The Urgency of Infant Baptism

I recently wrote of one of my newborn son’s namesakes, Bl. Columba Marmion. My son, Colum, was baptized five days after birth (it would have been three except for the priest’s sickness), which is fast these days. In the old days it would have happened sooner. Pope Benedict XVI, for instance, was baptized on the day of his birth! All of our five children have been baptized quickly after birth. What surprises me is the reaction we receive, many times negative or resentful, from family, friends, and acquaintances.

A Change in Practice
Why would a speedy baptism after birth bring about criticism? My guess is that deliberately bucking what has become the new norm makes people uncomfortable. Delaying baptism for a few months should be of great concern. It signals a very recent and drastic shift in Catholic practice and culture. The question at the heart of this delay comes down to “how necessary is baptism after all?”

Here are three anecdotal occurrences that typify this change in attitude and practice. First, a theologian friend asked me why we were baptizing our son so quickly, since a baptism of desire would suffice in the meantime. Second, a bishop advised a friend of mine that there was no rush in setting up the time for her child’s baptism; a few months would be fine. Third, I also heard that a deacon in a local parish’s baptism class taught that the Church had changed its teaching on the urgency of baptism.

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Latent within these anecdotes, and many others which could be presented, it seems to me, are three presuppositions. First, the Church’s teaching on the sacramental power of baptism and original sin is not taken seriously enough (not that these realities are denied). Second, because recently it has been presented that it is valid to hope for the salvation for an unbaptized baby, it is now accepted as normative that an unbaptized baby will be saved. Although I accept the Church’s teaching on hope, this position conflates hope and certainty. Third, the decline in infant mortality has removed the threat of death from our minds (which of course still exists, even if to a lesser degree).

Although it is true that infant mortality has declined drastically, I don’t think it’s sufficient to say the change in practice is merely practical. If we really take the Church’s teaching seriously, why would we not want to baptize our children immediately just for the sake of giving them the most important gift imaginable?

Why is Baptism so Important?
As Catholics we believe that the sacraments are not simply signs, but are efficacious signs that make present the reality they signify. What does baptism do to us? It forgives sin (original and actual), liberates from the power of evil, bestows sanctifying grace, which is necessary for salvation, adopts as a son of God, incorporates into the Church, and places an indelible mark on the soul, which consecrates the baptized for the worship of God. It literally makes us a new person, a temple of God indwelt by the Spirit, and raises us up to the divine life!

Luther, in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church, specifically rejects the understanding of sacrament as an efficacious sign. In relation to baptism, he wrote: “Even so it is not baptism that justifies or benefits anyone, but it is faith in the word of promise, to which baptism is added. This faith justifies, and fulfils that which baptism signifies” (3.19). I fear that some Catholics may be falling into a similar view that baptism is simply a symbol or initiation ceremony, but not a powerful and necessary means of salvation.

The Church teaches infallibly that baptism is necessary for salvation (even if it is received in a hidden way). Here are few quotes from the Council of Trent on this point.

If anyone says that baptism is … not necessary unto salvation, let him be anathema (Session 7, Canon 5 under Baptism).

And this translation (of justification), since the promulgation of the Gospel, cannot be effected, without the laver of regeneration, or the desire thereof, as it is written; unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God  (Session 6, Decree on Justification, 4).

Moving Away from Original Sin
Baptism may also be delayed because of a lack of belief in or a misunderstanding of original sin. The teaching is considered harsh and contrary to modern understandings of freedom (or should I say autonomy) and human dignity. Original sin even has been denied by many modern theologians such as Karl Rahner (Theological Investigations, vol. 16, 200), a sentiment which surely has trickled down to the parish.

The Church teaches, however, that original sin keeps one from heaven. The Council of Trent in particular teaches that original sin results in the death of the soul not only for Adam but also for all of his descendants:

If anyone asserts, that the prevarication of Adam injured himself alone, and not his posterity; and that the holiness and justice, received of God, which he lost, he lost for himself alone, and not for us also; or that he, being defiled by the sin of disobedience, has only transfused death, and pains of the body, into the whole human race, but not sin also, which is the death of the soul; let him be anathema (Session 5, Decree on Original Sin, 2).

This is a hard teaching, but one that makes the power of baptism all the more important. Original sin is deadly enough that the Council of Florence says it is punishable by hell:

The souls of those who depart in actual mortal sin or only original sin descend into the realm of the dead (infernum), to be punished however with unequal punishments” (Decree, Laetentur Caeli; see also the Second Council of Lyons,  Profession of Faith for Michael Paleologus; John XXII, Letter to the Armenians “Nequaquam sine dolore”).

