What Happens When the Clergy Refuse to Baptize, Because of the Virus?

Q1 (March 2020): We had a baby earlier this week, and a few days later the diocese announced that all baptisms are suspended indefinitely except in danger of death, due to coronavirus.  I want her baptized as soon as possible but who knows how long this will continue.  What’s a parent to do? –Emily

Q2 (April 2020): I am delivering my seventh baby in two weeks.  I have been informed that priests are being encouraged to only do baptisms in an emergency.  I have been encouraged to delay my baby’s baptism.  Otherwise I can schedule a baptism but only ten people can be there due to coronavirus. How do I welcome a baby into the church family without even all his siblings there?  I read canon law and it states lay people can perform baptisms out of necessity. What is defined as necessity? –Samantha

Q3 (June 2020):  Someone on twitter said that we cannot baptize a dying person without their consent.  Are we allowed to baptize someone who appears to be dying without their consent? Like do a conditional one?
Back a few months ago, I instructed my sister how to baptize in case of emergency.  The instructions were for her niece as her children were sick with the flu and they feared that it could have been coronavirus.  My sister, a Catholic, baptized her 9-year-old granddaughter two weeks ago.  My niece was never raised in the Catholic faith, although [she was] baptized as an infant.  She believes that children should make their own decisions when they’re adults.  Should my sister contact her pastor?  Do I need to tell her that she shouldn’t baptize the other two children?  One is 17 and the other is one year old. –Theresa

A:  The surreal cancellation of normal Catholic life by so many bishops around the world “because of the virus” has created difficult sacramental situations which no reasonable Catholic could ever have expected to face.  One of them, as can be seen here, involves the baptism of infants/children.  When parents have met (or are willing to meet) all the required conditions for the baptism of their new baby—conditions discussed at length in “Can the Pastor Refuse to Baptize Our Child?” and “How Soon Should a Baby be Baptized?”—many have been utterly flabbergasted in recent months to discover that in many cases their bishop has nevertheless forbidden baptisms to be celebrated, “because of the virus.”  What are these parents supposed to do?

Before delving into the canonical aspects of this situation, it’s worth noting for the record that none of these bishops is able to explain exactly how the baptism of a baby supposedly puts people at risk of catching the virus.  And even if they could somehow come up with a convincing scientific argument in support of this claim, the question would still have to be asked, “Why is the risk of possibly catching a bodily illness of greater importance than the freeing of a newborn child from the shackles of original sin?”  As the Catechism tells us,

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).

“Because of the virus,” however, the Church in many parts of the world has indeed “neglect[ed] the mission she has received from the Lord,” and left parents flailing—prompting quite a few queries like Emily’s.  After reading her question, it’s a fairly safe bet that many readers immediately thought they knew the answer, which may seem straightforward.  But as can be seen by the next two questions, this issue can be more complicated than one might think.  Let’s first review the Church’s laws on administering the sacrament of baptism, and then tackle each question in turn; and it should become painfully clear that when the clergy turn their backs on the faithful when they seek the sacraments … the result can be a real mess.

Back when we were living in normal times, the Church correctly urged parents to have their newborn children baptized quickly!  As canon 867.1 tells us,

Parents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks; as soon as possible after the birth or even before it, they are to go to the pastor to request the sacrament for their child and to be prepared properly for it. 

The obvious implication is that when parents carry out this obligation, their parish priest will cooperate.  But as has been discussed many times before in this space, when there’s no cleric available, anybody can validly baptize, including non-Catholics and even non-Christians.  Canon 861.2 explains:

When an ordinary minister is absent or impeded, a catechist or another person designated for this function by the local ordinary, or in a case of necessity any person with the right intention, confers baptism licitly.  Shepherds of souls, especially the pastor of a parish, are to be concerned that the Christian faithful are taught the correct way to baptize.  (Emphasis added)

So in Emily’s case, she can just baptize the baby herself, right?  Not so fast.  Note that Emily says that “the diocese announced” that baptisms were suspended, which presumably means a statement was issued from the chancery.  This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that the priest at Emily’s parish will refuse to help her!  As was discussed at length in “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?” an illegal order should not be followed—and a bishop ordering his clergy to refuse baptism to the newborn children of the parish is of course blatantly illegal, as well as indescribably cruel.  Before jumping the gun and deciding to baptize your baby yourself,  first contact the parish priest directly, and ask him if he will do it.  As a parish priest here in Rome told me recently, “I cannot imagine any priest would refuse to do this!”

As canon 857.1 tells us, apart from a case of necessity, the proper place for baptism is a church or oratory.  If a priest of Emily’s parish quietly agrees to baptize the baby at church, then there is no problem whatsoever.  If for some reason he can’t baptize the baby at church—maybe the police are watching the church, because out-of-control civil officials have unconstitutionally ordered the churches to be closed, or perhaps the priest fears that another priest at the parish will report the baptism to the bishop if he finds out about it—the priest can simply come to Emily’s house, and administer the baptism there.  This would be a classic example of the “case of necessity” mentioned in canon 857.1.

