Can a Lapsed Catholic Be a Godparent?

Q1: Is it written anywhere, or in any authoritative text from the Holy See (or Bishops Conference), that being in an irregular marriage bars one from being a godparent?  The canon seems vague.  One could argue that living in a state of unrepentant sin is contrary to leading a life of faith… –Nathan

Q2: I work in a parish and have the joy of helping families prepare for baptisms. I’m struggling with how to interpret the canons regarding sponsors for infant baptism.  It can be hard to explain why someone’s sister, brother, etc., cannot be a godparent.  This is complicated by the fact that different parishes seem to interpret the law differently.
The requirements are clear until the last part [of canon 874.1 n. 3] about living in keeping with the faith. I wish this were spelled out more clearly, because of course we are all sinners.  Is a Catholic allowed to be a godparent if he/she was married in another Christian church? –Cecilia

A: There are many canons in the code which seem ambiguous, and so we could perhaps do with an additional document to explain them.  But the canon regarding who may and may not be Catholic baptismal sponsors is not among them.  The law on this matter is actually crystal-clear, if you understand the theological purpose of having godparents in the first place.  After all, as has been said many times before in this space, canon law follows theology, and can never contradict it!  So let’s take a look at the Church’s teaching on baptism and baptismal sponsors, and then the reasoning behind the canons on this subject should be obvious.

The practice of choosing godparents for a person to be baptized has existed since the earliest years of the Church.  The action of the godparent(s) at a baptism, when they physically raise the baptized person up from the font after the sacrament has just been administered, has always symbolized the godparents’ spiritual care for the newly baptized one.  Saint Augustine (354-430) mentioned this in passing in an Easter homily:

“In the first place I admonish you men and women, who have raised children in baptism, that you stand before God as surety for those whom you have raised from the sacred font” (Sermo CLXVII (a), emphasis added).

In the Church’s nearly 2000-year history, there have been times and places where the role of godparent was filled by the biological parents of the person to be baptized.  But by the early Middle Ages, the role of “spiritual mother/father” had been separated from that of the birth parents; and the godparents’ duty came to be seen as that of caring for the spiritual welfare of the baptized person (who by that point was usually an infant) if anything happened to the biological parents.

It goes without saying, therefore, that godparents’ number-one responsibility is to see to it that the godchild is raised in the Catholic faith.  As canon 872 states, godparents are to help the newly baptized to live a Christian life and faithfully to fulfill the duties inherent in baptism.  This is why it makes no sense for a Catholic child to have either a godfather or a godmother who is not Catholic (see “Can Non-Catholics Serve as Baptismal Sponsors?” for more on this), and so it’s only logical that this is not permitted by law (c. 874.2).

It likewise makes no sense for a godparent of a Catholic to be someone who has ceased to practice the Catholic faith, or who lives in a sinful state that is incompatible with the life of a Catholic.  Canon 874.1 follows from the Church’s theological understanding of godparents as a matter of course.  It states that a godparent must be a Catholic who has been confirmed, has already made his First Holy Communion, and who leads a life of faith compatible with the duty to be taken on (c. 874.1 n. 3, emphasis added).

If Catholic parents appreciate the gravity of their responsibility to raise their child in the Catholic faith, and understand that the whole purpose of godparents is both to assist in this task if something ever happens to the parents, and provide the child with a good example of Catholic witness, then they will strive to choose baptismal sponsors who take their Catholic faith seriously and strive to live it!  They should naturally want to find the most committed Catholics they can, to take on this role—the eternal salvation of their child might ultimately depend on it.

(At this point, some readers might be thinking, “I’m a godparent myself, and have no involvement in the spiritual life of my godchild.”  Perhaps this is a good time to ask oneself why not?)

Sadly, for Catholics in many countries the seriousness of the role of a child’s godparents has been lost.  Instead of seeking out practicing Catholics who understand the importance of raising a child in the faith, who will provide the child with a good example, and who are willing to step in and undertake the child’s spiritual formation if necessary… many people have come to think that being a godparent is nothing more than a matter of social standing.  They look at the issue rather like choosing bridesmaids and groomsmen for a wedding, and wrongly conclude that it’s somehow appropriate to give the role to their favorite sibling or best friend.  Even worse, some parents actually look at a prospective godparent’s financial situation, as if providing the child with a Christmas present every year is the primary purpose of being a godparent!

Since such parents have strayed so incredibly far from the correct understanding of the role of godparents in their child’s life, it’s not terribly surprising that they find canon 874.1 n. 3 confusing.  In reality, of course, there’s nothing vague about this canon at all.  It’s only a matter of common sense that parents shouldn’t want a nominal Catholic who never attends Mass or receives the sacraments, much less someone who has left the Catholic Church altogether, to potentially be tasked with their child’s spiritual upbringing!

