How Soon Should a Baby be Baptized?

Q: Our new next-door neighbors have a 14-month-old daughter. They’re Catholics, but I just found out that they still haven’t had their daughter baptized yet! When our own children were born over 30 years ago, we had them baptized when they were just a couple of weeks old. Aren’t you required to have your children baptized quickly like that any more? –Frances

A: The Church’s teaching on the necessity of baptism for salvation has not changed. Christ Himself, after His Resurrection, couldn’t have spoken more clearly about the need for baptism, when He commanded the Apostles to go forth and baptize all nations (Matt. 28: 19-20). As the Catechism teaches, “through baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God” (CCC 1213). It is only logical that Catholic parents should want to have their newborn children baptized as soon as possible, to free them from original sin and make them members of the Church.

As we have seen in this space so many times before, canon law follows theology. So it isn’t at all surprising to find that canon 867.1 states that parents are obliged to see that their infants are baptized within the first few weeks after birth. And the very next paragraph, canon 867.2, adds that if the child is in danger of death, he is to be baptized immediately.

Thus it should be clear that waiting for months, or even years, to have one’s child baptized is not only  not in keeping with the Church’s theological teaching, it is also contrary to canon law. It is difficult to imagine a legitimate reason why Catholic parents, who truly believe in basic tenets of our faith like original sin and God’s grace, would fail to arrange for their children to be baptized as soon as possible.

Ironically, it may be that the wonderful medical advances of the last several decades have inadvertently led many Catholic parents to lose the traditional sense of urgency about having their newborn children baptized. For centuries, the Church’s teaching about the importance of baptism for salvation dovetailed neatly with the fear of many parents that their newborn might not live very long, and so both supernatural and natural reasons tended to push parents to have their children baptized as quickly as they could. If you have ever read the biography of a medieval saint, or if done genealogical research on your own family members in centuries past, you might very well have come across an instance where someone was baptized the day after his birth, or even sooner. In fact, it isn’t necessary to dig so far back in the historical past to find examples of this:  in 1927, Pope Benedict XVI himself was baptized the same day that he was born.

This practice was, of course, logically consistent with Catholic doctrine. Given the extraordinarily high rates of infant mortality in generations past, and the fear that an infant might die before original sin had been wiped from his soul, what Catholic parent wouldn’t rush a newborn child to the parish church for baptism as soon as possible?

While there still is always some risk that a child may not survive, nowadays the fear that a newborn infant might not make it is hardly so great as before, especially here in the US. At the same time, baptisms have become big family/social events, when relatives fly into town and there is often a big family get-together after the ceremony. Of course there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this; in fact, we do well to maintain our awareness of the importance of such an event by celebrating the occasion. But unfortunately, the desire to have all the family present at a child’s baptism can naturally lead to postponing the sacrament until everyone is able to make it. While parents are waiting for this or that relative to have a free weekend to travel, their new baby remains in original sin.

There are other factors which now sometimes lead parents to put off having their new child baptized. As we saw back in “Can the Pastor Refuse to Baptize Our Child?” it is standard practice these days in the US for parishes to require parents to attend an evening class (or series of classes) before their child is baptized. This is designed to ensure that the parents truly intend to raise their child in the Catholic faith—an intention that must be present if the priest is to agree to perform the baptism (c. 868.1 n. 2). Occasionally I have heard parents complain that they can’t have their new baby baptized until they attend this class, and that in their parish, the class is held only once a month. But in every single case, I have found that these complaining parents had made no effort whatsoever to inquire about the requirements for their infant’s baptism ahead of time. Since parents obviously are aware for months in advance that they will be having a baby, it is difficult to understand their failure to do this. Why not arrange to attend the class a month or two before the child’s expected birth-date, so that it will be possible to have the baptism soon afterwards?