If, incredibly, Emily can’t get a priest from her parish to agree to baptize the baby, then she certainly can phone another parish and see if she can find a priest who is more reasonable—and then the baby can be baptized there.  Note that as a rule, and unless a just reason suggests otherwise, a baby should be baptized in his parents’ parish church (c. 857.2); but once again, this is a classic case of a “just reason [that] suggests otherwise.”  As was discussed at length in “When Can We Have Our Child Baptized at a Different Parish?” such a baptism, under the circumstances, would be both valid and licit.

Keep in mind that if a priest baptizes the baby, you needn’t worry about it being done incorrectly, because he knows how to do it right!  On top of that, if the baby is baptized by a parish priest, the priest will record the baptism in the parish baptismal register, so there will always be a written record that this child was baptized a Catholic (see “Canon Law and Marriage Records” for a detailed discussion of the critical importance of maintaining such records).

But let’s say that Emily phones every Catholic priest within driving distance, and can’t find a single one who will help her.  As she tells us in her question, baptisms are “suspended indefinitely” in her diocese, so she has no idea when her new baby could possibly be baptized in the usual way.  At this point, unquestionably, “an ordinary minister is absent or impeded” as per the abovementioned canon 861.2, and Emily or her husband should baptize the baby at home.  This presumes, of course, that they know how to baptize properly—do they?  The validity of their baby’s baptism hinges on the answer.  Here’s a short video explaining clearly and simply what you need to do in order to baptize someone validly in case of necessity.

Note that if Emily or her husband baptizes the baby at home, the story doesn’t end there.  As soon as possible, they have to contact their parish and tell the priest what happened, and the priest should want to do two things:
(1) As soon as possible, the parents should bring the baby to the church so that the priest can complete the baptismal ceremony: among other things the priest anoints the baby with chrism, says the exorcism prayers, etc.
(2) The parish priest has to record the baby’s baptism in the parish baptismal register (cf. c. 878).  He will probably make a notation in the record as to the unusual circumstances surrounding it.

The priest will of course also want to ask the parents what exactly they did, when they baptized the child.  If for some reason the priest doesn’t believe that the baby was baptized validly, he will want to baptize the child conditionally himself, after explaining to the parents why he thinks the baptism was not performed correctly (cf. c 869.1 and 869.3).

Ideally, of course, the person to be baptized has at least one godparent (cc. 872 and 873; see “Can Non-Catholics Serve as Baptismal Sponsors?” and “Can a Lapsed Catholic Be a Godparent?” for more on the role of sponsors).  But in extreme circumstances like these, it’s understandable if a sponsor cannot be present—and it definitely does not affect the validity of the baptism.  In this situation, canon 875 is particularly important: it tells us that if a godparent is not present at the baptism, at least one witness ought to be there, to prove that the baptism did indeed take place.  Again, this is not necessary for validity; but such a person should logically be able to corroborate what happened, when the parents later explain it all to the priest.  Perhaps it might also prove very helpful later on, if you ever have to baptize someone yourself, to have somebody record the baptism on a cell-phone—so as to prove that you did it, and to show the priest, if necessary, precisely how the baptism was performed.

Emily’s situation seems fairly clear-cut, but Samantha’s is far less so.  She tells us that in her diocese, “priests are being encouraged” to refrain from celebrating baptisms, except in emergencies, and she herself has “been encouraged to delay” the baptism of her baby.  Well, “being encouraged” isn’t synonymous with “forbidden,” so right away we have to question what is really happening in this case.

Samantha then states that if she does nevertheless want her baby to be baptized (as any Catholic parent should!), she “can schedule a baptism but only ten people can be there.”  So how does this constitute a problem?   Samantha answers that question herself: “How do I welcome a baby into the church family without even all his siblings there?”

It’s pretty clear that what Samantha really wants is not simply a baptism (which she clearly can have!), but a baptism with a lot of family members present.  Since the rule in her diocese specified that only ten people could be there in the church … Samantha wants to baptize the baby herself at home, where more than ten people can be in attendance.  And so she is hoping that this constitutes “a case of necessity,” which would, as per canon 861.2, render such a baptism licit.

It’s probably obvious right away to most readers that wanting a lot of people to attend your baby’s baptism certainly does not amount to a “case of necessity”!  But it doesn’t appear that Samantha fully grasps that what is important is the baptism itself, not the family celebration.  It is the parish priest, not Samantha, who “welcomes a baby into the church family,” and the presence or absence of “all his siblings” is completely irrelevant.  As we already know, Samantha could baptize her own baby validly—but in such circumstances it would be absolutely illicit.  Remember: just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you necessarily should.

This is what happens when bishops abandon their flocks, and leave them to figure out how best sacramentally to fend for themselves!  If diocesan bishops weren’t illegally prohibiting the sacraments left and right these days “because of the virus,” the Catholic faithful wouldn’t be second-guessing what they’re being told—and, like Samantha, flipping through the Code of Canon Law on their own and trying to interpret and apply it to suit themselves.

