Q: Many churches that I and my friends have gone to refuse to perform infant baptisms during Lent, but we know that Canon Law states that Catholic parents are required to have their children baptized within a few weeks of birth. Can churches refuse to baptize infants during Lent?
When did this become the norm, is it an acceptable rule, and why? –Katie
A: Katie isn’t the only one who has ever broached this question. It’s astonishing to find that this problem seems to be fairly common—because the sacramental theology governing the issue is crystal clear. Let’s first take a look at what the Church teaches about the importance of the sacrament of baptism, and then at what the Code of Canon Law and other official church documents have to say on this subject. At that point, it should be quite easy for anyone to logically deduce the answer to Katie’s question.
Most Catholics understand the serious theological ramifications of baptism, but the Catechism nevertheless spells it out:
The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” (CCC 1257)
The Church’s teaching on this sacrament is echoed in canon 849, which repeats the assertion that baptism is “necessary for salvation,” adding that “through baptism men and women are freed from sin, are reborn as children of God, and, configured to Christ by an indelible character, are incorporated into the Church.” The critical importance of baptism should thus be evident to all.
Returning to the Catechism, we find a specific mention of the need to baptize infants, in a paragraph which discusses the sad case of a child who has died before receiving the sacrament:
As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them” (Mark 10:14), allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism. (CCC 1261, emphasis added)
As we have seen in this space so many times before, canon law follows theology. So it isn’t at all surprising to find that in full accord with this paragraph of the Catechism, canon 867.1 states that parents are obliged to see that their infants are baptized within the first few weeks after birth. And the very next paragraph, canon 867.2, adds that if the child is in danger of death, he is to be baptized immediately. (See “How Soon Should a Baby be Baptized?” for more on this.)
Most readers are probably able to figure out the answer to Katie’s question already. But in case even more information is needed, we can turn to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1980 Instruction on Infant Baptism, Pastoralis Actio:
Baptism, which is necessary for salvation, is the sign and the means of God’s prevenient love, which frees us from original sin and communicates to us a share in divine life. Considered in itself, the gift of these blessings to infants must not be delayed. (PA 28, emphasis added)
This same Instruction quotes the Rite for the celebration of the sacrament of baptism, which of course is in complete sync with all of the Church’s official documents that have already been quoted above:
As for the time of the actual celebration, the indications in the Ritual should be followed: “The first consideration is the welfare of the child, that it may not be deprived of the benefit of the sacrament; then the health of the mother must be considered, so that, as far as possible she too may be present. Then, as long as they do not interfere with the greater good of the child, there are pastoral considerations such as allowing sufficient time to prepare the parents and for planning the actual celebration to bring out its paschal character.” Accordingly, “if the child is in danger of death, it is to be baptized without delay”; otherwise, as a rule “an infant should be baptized within the first weeks after birth.” (PA 29, emphasis added)
Armed with all this information about baptism, let’s now consider the scenario that Katie describes. Catholic parents of a newborn child approach their parish priest to request baptism … and are told that their baby can’t be baptized—because it’s Lent, and so they will just have to wait until after Easter.
It’s true that canon law does indeed foresee situations where parents may be told that the baptism of their new baby must be deferred. As we saw in “Can the Pastor Refuse to Baptize Our Child?” a priest is not to baptize a baby unless there is a realistic hope that he/she will be brought up in the Catholic religion (c. 868.1 n.2). In other words, if the child’s parents have no intention of actually raising their baby as a Catholic, then the baptism should not take place until they do. But if you think about it, this delay is actually caused not by the priest who is asked to perform the baptism, but by the parents themselves, who are not—in the estimation of the priest, at least—viewing the baptism of their baby in the way the Church intends.
The situation which Katie describes, however, is different. In this scenario, a Catholic couple requests that their newborn be baptized in the Catholic Church, but the priest refuses—not because the parents are unprepared or unwilling to do what the Church teaches, but because the Lenten season has arrived. In short, the baby is being denied the sacrament of baptism, merely because he happens to have been born at the “wrong” time of year.
After reading through the wording of the canons and other church documents already cited above, it should be quite obvious to everyone that the Church does not foresee any season of the liturgical year when a baptism cannot be administered. The importance of this sacrament is so tremendous that it brooks no meaningful delay! And for that reason, any refusal to celebrate the baptism of a baby—whose parents are prepared and clearly willing to do everything in their power to raise their child as a Catholic—within the “first few weeks of birth” required by the abovementioned canon 867.1 is a blatant violation of their rights. After all, as we have seen many times before in this space, canon 843.1 clearly states that the Catholic faithful have the right to receive the sacraments, so long as they ask for them opportunely (i.e., at an appropriate time), are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them. And there is absolutely nothing in the Code of Canon Law or any other official church document which suggests that the faithful are prohibited by law from having their baby baptized during Lent.
True, as was discussed in “Can the Pastor Set a Minimum Age for Baptism?” it could happen that a family might want to have their baby baptized on a particular date (for example, “We’d love to have the baptism on our wedding anniversary, because then we can have a double celebration afterwards!”) which the parish is unable to accommodate. In many large parishes, it frequently happens that all non-emergency infant baptisms are routinely celebrated at a set time, such as on Saturday mornings, or at the 10:30 AM Mass on Sundays. If the parents—who are already fully prepared in the spiritual sense—really want to have the baptism this week, but parish logistics require them to wait a few days longer, this doesn’t constitute any violation of their rights; it’s merely due to the practical logistics inherent in the operation of a parish.
Given the extensive theological training that Catholic clergy receive in seminary, you honestly have to wonder why a parish priest would think that a baby’s baptism can’t be celebrated during Lent. It could be that in some cultures, where infant baptisms are traditionally occasions for lavish feasts and expensive gift-giving, some priests wish to prevent such extravagant celebrations during the penitential Lenten season. But if that’s the case, it seems fairly easy to explain to the parents that while the baptism can certainly take place during Lent, it would be best to tone down the party that they intend to throw afterwards. This distinction, between the sacrament of baptism itself and the subsequent festivities, is comparable to that of Catholic weddings which are celebrated during Lent, as was discussed in “Can Catholics be Prohibited From Marrying in Lent and Advent?” In other words, it’s fine to celebrate the sacraments during Lent, but at the same time it’s appropriate to later have a reception that is more subdued, as this is more fitting for the Church’s season of penance.
Now Katie has the answer to her question. The Church urges Catholic parents to have their newborn children baptized as soon as possible, so they have a responsibility to prepare for this sacrament promptly. Parish clergy should, at the same time, work with the parents to ensure that their children are baptized into the faith without delay—no matter what time of year it happens to be.