Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 25, 2002
Can unchurched couple baptize baby?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
Do couples have to be married in the Catholic Church to have their child baptized?
Before we can answer that question, we need to clarify our understanding of Baptism.
Unfortunately, sometimes, it seems that we have come to see Baptism as a magic wand that wipes away original sin so that the child can go to heaven. But Baptism is more than that.
The sense of urgency which we have attached to infant Baptism came to us from St. Augustine's elaboration of original sin against the Pelagians.
The latter believed we could attain salvation by our own efforts and denied original sin.
Augustine responded that Baptism was necessary for salvation. It is on this basis that we have practised immediate Baptism of children, although Augustine himself was baptized after many years of vacillation (not uncommon then).
The Church has always tried to ensure that the child be brought up in the faith.
However today, circumstances make us more fully realize the importance of the faith commitment of parents.
Of course, in Baptism, God's grace is bestowed without human conditions. But just as bodily life must be nourished, so too must the life of faith.
Without that, Baptism becomes a superstitious practice which is unworthy of so sacred an event.
It is especially in Paul's writings that we find the meaning of Baptism. Paul is imbued with the Christian being so much a part of Christ, he frequently uses expressions like in Christ, with Christ, for Christ. In Baptism, we are incorporated into Christ.
So just as Christ rose to a new life, so we too are reborn. We die and rise again in Christ (Col 2:12; Eph 2:1-6; Phil 3:10-11).
Hence the importance of the symbolism of Baptism by immersion where we are literally buried under the water and rise to a new life.
Baptism purifies (Eph 5:26) and cleanses us from evil (Heb 10:22). We become "dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Rom 6:11).
The Catechism reiterates the Scriptural texts that Baptism "brings about death to sin and entry into the life of the Most Holy Trinity through configuration to the Paschal mystery of Christ" (n. 1239).
The baptized person "has put on Christ, has risen with Christ" and in Christ is "the light of the world" (n. 1243).
Also, "the newly baptized is now a child of God entitled to say the prayer of the children of God: Our Father" (n. 1243).
We become a new creation through water and the Holy Spirit. We receive the Spirit of adoption and are raised to a new level of our humanity to be truly God's daughters and sons.
By the Holy Spirit, we are formed into a people of God, empowered to live in Christ and in his body, the Church to carry our Christ's commission to the world.
As you can see, to fully appreciate the importance of Baptism, the individual being baptized would have to be a mature adult. That is why today we emphasize the RCIA and Easter Baptism of adults as was the custom in the early Church.
However, we do follow an ancient tradition of the Church and continue to baptize children.
So, we have to realize that the Baptism of a child entails obligations on the part of parents and godparents.
Obviously then, it is they who need to understand the significance of Baptism and its commitments.
But what if the parents aren't married in the Church? I believe only they can address the issue of their marriage status which is not unimportant.
However, it seems to me that the more fundamental questions we have to ask are: Do they understand the significance and meaning of Baptism? Are they willing to teach the faith to this child and live it themselves? Are they committed to bringing this child up to become what Baptism has made her/him to be?
We can take their request for Baptism for the child as a sign of their desire to be Church. Those who give baptismal preparation to parents need to emphasize the real meaning of Baptism as many of us, even the most faithful Catholics, haven't fully grasped it.
Without this baptismal preparation, parents are not normally allowed to have their child baptized, which in itself is a significant statement of the Church.
Therefore, this becomes one of the most receptive times and probably the most teachable moment we have for adult Catholics.
And who knows where the Holy Spirit will lead?