Can the Priest Refuse to Baptize Our Baby, Since We’re Married Outside the Church?

Q: I am a Catholic who was married in a Hindu ceremony, and now we have a baby girl. We wish to baptize her in the parish, but our priest is refusing to do that, since our marriage was not sacramented [sic] in any church. He says we need to convert my wife first into Christianity and thereafter we can do baptism of our daughter.
I request that you show me the way forward to do baptism of our daughter without converting my wife.  –Saji

(Later update:) The parish priest in consultation with the bishop asked us to rectify our marriage in the church.
I would request you to guide us further on this matter and how to take it forward without rectifying the marriage in Catholic Church. –Saji

A: Readers shouldn’t feel frustrated if they are confused by this question, because Saji’s story doesn’t add up.  Let’s reframe the matter in more straightforward terms: Can a priest refuse to baptize the child of a Catholic who was married outside the Church?  Once we have laid out the general rules, it should be easier to tackle Saji’s specific situation.

As we saw in “Can the Pastor Refuse to Baptize Our Child?” parish priests are not supposed to baptize babies indiscriminately.  Canon 868.1 n. 2 asserts that there should be a realistic hope that the child will be brought up in the Catholic faith; and if such hope is lacking, the baptism is to be deferred and the parents are to be advised of the reasons for this.

Unfortunately, the need to defer baptisms certainly does arise, as there are many parents who may have been raised Catholic themselves, but who no longer take their faith seriously—and when they have children of their own, they regard baptism as no more than a traditional social event, that is important for merely cultural reasons.  After the baptism (and the lavish party, the photographs, and the expensive gift-giving) is over, parents like these will give no thought whatsoever to their grave responsibility to see to the spiritual formation of their child in the Catholic faith (cf. c. 226.2).  This is a clear-cut abuse of the sacrament, which pastors naturally seek to avoid.

But can’t you raise your children in the Catholic faith, if you yourself are in an irregular marriage situation?  Shouldn’t the marital situation of the parents be irrelevant?  Superficially, the answer would appear to be an unequivocal “yes,” and so one might be tempted to conclude immediately that the parents’ invalid marriage outside the Church should never be a factor in deferring the baptism of a child.  However, since situations and motivations can vary widely, this question is more complicated than one might think!  Let’s look at a couple of fictitious scenarios, and then it should be clear that the correct answer to this question is, “it depends.”

Let’s say that Gerry (who was raised Catholic) married Martha (a Lutheran) in her Lutheran parish.  At the time, Gerry had fallen away from his faith, and it made little difference to him where they got married.  Now, however, Gerry has started attending Mass again.  He realizes that his marriage is not valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church—since it was not celebrated in accord with the canonical form which Catholics are required to follow (c. 1108.1; see also “Why Can a Parish Priest Annul This Marriage?” for more on this).

Gerry would gladly sort out his marriage situation, so that his marriage to Martha is considered valid by the Church; but the problem is, Martha was married before, and obtained a civil divorce from her first husband.  Her marriage to Gerry, therefore, cannot be rectified in the Catholic Church unless it can first be shown that her previous marriage was invalid.  This means that even though she is not a Catholic, Martha needs to obtain an annulment (a situation that was discussed in “Why Would Non-Catholics Get an Annulment?”).  Martha has agreed to do this, and already petitioned for a declaration of nullity of her first marriage; but she and Gerry are still waiting for a decision from the diocesan Marriage Tribunal.  In the meantime their son was born.

Technically, of course, Martha and Gerry are still in an invalid marriage, which is hardly an ideal situation—but to their credit, they are trying to straighten it out.  Gerry has every intention of practicing his Catholic faith from now on, and he indicates to the pastor of his parish that he will be sure to raise his newborn son in the Catholic faith as well.  In such a situation, it should be pretty obvious that there is indeed a well founded hope that the child will be raised Catholic, even though his parents are not currently married in the eyes of the Catholic Church.  So why would anybody argue against baptizing Gerry’s son?  Canonically, therefore, Gerry’s parish priest shouldn’t hesitate for an instant to agree to baptize this baby.