And nowhere is this more clear than in the hopelessly confused case described by Theresa.  If you can manage to wade through the sister-niece-granddaughter morass she presents, consider yourself fortunate—but if you can’t, in the end it actually doesn’t matter.  What took place here was utterly wrong on multiple fronts, and illustrates why the laity shouldn’t take it upon themselves to baptize anybody without bothering at least to educate themselves on the matter first.

For starters, Theresa says she explained to her sister how to baptize in an emergency, because the “children were sick with the flu and they feared that it could have been coronavirus.”  The question has to be asked: who feared this?  It doesn’t sound like any medical professionals were involved here at all.  And while we’re at it, how many nine-year-olds around the world have died of this coronavirus?  It would seem that Theresa’s family had a sick child, and without seeking medical advice they wrongly concluded on their own that she (a) had coronavirus, and (b) was dying.

Secondly, Theresa doesn’t even mention whether the bishop of her family’s diocese had forbidden baptisms to be performed, even in danger of death!  If there was no (illegal) prohibition, then why didn’t the family call the priest, explain the situation, and ask him to come to baptize the child who was supposedly dying?  And even if the bishop had ordered diocesan clergy to refrain from baptizing even the dying (in violation of Catholic theology, canon law, and common sense), it would be only reasonable to phone the parish priest, to see if he would do it anyway.  This particular aspect mirrors Emily’s situation above.  There’s no indication that the family did any of these things.

Thirdly, Theresa indicates that the mother of the child who was baptized “was never raised in the Catholic faith, although [she was] baptized as an infant.  She believes that children should make their own decisions when they’re adults.”  Was the mother baptized a Catholic? or what?  And if she herself isn’t a Catholic, why would she want her child baptized a Catholic?  If anything, it sounds like there was no parent who approved of the baptism.

But as objectionable as that may sound, the fact that the child had already reached the age of nine makes it even worse.  That’s because, as we saw in “Canon Law and Non-Infant Baptism,” children who are over the age of seven are no longer legally considered to be “infants” for the purposes of baptism (c. 97.2).  Once a child reaches the age of seven, he is presumed to have the use of reason, and is then considered to be sui compos, or capable of personal responsibility for his actions.  (Some of the legal ramifications of the term sui compos, and its opposite, non sui compos, were discussed in detail in “Can a Pope Ever Resign?”)  If he hasn’t been baptized yet, the Church holds that a child who has reached the age of seven has to decide for himself whether or not he wants to become a Catholic—his parents can no longer make the decision for him.

Incredibly, there’s more!  Theresa’s first questions are ominous: “Are we allowed to baptize someone who appears to be dying without their consent?  Like do a conditional one?”  It certainly sounds like neither the child nor her mother consented to the baptism, doesn’t it?  You even have to wonder whether the child was adamantly opposed to being baptized by her grandmother, who may perhaps have baptized her when she was asleep and unaware of it.  Otherwise there would be no reason for Theresa to be asking about these things.

For the record, the answer is no, absolutely not!  It makes absolutely no theological sense to baptize a person against his will, and it would of course be totally illicit.  And with regard to children, we saw in “Can a Baby be Baptized Against the Parents’ Wishes?” that outside of danger of death, an infant is not to be baptized against the will of his parents (c. 868.2).  As for “do[ing] a conditional one,” well, Theresa plainly doesn’t understand what a “conditional baptism” is: as we’ve seen already, a person is to be baptized conditionally if, and only if, there was doubt as to the validity of his baptism.

Finally, Theresa wants to know if she should tell her sister not to baptize the other children, aged 17 and one year.  Why on earth would this even be necessary?  Is her sister randomly baptizing people of all ages willy-nilly because they might all be dying of coronavirus?

If your head is spinning by this point, you’ve grasped the sheer madness of this situation.  It would be difficult to imagine another action which violates so many canons simultaneously.  Theresa needs to talk to a parish priest immediately and see whether he can sort this chaos out, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.  Because the priest probably doesn’t already have enough to do, he will also have to figure out the ramifications of this illicit baptism—assuming that it was done validly!—since the girl was baptized a Catholic and technically should now be raised as one.  If she really doesn’t want to be a Catholic, that naturally poses a problem.

Note that this mess was created, in part because “someone on twitter said.”  If anybody needs an example of what can happen when laypeople who are clearly ignorant of sacramental theology take it upon themselves to baptize people on their own … here you go.

So now we’ve seen that while laypeople can validly and licitly baptize when there’s no cleric available to do it for them, this is not something to be undertaken lightly.  Beyond a doubt, there are some Catholics out there who have wrongly been put in this do-it-yourself situation by their diocesan clergy, who have heartlessly (and illegally) abandoned them “because of the virus.”  But at the same time, there are plenty of other Catholics who can—and therefore should—leave the baptizing to the parish clergy.  Before deciding that you should baptize a person on your own, maybe it’s best to ask?

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