When Can We Have Our Child Baptized at a Different Parish?

Q1: Can parents have their infant/child baptized in a parish other than the one they regularly attend? –Linda

Q2: For around 20 years we have rented homes at different places within the territory of X parish, and also outside the parish.  We can live in one house for a period of one or two years only.  Sometimes we get a rental home inside the parish territory and sometimes outside.  But it is never more than a mile from X parish.  We are active members in the parish.

But our new priest has refused to allow the baptism of my brother’s son, because we are currently living in the territory of another parish.  The date was fixed for the baptism with the knowledge of the priest.  But at the last minute he said no.  We have no other options… –Joseph

A:  We have already seen many times in this space that of all the sacraments, baptism is the one that is by far the easiest to administer validly (see “How Soon Should a Baby be Baptized?” and  “Inclusive Language and Baptismal Validity,” among others).  The Church teaches that “through baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God” (CCC 1213), which illustrates why it is so theologically critical for Catholics to have their children baptized as soon as possible.  And as if that weren’t reason enough, the Church also notes that baptism is the “gateway to the sacraments,” because we can’t receive any of the other six sacraments without being baptized first (cf. c. 849).

This explains why the Catholic Church has held from time immemorial that anybody—Catholic or not, Christian or not—can baptize validly if he has the intention to do what the Church teaches (c. 861.2; see “Do Converts Have to be Rebaptized?” and “When Can Catholic Soldiers Receive Sacraments from Non-Catholic Chaplains?” for more on this).  This is why the Catholic Church recognizes as valid the baptisms performed by non-Catholic ministers in Orthodox Churches, and most of the large protestant denominations as well—something that was discussed in more detail in “Why Is This Method of Baptizing Illicit?

All that being said, however, it’s important to distinguish between baptisms administered in ordinary, run-of-the-mill situations, and baptisms performed in emergencies or otherwise unusual circumstances.  After all, as we saw in “Lay People Can Always Baptize—But When Should They?” just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you necessarily should.  Let’s take a look at how baptisms are expected to be celebrated as a general rule.

Canon 857.1 spells out the norm, which should be no surprise to anyone: apart from a case of necessity, the proper place for a baptism is a church or an oratory.  (An oratory, as per canon 1223, is another name for a chapel—as may be found in a convent, a Catholic hospital, or even an airport, among other places.)  Canon 860 builds on this norm, adding that apart from a case of necessity, baptism is not to be conferred in private homes or in a hospital, unless the local bishop has permitted it.  Of course we all know that sometimes serious medical emergencies arise and as a result, people are hurriedly baptized wherever they happen to be—which would constitute “a case of necessity” under this canon.  But unless the bishop has specifically permitted otherwise, under ordinary circumstances Catholic baptisms are not supposed to be celebrated in such places.

And right after the code explains that baptisms normally should take place in a church or oratory, it specifies which one: canon 857.2 states that as a rule, and unless a just reason suggests otherwise, an adult is to be baptized in his parish church, and an infant in the parish church of his parents.  So you are supposed to be baptized in the parish where you live, and your kids should likewise be baptized in the parish where you live (see “Parish Registration” for more on determining where your parish is).  It’s actually pretty straightforward!

At the same time, it’s important to note that the wording of this law clearly indicates that a just reason might exist to celebrate a baptism elsewhere.  And canon 859 explains this further: if, because of distance or other circumstances, the person to be baptized cannot be brought to the parish church without grave inconvenience, the baptism can and must be administered in some other church or oratory which is nearer, or even in some other suitable place.  There’s a lot going on in this canon, so let’s take it apart and look at the different elements more closely.

First of all, canon 859 speaks of “distance or other circumstances.”  In rural areas, or mission areas where the parish church is many miles away, it could conceivably be pretty taxing to transport a newborn infant, or a sickly or elderly person, over rutted roads for an hour or two in order to get there.  So if (let’s say) there’s a monastery that is closer and/or easier to get to, it could make a lot more sense to arrange to celebrate the baptism in their chapel there.

Secondly, note that canon 859 speaks of “grave inconvenience” in getting to your parish church.  In other words, simply preferring to have your baby baptized in the nearby convent chapel because it’s prettier than your parish church does not cut it.  There has to be a genuine problem travelling to your parish.

Thirdly, if these circumstances exist, canon 859 states that the baptism not only can be celebrated in a church or oratory other than one’s parish—but that it must be celebrated there.  In other words, the priest who is in charge of that other church or chapel cannot refuse to let the baptism take place there!  All these caveats and exceptions for different circumstances can sound fairly complicated in the abstract, so an imaginary, concrete example should help to illustrate all this more clearly.

Let’s say that Mary and Bob belong to St. Anthony’s Catholic Church and attend it regularly.  When their son John is born, they should arrange to have him baptized at St. Anthony’s, as per canon 857.1 mentioned above.  That’s the norm.

Now let’s imagine that Mary’s mother lives six hours away, and she wants the couple to bring the newborn baby to her parish of St. Michael’s to be baptized… because she thinks it would be really nice for John to be baptized at the same font where his mother Mary was baptized years ago.  Well, “it would be really nice” meets absolutely no standard in the legal world.  There is nothing preventing the parents from having the baby baptized in their parish—so if they were to ask the pastor of St. Michael’s about it, he certainly can baptize John validly, but really should decline and urge the parents to have John baptized at St. Anthony’s.  (In the process, he should point out the dangers inherent in travelling long distances unnecessarily, with an unbaptized baby!  Just think: if there were an auto accident and the baby were killed, he would die without the priceless gift of baptism.  Why would Catholic parents willingly expose their child to this possibility if they could avoid it?)