Similarly, it’s hardly worth mentioning that a Catholic who married outside the Church is not a suitable godparent either.  As we have seen countless times before in this space, Catholics are required to observe the canonical form for marriage (c. 1108.1)—and if they fail to do that, in the eyes of the Church they aren’t married at all.  (For more on canonical form, see “Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?” and “Why Don’t We Marry Validly Before a Ukrainian Catholic Priest?” among many others.)  A Catholic who is living with another person as husband and wife, but without the benefit of marriage, is of course living in a state of objectively grave moral evil.  What Catholic parent would want to present his child with such a person as an example of Catholic living, and put that person in possible charge of his child’s spiritual welfare?

The same canon also notes that a godparent cannot be someone who is under any canonical penalty, whether imposed or declared (c. 874.1 n. 4; see “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?” for a more detailed discussion of what “imposed or declared” means).  A “canonical penalty” is exactly what it sounds like, a punishment for a crime.  It involves a sanction (such as excommunication), and once again this part of the canon is completely consistent with the Church’s theological understanding of the purpose of godparents.  It makes no sense to ask a Catholic to oversee the spiritual formation of your child, if the Catholic Church has sanctioned him for the commission of a crime.

In regions where Catholics are few and far between, Catholic parents might object that they simply doesn’t know any “good Catholics” whom they might ask.  In such a case, they should explain this to their parish priest, and ask him for suggestions.  He ought to be able to introduce the parents to other parishioners who take their faith seriously.  Note that it’s not required to have both a godfather and a godmother; one or the other is sufficient (c. 873).

There’s also no reason why the godparents have to be close friends, much less relatives, of the parents.  Why not ask that saintly retired lady whom you see every week at Sunday Mass, always sitting in the same pew?  Who knows, this could be the beginning of a beautiful spiritual friendship!

Cecilia asserts that “different parishes seem to interpret the law differently.”  If there are Catholic parishes out there which permit non-practicing Catholics (or those living in an irregular marriage situation) to be godparents, it would be more accurate to say that they are—whether through negligence or human error—violating both Catholic sacramental theology and canon law.  There is no wiggle-room for “interpretation” as she describes it; and the pastor of the parish is ultimately the one who is morally responsible for it (see cc. 528, 529, and 530 n. 1).

A recent, highly publicized case in Spain serves to illustrate the Church’s teaching on godparents.  A 21-year-old transgender woman, living as a man, wanted to be the “godfather” to her Catholic nephew.  The bishop, unsurprisingly, nixed the idea.  The social firestorm that erupted in the fashionably left Spanish media wasn’t surprising either—so Bishop Rafael Zornoza Boy, of the diocese of Cádiz and Ceuta, sent the case to Rome for an official statement.  (Note that it’s pretty clear that the bishop did this, not because he was unsure of his decision, but because he felt he needed some official back-up from the Vatican.)

The response from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), confirming the bishop’s decision, was likewise no surprise.  It is perhaps unfortunate that the text of the CDF’s statement is not public.  On the one hand, since this matter concerned one single case involving a particular individual, it was evidently not considered appropriate for the CDF to publicize their response; but on the other hand it probably would have helped to clarify this issue for Catholics who fail to understand the role of godparents.

But according to a statement released by Bishop Zornoza Boy, the decision apparently noted that

…it is evident that this person does not possess the requirement of leading a life according to the faith and in the position of godfather and is therefore unable to be admitted to the position of godfather or godmother.

And the CDF cited canon 874.1 n. 3 as their authority.

Of course it’s true, as Cecilia notes, that we are all sinners.  But the Church doesn’t expect Catholic parents to find sinless people to serve as godparents to their children.  They merely have to choose Catholics who take their faith seriously and practice it.  You don’t need to be a canon lawyer to recognize that being a “good Catholic” is not incompatible with being an imperfect one.  And similarly, no advanced degree is needed to appreciate that someone who doesn’t regularly attend Mass and receive the sacraments, and/or who is living in an objectively immoral way in an irregular marriage situation, can’t be considered a “good Catholic.”

Concerns about hurting people’s feelings have no effect on the truth of the Church’s teaching.  Bear in mind that this is a baptism, not a birthday party.  It makes no more sense to choose godparents solely because they’re family or close friends, than it does to choose a heart surgeon simply because you’ve lived next door for years and you really like the guy.

If only all canon law were so clear as this!

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