Although limbo has taken some hard hits recently (which is a huge understatement), Pope Pius VI condemns the following position, which rejects limbo, as false in his Bull, Auctorem Fidei:

The doctrine which rejects as a Pelagian fable that place of hell (which the faithful commonly called limbo of children) in which the souls of those who die with the sole guilt of original sin are punished with the penalty of damage, without the punishment of fire (no. 26).

Denying the urgency of baptism necessarily takes lightly the Church’s teaching on original sin, whether or not one holds to the position of limbo.

Recent Developments on Children Who Have Died without Baptism
At this point we meet the issue that may be driving the theological change in how we view baptism. Many believe that the Church has changed its teaching on the relation of baptism and original sin. The source of the alleged change is the following passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,” allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism (§1261).

It should be noted, however, that this position is one of hope and not of surety. Furthermore, it speaks of urgency in relation of infant baptism. In §1257 the CCC affirms both that “the Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude” and that “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” This both affirms the necessity of baptism, but also opens a door to extra-sacramental grace (which is not a new position). Extra-sacramental grace, however, is only a possibility, which needs to be contrasted with the certainty we find in the sacraments.

Seeking to defend this position in the CCC, the International Theological Commission issued a non-magisterial document, “Hope for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized.” Once again, the document explores grounds of hope, but also explicitly argues that this position is no reason to delay baptism:

The conclusion of this study is that there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness, even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in Revelation. However, none of the considerations proposed in this text to motivate a new approach to the question may be used to negate the necessity of baptism, nor to delay the conferral of the sacrament. Rather, there are reasons to hope that God will save these infants precisely because it was not possible to do for them that what would have been most desirable—to baptize them in the faith of the Church and incorporate them visibly into the Body of Christ (preface).

Thus, the key document which could be used to justify the delaying of baptism argues for the opposite position! Reinforcing the document’s point that baptism is most desirable (to put it lightly), the Council of Trent affirms the necessity of baptism to remit original sin and to obtain eternal life. Those who deny this position are considered anathema!

If any one denies, that infants, newly born from their mothers’ wombs, even though they be sprung from baptized parents, are to be baptized; or says that they are baptized indeed for the remission of sins, but that they derive nothing of original sin from Adam, which has need of being expiated by the laver of regeneration for the obtaining life everlasting … let him be anathema (Session 5, Decree Concerning Original Sin, 4).

Thus, the Church’s teaching is very clear that baptism is necessary for remitting of original sin and for imparting of the grace needed for salvation.

The Urgency of Infant Baptism
The Church not only teaches the necessity of baptism, but also legislates the urgency of infant baptism. The Code of Canon Law actually stipulates that “parents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks” (867, §1). Those who delay baptism contradict this obligation.

It is time for us to return to the Church’s once established practice on baptism. Given the Church’s own teaching and the inestimable benefits of baptism, we have to ask why anyone would wait. There has been no change in the Church’s teaching, as the CCC and the ITC speak only of hope. In fact the ITC says that “it must be clearly acknowledged that the Church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptised infants who die” (§79). There is, however, sure knowledge of the grace of baptism. Don’t leave to hope what we can assure through the sacraments! I think it is a good position to hope and pray for those who die without baptism, but that is different than presuming salvation. Therefore, we should baptize infants quickly, placing them within the Lord’s sacramental grace. There is no good reason to delay and whenever possible we should choose surety over hope.

Author’s note: The recent development concerning babies who die without baptism has been controversial, to say the least. It is not possible to summarize the whole debate, but I will note briefly two interesting points that are not widely known. First, revised language for a passage regarding aborted babies was issued for Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae. Second, Avery Cardinal Dulles explicitly challenged the ITC document as contradictory of Catholic doctrine, especially in relation to the line from the Council Florence, which I quoted above. Dulles’s essay, “Current Theological Obstacles to Evangelization,” can be found in the book, The New Evangelization: Overcoming the Obstacles, published by Paulist Press.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Baptism” painted by Pietro Longhi in 1755.

  • R. Jared Staudt

    R. Jared Staudt, PhD serves as Director of Content for Exodus 90. He is author, most recently, of How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization (TAN, 2023) and editor of Renewing Catholic Schools (Catholic Education Press, 2020).

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