Unauthorized Baptism

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Unauthorized Baptism

ROME, 3 OCT. 2006 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I was asked the following question: A woman explained that her son was Catholic, though not a practicing one, who married a Jewish girl and they never had their baby baptized. This woman dearly wanted the child baptized. One day, after Mass, on the way out she stopped at the holy water fount, took some holy water and sprinkled it over the baby's head saying "I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." She wanted to know if that was all right to do and sufficient for the child's baptism. — C.C., Fall River, Massachusetts

A: The question must be answered on two levels: If baptizing the child was the right thing to do; if the woman's actions constituted a valid baptism.

The first question is rather delicate because although the grandmother deeply desired the child's baptism, the education of children usually falls upon the parents who are called to be the primary educators of children.

Canon law (Canon 868) also requires that for an infant to be baptized licitly:

"1. the parents or at least one of them or the person who legitimately takes their place must consent.

"2. there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic Religion; if such hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be delayed according to the prescripts of particular law after the parents have been advised about the reason."

At the same time the canon specifies that "An infant of Catholic parents or even of non-Catholic parents is baptized licitly in danger of death even against the will of the parents."

Even though there are clear historical examples of grandmothers who secretly baptized children under atheistic Communist regimes, this does not appear to be the present case. The baptism should not have been done without the parents' consent.

Also, only the priest and deacons are ordinary ministers of the sacrament of baptism and can perform all of the rites. In some extreme conditions where there are no ordained ministers available, lay people have been authorized to perform the essential rites.

An unauthorized lay person should not perform a baptism except in cases of imminent danger of death or other dire situations where not even an authorized lay minister is available.

With respect to the second question regarding the validity of the baptism. As we have seen, the grandmother, no matter how sincere her motives, acted against Church law and should not be imitated. From the description of what she did, however, it would appear to have been a valid baptism and the child is truly baptized. All the same, in order to be certain, it would be necessary for her to give a detailed description of what she did to a priest in case she committed an error regarding matter or form that would cast doubt on the baptism's validity.

What to do? It depends on many factors, but sooner or later the parents should be informed. The grandmother could perhaps avoid having to reveal what she has done by asking permission from the parents to allow her to have the child baptized in a private ceremony, with just herself and the priest, and then take charge of its religious upbringing. If the parents consent, then she could have a priest or deacon complete the baptismal rites and formally register the baptism.

If the parents are very much opposed, then there is little to be done other than to await a suitable moment to inform them that their child is already baptized.

In all cases she should do all in her power to transmit the faith to the child, above all though her living witness to the Catholic faith.

* * *

Follow-up: Unauthorized Baptism [10-17-2006]

Several readers wrote in reply to our Oct. 3 column on unauthorized baptism by a grandmother.

A California reader asked: "You remarked that a child should not be baptized if there were no assurance he would be brought up Catholic. What happened to the old idea of baptizing a child whose parents were lackadaisical Catholics in the hope that the grace of the sacrament would bring him back into the Church? That seems to make more sense than not to baptize him at all."

The two cases are not quite the same. As our reader points out, the Church will usually proceed with baptism in the case of children whose parents are less then assiduous in practicing their faith. This is both for the good of the child and because pastoral experience shows that the occasion of a child's baptism can often awaken the parents from their religious torpor.

Even if this does not happen, there is usually a reasonable hope that the child will be offered some opportunity for religious education at the time of first Communion and confirmation.

In the case we dealt with, only one parent was Christian and both had decided not to baptize the child. So there was fairly scant hope of the child being given a Christian upbringing.

Some reasonable, albeit far from certain, assurance of a Christian education is required before baptism. This is because — barring extraordinary interventions — sacramental grace is called to be developed within the context of a constantly developing relationship with God and God's family, the Church.

This contextual development of the life of grace is something willed by God as grace perfects, but does not substitute, the natural process of human flourishing.

Regarding the validity of the baptism a reader pointed out: "A baptism using the proper intention, form and matter is always valid ... though perhaps illicit. The child was, in fact, baptized and should be recorded as such. The matter that the parent did not agree is moot in regards sacramental action."

Our reader is correct that the validity depends on the correct intent and the use of the proper matter and form and that the parent's opposition has no bearing at all on the baptism's sacramental validity. This point was made in the original article.

Where our reader goes beyond the original article, and rightly so, is with regards to the registration of the baptism. I had proposed a strategy through which the grandmother could achieve the baptism while avoiding a family feud. However, if this were not possible, then the parish priest should duly register the baptism while noting the special circumstances.

The grandmother should then take the necessary prudential steps to inform the parents, even, as a last resort, in her will, in order to avoid a possible future invalid baptismal ceremony of a person who is already a member of Christ's mystical body.

A rather unusual e-mail came from South Africa: "A couple in our parish had a premature baby who was seriously ill, and in fact, in danger of dying. The baby was kept in an incubator in the intensive care unit of the local hospital. The parents desired the child to be baptized, but because of the medical circumstances, it was not practical.

"The priest then baptized the infant's brother 'by proxy,' that is, the brother was not baptized, but was baptized on behalf of the infant who was in danger of death.

"Is baptism by proxy allowed in these circumstances? What would the rite be? For example, which child's name does the priest say? Could the priest baptize 'through' the glass of the hospital without water? If baptism by proxy is allowed, can one extend that to the other sacraments? Do pastoral needs supersede the liturgical norms, as circumstances require?"

Sad though it is, as the child in question eventually died, it is necessary to admit that the priest made a grave mistake by this action.

The only sacrament that may be celebrated by proxy is matrimony. All of the others require some degree of physical presence and contact of the person receiving the sacrament.

This is not something that the Church can change for she has received the sacraments, along with their inherent limitations, from Christ himself.

In such cases it is almost always possible to baptize the child. A few drops of water on the head, even from a syringe, while saying the proper baptismal formula would have sufficed. If it were impossible for the priest to enter the ward, a doctor or nurse could have performed the baptism.

All the same, although the problem of infants who die before baptism is still being studied from the theological point of view, the Church is confident that a merciful God will not leave the parent's desires and prayers unanswered. ZE06101729

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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