Now let’s imagine a different scenario.  Mary and Bob want their newborn baby John to be baptized in their parish of St. Anthony’s, but just before his birth, torrential flooding had caused a bridge to collapse.  It used to take 10 minutes to drive to their parish; now it takes 2 ½ hours or more to reach it by a round-about way—so a round-trip to their parish church now takes at least five hours.  Officials estimate the bridge won’t be repaired for at least six months.

But there’s a Catholic university, with its own chapel and Catholic chaplain, about 20 minutes away in the other direction.  Mary and Bob don’t normally go to Mass there; but the chaplain can certainly see that it’s far easier for them to bring John to the university chapel, than to their own parish.  He can phone the parish and confirm that Mary and Bob are regular parishioners, practicing Catholics who are personally known by the priest.  Under such circumstances, therefore, he should baptize John at the school’s chapel.  Technically, canon 859 would require him to do this anyway; but any priest with common sense really shouldn’t need the law to force him to do this.  Why wouldn’t a Catholic priest be willing to baptize the child of practicing Catholics, who plainly would suffer grave inconvenience in taking him to their parish church?

Presumably by now we have answered Linda’s question.  As it is worded so broadly, the only correct answer is “it depends,” as we have just seen above.  But Joseph’s very specific question is another matter.

It seems that along with others in Joseph’s extended family, his brother has lived in and out of Parish X for years.  Assuming that they have regularly practiced their faith, they should be well known to the other parishioners and former priests of the parish—and their difficult housing situation may be well known too.

It would appear that his brother had already arranged to have his new baby baptized at Parish X, when he was living within the parish’s territory; but before the baptism took place, he had to move his family to another home, located outside of the parish boundaries.  At that point, the new parish priest decided to refuse to baptize the baby.  Can he legally do that?

What we see here is a tragically clear-cut case of failure to appreciate the classic distinction between following the precise letter of the law, and the common-sense spirit of the law.  Strictly speaking, the instant that Joseph’s brother moves his family one inch outside the territory of the parish, and they intend to live there for “one or two years” (as Joseph says), they acquire a new quasi-domicile in a different parish, as per canon 102.2.  If you really want to be stupidly technical about it, this means they should immediately begin to attend the parish where they now live; and the pastor of their new parish is the one who should baptize their baby.

But who are we kidding here?  The fact is, the family moves back and forth over the boundary between two parishes, they have consistently practiced their faith at one of those parishes, and before they moved again, they had already arranged in advance to have their new baby baptized there.  So why on earth would the parish priest suddenly decide to cancel the plans for the baptism, solely because the family just moved across the border into another parish?

The fact is, the law says that under normal circumstances, your parish priest should be the one to baptize you.  But as Joseph has explained here, their circumstances are not normal: people don’t ordinarily have to move back and forth every year or two across a parish boundary.  And in any case, as we’ve just seen above, it does not say that your parish priest is the only one who can baptize you—far from it!  There is nothing in the law which actually forbids the priest in Parish X from baptizing the baby of Joseph’s son; and refusing to do so—after agreeing to do it already, no less!—is obviously going to cause significant inconvenience to the family.  They will have to meet with the pastor of their new parish, explain the situation, perhaps fulfill all the requirements which that parish might impose on all new parents before the baptism of their baby… and in the meantime, the baptism of this baby is being delayed.  It’s a blatant violation of canon 843, which (as we have seen many times before in this space) asserts that the faithful have the right to receive the sacraments, and the clergy cannot deny the sacraments to them.

Joseph’s family has to take this case directly to the diocesan bishop, and explain the unreasonable hardship being created by the new pastor of Parish X; and it’s pretty hard to imagine that the bishop won’t demand that the priest baptize that baby now.  This is a crystal-clear example of outrageous abuse of power by the parish priest—and if (God forbid) something happens to that baby in the interim, causing him to die without baptism, this priest will have to stand before God one day and answer for that.

In contrast, take a look at what then-Pope Benedict XVI said in his 2008 Holy Thursday homily, outlining the correct attitude to be held by those men called by God to priestly ministry:

“You shall never wash my feet,” [Peter] said to Jesus with his usual impetuosity (John 13:8)…. He had to learn repeatedly that God’s greatness is different from our idea of greatness; that it consists precisely in stooping low, in the humility of service, in the radicalism of love even to total self-emptying.

And we too must learn it anew because we systematically desire a God of success and not of the Passion; because we are unable to realize that the Pastor comes as a Lamb that gives itself and thus leads us to the right pasture.

We’ve seen here that the Church does have rules about where a baptism is ordinarily supposed to be celebrated—but also that there are plenty of situations where having a baptism in a different location is permitted, and even required.  Absent any abnormal circumstances, a baptism should not be celebrated in a place other than the parish church; but when an unusual situation does arise, no practicing Catholic should ever have to beg an unwilling priest to celebrate a baptism, so that he or his child can be freed from original sin and reborn as a child of God.

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