Pastoral Priorities Concerning Infant Baptism
Roger Nesbitt FAITH Magazine September - October 2007
These thoughts on parish policy towards infant baptism may seem somewhat controversial, especially to those clergy of the younger generation who are so convinced of the importance of preparation courses. However, they are the fruit of forty years of priestly reflection and pastoral experience and I offer them in the sincere belief that we are today, maybe for noble motives, making access to baptism too difficult for people and therefore restricting the operation of the grace of God and the ability of the Spirit of God to blow where he pleases.
My “baptismal policy” could be described briefly: I will baptise any child provided one parent is Catholic and that he or she expresses the desire to bring the child up in the faith. At first I am not primarily concerned about the marital status of the parents and I do not subject them to any sort of test to ascertain their degree of practising or not practising of the faith. This is not because I am unconcerned about the moral state of the parents but because I do not believe in depriving a child of the grace of God because of the spiritual weaknesses of its parents, or in using a child in an attempt to persuade its parents to live more virtuously. The child is innocent, it is in need of the grace of God, its parents wish it to be baptised – who am I to stop such a little one from coming to Jesus Christ.
Obviously I would like the parents to be married in the Catholic Church and to be practising their faith. But we do not live in an ideal world. Who knows the struggle of a Catholic parent with a non-Catholic partner, or in an irregular relationship, who comes to us seeking baptism for their child. Who knows of the prayers and yearning of a grandparent for that child to come to baptism? If we refuse baptism to children on the grounds of their parents’ irregular life style, these children will almost certainly never go to Catholic schools and will, therefore, almost certainly be lost to the Church entirely. Their parents, whose faith is obviously weak and whose formation was possibly very defective anyway, may well feel rejected or not good enough and will give up on the Church altogether. Whole extended families could lose any relationship with the Church. To refuse baptism to the children of people who somehow fail to live up to our ideal of what it
means to be a Catholic is surely equivalent to “quenching the smouldering flax” or “crushing the broken reed”.
My experience is that, even if the parents and godparents are weak in the practice of the faith, among the others who are present at the ceremony one will almost always find some, often a small minority but an important one, who take the faith seriously and are practising. It might be the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, friends – these are the true godparents(even if not legally so) and together they make up the real community among whom the child will grow up and who will influence the child by their love, example and prayers. This is the existential reality of any baptism – the grace of Christ is truly present, but not where we might expect or want it to be.
Many of us know examples where Catholic children from lapsed homes have made remarkable spiritual growth despite the lack of practice in their families. Twelve years ago I baptised a child of lapsed parents who would undoubtedly not have passed the rigorous standards of practice demanded in so many parishes now. However, because he had been baptised, he went to the local Catholic school where he was positively influenced. He has now made his first Confession and Holy Communion, is serving regularly at Mass and is preparing for Confirmation. Last year I received two adults into full communion who had been baptised as infants but never brought up in the faith. One could go on and on with similar stories of parents whose faith has revived later on because they were kindly and sympathetically dealt with when they requested baptism for their children.
To make the point more strongly, I know of at least four priests who have come from families who were not practising when they were brought for baptism as infants, but who through the influence of a school, or priests, teachers or grandparents were led to strong and deep faith and then to ordination. I include myself among them. We must not underestimate or limit the grace of God and its influence as a living reality in the Church. Children are baptised into the wider family of the Church. Even though we know that their domestic family is the first place where they should learn the faith, in truth many only really begin to learn it, if at all, in the Catholic School which is increasingly having to b e in loco parentisi n a unique way and which links the child to the wider Church family through the parish. As the Catechism puts it: “The Church is the place where the Spirit flourishes.”
At the level of pastoral practice, I believe strongly that parish priests should make the arrangement of baptisms easy. Knowing the very real difficulties that so many people experience simply trying to survive in the modern world and knowing also how easily weak faith can be crushed, we should strive to be flexible and kind when dealing with parents. Very often they are only too well aware of their failures and shortcomings and not infrequently they are bowed down with guilt because they do not live as they know they should – they do not need a priest to lecture them on their inadequacies. Often they are hyper-sensitive to rejection and pick up immediately on the psychological message given by the well meaning priest while he explains why he is “deferring” the baptism of their child. The message is simple: “You (and your child) are not good enough to belong to this Church” – and they go away sad and humiliated, often never to darken the door of a church again.
The days of superstition and social pressure to have “the baby done” are all but over in Britain. It is my experience that almost all parents who present their children for baptism nowadays have some kind of faith. It may be implicit and unformed, but for all that it is no less real. It is a desire – often born out of the painful self-awareness of having failed in their own lives – at least to do what is right for the child, to have God’s blessing on their son or daughter. I believe we should accept this implicit faith as that which is required by the Church for the administration of the sacrament and work on it, trying through all our other pastoral practice to fan the smouldering ember into a flame. I do not believe that baptism should be used as a bargaining chip to pressurise those we consider un-virtuous towards virtue, or as a reward for those who conform to our ideal standards. If the parish priest is welcoming and friendly with all parents, no matter what their personal situation, the word soon goes around the area that he is an understanding priest and quickly so many others who have one way or another been made to feel unworthy of the sacrament come forward to have their children baptised.
Much more could be written on this subject. However, let me conclude with one final observation. In my experience, the vast number of practising Catholics – when asked – agree with the proposition that the children should not be deprived of the sacrament of baptism because their parents do not practise the faith. The reason for this overwhelming consensus is clear: ordinary Catholics actually believe the teaching of the Church on the necessity of baptism for salvation, they therefore know that it is important for a child to be baptised and they also have an immediate perception that it is simply unjust for a child to be deprived of baptism and therefore of God’s grace because of the spiritual defects of its parents. The preoccupation with preparation courses and minimal standards of practice as a precondition for baptism is almost entirely a clerical one based on an erroneous theology of grace and an unwelcome rigidity in pastoral theory. I believe it is a misplaced enthusiasm which has yielded very little in the way of desired results and which has caused a great deal of alienation and hurt.
After all, it was the Lord himself who warned us that much seed would fall on shallow or stony ground or would be choked by weeds later on. Yet the Sower, the Son of God, still went out and sowed – for he is prodigal in the distribution of his grace. Let us follow his example, for after all it is his Church and his Grace, and the principle is self-evident: the more seeds you sow, the more plants will grow especially, it seems to me, in time of famine.