Canon Law and Non-Infant Baptism

Q: My neighbors are Catholics who didn’t practice the faith for years, but now they are returning to the Church.  Their children were never baptized, so they went to the parish priest to arrange for their baptism.  But he refused, because he said the children are too old!  He claims the children are mature enough to decide for themselves if they want to be Catholic or not…. The whole thing sounds bizarre.  The parents truly want to raise their children as Catholics.  Is it possible the priest doubts their sincerity?  What can they do? –Rachel

A: It’s impossible to be absolutely sure what is happening to Rachel’s neighbors without knowing all the details, but we can nevertheless piece together the likely reason for the priest’s refusal to baptize their children at the parents’ request.  What is probably at issue here is the children’s age.

We’re all familiar with the practice of baptizing infants at the request of their parents, but of course the very first Christians who were being baptized in the earliest days of the Church were adults!  This means, of course, that those who requested baptism were old enough to know what they were doing, and had made a conscious choice to become Christians themselves.  Today, of course, non-Catholic adults continue to ask to join the Church, and all them have to be instructed in the Catholic faith before their baptism (c. 865.1).  Once they have formally approached the Church seeking to become members, and until they are actually baptized, they are known as catechumens (cf. c.  206, CCC 1247-1248).

But in the case of infants, there is no question of a catechumenate, because they obviously are not expected to undergo a period of training in the faith before baptism.  Instead, their parents speak on their behalf, assuring the Church that they will make the necessary effort to raise their children in the Catholic faith.  Among other things, this involves instructing them in the faith once they are old enough to understand it.  This is why, when parents present an infant child for baptism, they themselves must show the parish priest that they appreciate what baptism of their child entails, and are willing to undertake it (c. 851 n. 2).  As we saw in “Can the Pastor Refuse to Baptize Our Child?” the baptism can be deferred if there is no realistic hope that the child will be raised in the Catholic faith (c. 868.1 n. 2).

So we can see how the Church handles the baptism of adults, and what is required for the baptism of infants.  But here’s the problem: what is to be done in the case of those who are older than infants, but younger than adults?

Canon 97.2 defines an “infant” as one who has not yet completed his seventh year of age.  That’s because once a child reaches the age of seven, he is presumed to have the use of reason, and is then considered to be sui compos, or capable of personal responsibility for his actions.  (Some of the legal ramifications of the term sui compos, and its opposite, non sui compos, were discussed in detail in “Can a Pope Ever Resign?”)

This is not to suggest, of course, that on his seventh birthday every child suddenly understands fully everything that he does!  The development of our rational abilities is a gradual process, and it’s basically impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when a child passes from a state of non-comprehension to one in which he grasps the implications of his actions.  To complicate the issue further, the age at which children attain the use of reason varies widely from person to person: some children certainly seem to be quite capable of appreciating the implications of their acts at a much earlier age, while others don’t appear to completely understand until they’re even older.  Nonetheless, centuries ago the Church fixed the age of seven as the standard age, after which children are presumed to know what they’re doing and can be held morally accountable for it.

(This is incidentally why, as was discussed in “Can Catholic Children Receive the Last Rites?” children under age seven who are dying are not given the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick—because they are considered too young to have ever committed a sin.  Simply put, if your mental state is such that you can’t understand the implications of what you’re doing, you can’t sin!  It’s also the reason why, as addressed in “Can Children Make Their First Communion Before Their First Confession?” children are to make their First Confession after attaining the use of reason; it would make absolutely no sense to require them to confess to any sins before they were capable of committing them.)

So to return to the case of Rachel’s neighbors, the parents cannot request baptism for their children if they are over the age of seven.  Since children aged seven and up are considered old enough to understand the implications of such actions, they are to make that decision for themselves.  That’s why canon 852.1 states clearly that the provisions of the code regarding adult baptism apply to everybody who has attained the use of reason.  It goes without saying that at the practical level, children are under the care and authority of their parents for many more years.  But canonically, children over the age of seven fall into the same category as adults—and can be baptized if they request it, after an appropriate period of instruction in the faith (cc. 788.1, 865.1).

In theory, this may be perfectly logical—but how is it supposed to work in practice?  The fact is, a typical Catholic parish has a catechetical program for children, but the normal assumption is that the children who attend it were already baptized as infants.  The curriculum, therefore, might perhaps be unsuitable for those children who have not yet been baptized, and who need a very basic, “nuts and bolts” sort of education in what the Catholic faith is all about—so that they can understand the significance of, and agree to their own baptism when the time comes.

The average Catholic parish also generally has an instruction program for non-Catholic adults who wish to become Catholics, whether they’re already baptized non-Catholic Christians or have never been baptized.  It follows the requirements of the Ordo Initiationis Christianae Adultorum, issued in 1972 by the Vatican’s then-Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship (today known as the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments).  In English this is more commonly known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA.

Requiring (let’s say) an eight-year-old to attend the same catechetical program as a group of adults sounds problematic for multiple reasons!  Consequently, there are a variety of ways that parish priests may handle the instruction of such children before their baptism.  In a parish that is very large, and/or has a significant number of children over the age of seven who are to be baptized, there may actually be a special catechism class that is designed expressly for them.  But if such a situation only arises sporadically, a child might be placed in a regular catechism class, perhaps with supplemental instruction as appropriate; or the child might be instructed privately.  Since individual circumstances may vary widely, there is no “one size fits all” method of preparing such children for baptism that is required of every single Catholic parish.

Thus we can see that it is entirely possible that the priest who declined to baptize the children of Rachel’s neighbors is completely correct.  If the children are over the age of seven, more must be done than merely acting on their parents’ request to baptize them.  Certainly we may reasonably hope that these children will obediently listen to their parents regarding this issue, which spiritually is so crucial to them; but no longer can their parents make this important decision for them.  With age comes moral responsibility, and with regard to baptism, the Code of Canon Law reflects that fact.

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