What Happens if Catholic Parents Have Their Child Baptized in a Non-Catholic Church?

Q:  My sister-in-law recently baptized her youngest daughter in a Presbyterian church.  She is Catholic, her husband is non-denominational, and he is uneasy with the Catholic Church although they were married in a Catholic ceremony.

My father-in-law insists “a baptism is a baptism is a baptism.”  I tried to tell him that first it has to be valid (Trinitarian formula and “living water,” right?), and that if my sister-in-law wanted her daughter to become Catholic eventually, she’d have to do RCIA.  He didn’t seem to agree with that.  If my sister-in-law wanted her daughter to be “raised Catholic,” I say these two things would have to happen.  Is this correct?  –Aurora

A: While Aurora and her father-in-law may think they’re arguing, they are actually both right.  It’s just that they’re talking about different aspects of the question.

On the one hand, it’s true, a baptism is a baptism–provided that it’s a valid baptism, of course.  As we saw in “Inclusive Language and Baptismal Validity,” the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of baptisms performed by members of other Christian denominations, provided that they are using the proper formula of words, they’re pouring real water, and the minister has the basic intention to do what the Church teaches.

And in general the Catholic Church has no beef with Presbyterian baptisms, because as a rule they’re doing exactly that.  This means that if a very young child was baptized in a Presbyterian church and then dies before reaching the age of reason, the Catholic Church presumes that the soul of that child, who has never sinned, went right to heaven, as would the soul of a child baptized a Catholic.  It also means that if an adult Presbyterian wants to become a Catholic, he/she “only” has to be received into the Church—not baptized again. (See “Do Converts Have to be Rebaptized?” for more on this.)

But if you have your baby baptized in a Presbyterian church, the baby is Presbyterian, and not a Catholic!  So if Aurora’s sister-in-law and her family never return to the Catholic faith, and this baby girl grows up and someday wants to be Catholic, Aurora is right: she’ll have to go through the whole RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) program and be received into the Catholic Church that way.  True, the child will not need to be baptized again; but at the same time, the child can’t simply walk into a Catholic parish and say, “I was baptized in a Presbyterian ceremony, but I’m really a Catholic because my mother was Catholic.”  It doesn’t work like that.

If the baby’s mother returns to the Catholic Church while her child is still under the age of seven, and brings the child with her (meaning she henceforth raises the child as a Catholic), that’s entirely doable.  The baby obviously doesn’t know what’s going on, so the parent makes the decision on the child’s behalf, and the baby just goes along with it.  In that case, the mother needs to meet with the parish priest and clear things up in the parish register: this is extremely important because the baby has a Presbyterian baptismal certificate, and there would need to be some written record that the baby is in fact being raised in the Catholic faith.  (See “Canon Law and Marriage Records” for more on the critical need for parishes to keep accurate written records in sacramental matters like this.)  When the time comes for the child’s first confession and Holy Communion, it will be necessary to show that despite her Presbyterian baptismal certificate, her family subsequently returned to the Catholic Church some time ago—and so now she is really a Catholic, and no longer a Presbyterian.

But if the mother returns to the Church when the baby is age seven or older, the baby—who canonically isn’t a baby any more!—will have to go through the RCIA program like an adult.  This was discussed in detail in “Canon Law and Non-Infant Baptism,” but in short, once a child reaches age seven, the canonical age of reason (c. 97.2), his parents can no longer make this decision for him (cf. c. 852.1).  And if the child truly doesn’t want to become a Catholic at that point, there’s actually nothing anybody can do to force him.  In this way the child might be lost to the Catholic faith altogether.

If this were to happen in the case of Aurora’s sister-in-law, the moral culpability would ultimately rest with her, not with her child.  We can see how vital it is for Catholic parents to take care to have their children raised as Catholics from an early age—something discussed at greater length in “Do Catholic Parents Have to Raise Their Children as Catholics?”  If, through the parents’ negligence, children receive a non-Catholic or altogether non-religious upbringing from birth, then we may find that when they become old enough to decide for themselves whether or not to practice the Catholic faith, they won’t necessarily have any particular motivation to embrace it.  Let’s pray that Catholic parents will appreciate the need to take the time and effort to ensure that their children are raised as Catholics from the start—because when they grow up, it may be too late.

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