Week of November 29, 1999
Can my granddaughter go to church?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
My daughter's mother-in-law told her that she couldn't bring her newborn baby to church until it had been baptized because it only had a pagan soul and not a spiritual soul. I have never heard of such a thing. What do you think she could mean?
My first thought was that this idea came from a misunderstanding of speculation by some early theologians regarding ensoulment, that is, the timing of the soul's entrance into the body of the newly-conceived child. They thought that maybe there was first a sensitive and vegetative soul before the spiritual or human soul.
However, in the fourth century Gregory of Nyssa taught that the human soul is infused into the embryo at the moment of conception. That is what the Church has believed and still does today.
More probably, the reference is to the belief in original sin being inherited by all. Early Christian thinkers believed that Baptism brought forgiveness of sins. A number of them delayed Baptism until just before death or at least until they were ready to settle down and lead holy lives.
When Baptism began to be given to children, parents sometimes delayed it until after the turbulence of adolescence for the same reason.
From the second century, the practice of baptizing infants grew. And so the question of sin for babies has to be answered.
That is when the strong emphasis on original sin's role in Baptism developed. Some believed that infants who died without Baptism suffered eternal punishment.
Others thought it wasn't logical that a good God would punish for something for which one was not responsible. So they suggested that instead of going either to hell or heaven, unbaptized babies would enjoy natural happiness but would be deprived of seeing God. They remained just outside of heaven, just on its border (limbus in Latin).
And that was, in general, what we believed until Vatican II, even though limbo was never an official doctrine of the Church.
However, a much richer concept of Baptism is evident in Paul and in the richly symbolic personal and communal experience of Baptism during the early Christian period.
In accord with these early Christian views, Vatican II's document on the liturgy uses scriptural terminology for Baptism, indicating that those baptized are "plunged into the paschal mystery of Christ: they die with him, are buried with him and rise with him."
Similarly, a new emphasis on the scriptural aspects appears in the Revised Rite of Baptism for Children (1969). It speaks of incorporation into the body of Christ, being born to a new life and living by the light of faith.
To highlight its ecclesial nature, Baptism normally is performed in the context of Mass where the whole community is present to welcome a new member of the body of Christ.
In addition, parents are required to take a preparation program of theological instruction. If they are not willing to raise the child in the Catholic Christian faith, then a 1980 instruction indicates that the Baptism be postponed indefinitely.
Therefore, it appears to me that the idea proposed in your question may relate to the strong belief we had in the state of sin of the unbaptized child who then would not be worthy to be in the church until brought for baptism. But I'd have to ask about the adult who may be in a state of sin.
And I'd have to wonder what concept of God we have, as well as our understanding of the Gospel presence of Jesus with sinners. And what better place would there be for a sinner than in the presence of the One who came to heal and to save.