will be recorded as the official sponsor of the child, while the non-Catholic will be mentioned only as a witness to the celebration of the sacrament—if indeed he is mentioned at all.

In a similar vein, pastors have told me over the years that some parents wish to name numerous relatives and friends as their baby’s godfathers and godmothers. Often this may serve the parents as a way to involve more individuals in the celebration of the sacrament, and to avoid any perception that some family members are being slighted. It is important to keep in mind that parents may very well choose unofficially to dub multiple men and/or women as their child’s “godparents,” but the church records will not indicate this. If anyone other than the official godfather and godmother is mentioned in the records at all, their names should appear simply as witnesses to the baptism.

What’s the difference between a baptismal sponsor and a witness? Canon 875 explains that if there is no sponsor present at a baptism—as in the urgent case of the baptism of a dying newborn referenced above—the person who administers the sacrament is to take care that there is at least one witness present, who can prove that the baptism did indeed take place. Anyone, Catholic or not, can serve as a witness for this purpose.

If the parents appear to be more concerned with choosing godparents who are close friends or family rather than practicing Catholics committed to the spiritual well being of the child, their pastor may find this an excellent opportunity to remind them of the true nature of the godparents’ role in their baby’s Catholic formation. It is unfortunate that nowadays many parents and godparents alike seem to view the role of the godparents as simply some sort of social convention, requiring them to send the child birthday and Christmas gifts, but not necessarily to interest themselves in the rearing of the child in the Catholic faith. As was discussed in “Can the Pastor Refuse to Baptize Our Child?” Catholic parishes in the U.S. commonly require parents who request baptism for their child first to attend baptismal classes, to address the implications of baptizing their infant in the Catholic Church. Discussion of the proper role of godparents may be a logical component of such classes.

To sum up, Andy’s Presbyterian friend may very well have served as “godfather” during the baptism of a Catholic child, but he cannot technically be the infant’s official baptismal sponsor as per canon 874, cited above. And Alicia’s daughter need not choose a godfather for her child’s baptism, since a godmother is sufficient; if she wishes unofficially to name more “godmothers” to her baby, she of course can do so, but only one godmother will be listed on the child’s official record in the parish’s baptismal registry. In each case, we can see here that the Church maintains the spiritual significance of the baptismal sponsor, while not denying the possibility that some families may wish for an honorary, unofficial role of others in this momentous event in the life of a new Catholic.

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