But now let’s imagine a different situation.  Jon (an agnostic) married Paula (a Catholic) in a civil wedding ceremony.  Paula hasn’t practiced her faith for years.  When their baby was born, Paula’s parents pressured her to have the baby baptized in their Catholic parish, because “it’s the right thing to do.”  When Paula approached the pastor of her parents’ parish, who didn’t know her at all, he questioned her and discovered that she has no particular interest in living her own life as a Catholic, much less teaching the faith to her child.  Paula became particularly indignant when the priest observed—rightly—that she was not married in the eyes of the Church, and explained to her that she and Jon could easily straighten out the situation (see “What Does it Mean to Have Your Marriage Blessed? Part I” for more on this).  While her husband would probably be amenable to the idea, Paula objected that this priest had no business telling her what to do, and pointed out that her parents are long-time parishioners, who have donated large amounts over the years to the upkeep of the church building.

It should be fairly clear that in this imaginary scenario, the problem isn’t simply that Paula is not married in the eyes of the Catholic Church.  No, the problem is much broader in scope than that!  She is making it abundantly clear that although she could practice her Catholic faith—and validating her currently invalid marriage would be a part of that—she isn’t interested.  Her request to have her baby baptized stems from her parents’ insistence, and there is no reason to believe that Paula would make any effort to raise her child in the faith.  Consequently, this is a very easy case for the pastor of the parish which Paula’s parents attend: as per canon 868.1 n.2, mentioned above, the baptism has to be deferred until Paula understands the connection between baptizing her baby, and living her Catholic faith.

Thus as we can see, there is no “one size fits all” answer to the question of whether to baptize the child of parents married outside the Church.  Now let’s take a look at Saji’s situation and see what we can determine.

Saji is Catholic, and he married a Hindu woman in a Hindu ceremony.  He seems to understand that his marriage is not valid; the priest is refusing to baptize his daughter because his marriage “was not sacramented in any church.”  But what he claims the priest first told him is hard to swallow: Saji asserts that the priest won’t baptize the baby unless the Hindu mother first becomes a Catholic.

You don’t have to be a canon lawyer to realize the absurdity of such an alleged demand.  As was seen in “Do Catholic Parents Have to Raise Their Children as Catholics?” the question of raising children Catholic, even when one of their parents is not Catholic, has been with us for many generations.  In the nearly 2000-year history of the Catholic Church, it has never demanded that the non-Catholic parent first become a Catholic, before the baby can be baptized in the Church.  This would constitute a completely unreasonable requirement, involving violation of the conscience of the non-Catholic parent!  Consequently, it’s rather hard to imagine that a Catholic parish priest would have said this to Saji.

From what happened next, it appears that the priest never in fact claimed that Saji’s wife has to become Catholic, and that Saji misstated the problem.  For when he next asked the diocesan bishop to weigh in on the situation, the bishop apparently backed the parish priest, and said that Saji’s daughter cannot be baptized.  But now Saji claims that the problem is that he and his wife were asked to rectify their irregular marriage situation… and he is refusing to do that.

It’s not hard to read between the lines, and see the fuller picture here.  Saji is a Catholic in an invalid marriage, who is unwilling to take steps to have his marriage validated in the eyes of the Church.  If there is some reason why Saji is actually unable to do this, he certainly has not mentioned it.  Since both the parish priest and the diocesan bishop have told him that the baby cannot be baptized, it would appear that they’ve concluded that Saji isn’t practicing his faith, and isn’t showing them that he will raise his daughter as a Catholic.

The priest’s and bishop’s demand that Saji straighten out his marriage situation in the Catholic Church is presumably only one component of the solution.  A valid Catholic marriage is only a start!  Thus it’s extremely misleading to complain that “the priest refused to baptize my baby because I’m married to a non-Catholic,” or “because I’m not married in the Church.”

Note that Saji somehow expects to use canon law to overrule both his parish priest and his diocesan bishop, so he can get what he wants without doing what they require.  Needless to say, it doesn’t work that way.  It’s a tragedy that this baby girl apparently will not be raised a Catholic, but this is in no way the fault of the priest and/or the bishop.  It is entirely her father’s choice.

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