Many parishes do an excellent job of publicizing the need for all parents to attend the baptism class, and class dates are announced well in advance. Others could probably do a better job of instructing their parishioners about the obligation of all parents to have their children baptized soon after birth. I have personally seen a disturbing pattern in many Catholic Hispanic communities, where children are routinely baptized when they are apparently two or three years old, if not older! If their parents had fallen away from the faith, and just recently returned to the Church, this of course would be an entirely understandable explanation for the delay. But if these families are regularly practicing Catholics, it appears that the pastor and parish catechists would do well to remind parents more forcefully and more often that by delaying their child’s baptism, they are leaving that child in original sin. If, God forbid, tragedy strikes and such a child suddenly dies, he leaves this world without the sacramental graces gained from baptism—and by his parents’ choice.

Another, more abstract factor that may cause some new parents to wrongly conclude that there is no need to rush to baptize their child, is the fallout from the fairly recent theological statement from the Vatican concerning Limbo. In 2007, many media outlets wrongly declared that Pope Benedict XVI had “done away with Limbo.” Even the most sincere journalist could perhaps be forgiven for being confused about what the statement actually meant! In its 2000-year existence, the Catholic Church has never made a definitive, authoritative statement explaining exactly what happens to infants who died before being baptized. Since they themselves are completely innocent, it seems absurd to conclude that God damns them to hell; although no less a theologian than St. Augustine really did reach this conclusion 1600 years ago, it was, understandably, not a position subsequently embraced officially by the entire Church. At the same time, the Church teaches that baptism is necessary to enter Heaven, since we must first be wiped clean of original sin and made children of God before we can be with Him there. It is thus a quandary with which theologians long have had to grapple, and the conclusion that there must be some third place (dubbed “Limbo”) was reached as a result. In Limbo, they said, the souls of unbaptized children enjoy some degree of happiness, but they are deprived of the Beatific Vision of God because they are still in original sin. This is not a teaching that can be found anywhere in revelation; rather, it is a logical conclusion of the Church’s teaching on baptism.

In the mid-2000’s, the International Theological Commission (ITC)—a team of theologians chosen from all over the world by the Pope to serve together as a joint committee of experts—was tasked with studying the issue of what happens to infants who die without the grace of baptism. The issue was not merely a theoretical, academic one: questions have been raised repeatedly about the fate of those millions upon millions of children who are killed by abortion. And what about those embryos which are created through in-vitro fertilization, and later discarded in the lab as superfluous? The Church needed to examine the issue more closely.

In their report—which was approved by the Pope—the ITC provided no magic answer to this difficult theological question. It reiterated traditional Catholic teaching when it asserted that “the necessity of the sacrament of Baptism is proclaimed and professed as integral to the Christian faith understanding” (66), and it did a beautiful job of tracing the historical development of the belief in Limbo, the existence of which “is not a dogmatic definition” (38). The ITC emphasized  that there is no need for such a place necessarily to exist at all, since “God can therefore give the grace of Baptism without the sacrament being conferred” (82) if He so wishes. In other words, God is not bound by the sacraments; He can, if He so wishes, freely allow the soul of an unbaptized infant into His presence in Heaven. Thus the ITC stressed the need for hope and trust in the mercy of God, since “the point of departure for considering the destiny of these children should be the salvific will of God” (41).

This report could too easily be misinterpreted as saying that there is no need to baptize our children, since God will allow them into Heaven anyway. But the report definitely does not exonerate parents whose children die without baptism, when the parents have not made an effort to have the baby baptized promptly. Thus it cannot be used as an excuse for failing to have a newborn infant baptized as quickly as the parents reasonably can.

True, there are tragic situations where a newborn dies unexpectedly in the first few hours or days of his birth; if the parents had been planning to have him baptized soon, it is certainly difficult to fault them for not being fast enough! But it is a very different matter when a child of several months, or even years, dies without having been baptized, solely through the negligence of his parents. New parents need to keep in mind—and to be reminded of—the incredible spiritual responsibility they bear toward their newborn children, who must depend on their parents to ensure that they are relieved of the burden of original sin so that they may someday see God face to face.

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