Question: A recent newspaper contained a letter from a woman whose child was stillborn, complaining that the “young, inexperienced priest on duty ... refused [to baptize the baby] ... telling me he couldn’t. Only the living receive the sacrament. His explanation only compounded my horror... all that mattered to me was the soul of my lost child.... An empathetic nurse overheard our conversation and whispered that she was Roman catholic and in lieu of a priest would perform the baptism.... [In] its own way [it] was every bit as beautiful as the church ceremonies for my three living children.”[i] Did the priest act correctly? or the nurse? (A.H., New York State)
Answer: Many Catholic parents of child rearing age—through no fault of their own—received no Catholic education when they were children themselves. The textbooks of the post-Vatican II era were devoid of content, apart from pictures of butterflies and abstract glorifications of things like love, freedom, joy, and broadmindedness. If the texts didn’t contain heresy, it was simply because they didn’t contain much of anything. Lack of concrete education allowed Modernism to spread rapidly among the young people who are now our responsible adults. Having failed to learn that the Catholic Faith is principally the communication of God to His people—of what He wants them to know about Himself, how He wants them to behave, and how He wants to be worshipped—many Catholics have been easy prey for the Modernist idea that religion is nothing more than feelings.
Modernism is a religion of feelings on at least two levels. First, since it refuses to admit of any factual revelation by God, it is based on the erroneous notion that truth for the individual is whatever he feels to be true, and that truth for society is whatever the consensus of those feelings is among the members of the community. For the Modernist, “truth” is a constantly changing set of feelings.
Second, and more important to this article, Modernism holds religion to be something to make individuals feel good. Religion, for the Modernist, is whatever helps him to get along with other people (particularly difficult people like “the boss,” “the spouse,” “the children,” or “the in-laws”). On the societal level, Modernist religion is what helps Blacks and Whites and Indians to feel good about each other, and what enables Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, and Pagans, and so forth, to feel that they are all sisters and brothers, without any significant doctrinal differences.
But legitimate Catholicism is based on reality, and not on Modernism. Through Jesus Christ and the Church, God has given us specific directives about faith, morality, and worship. The Sacraments are sacred rites, instituted by Jesus Christ, and the Church requires that we administer them with the care and reverence due to the things of Almighty God. It is seriously sinful to purposefully administer a Sacrament invalidly—even if doing so would make someone feel better, that sin cannot possibly help anyone’s spiritual state. The Sacraments are for the living—indeed, they carry us from one end of life to the other. We sometimes refer to Baptism and Confession as “Sacraments of the dead,” but that is only by way of analogy—a soul without Sanctifying Grace is not really a dead soul, for all souls are immortal—it is said to be “dead” only in that it lacks the abundant spiritual life of those souls in the state of Grace.
The mother’s concern for “the soul of [her] lost child” is admirable. The Church has the same concern, and is, indeed concerned for her feelings, but is painfully aware that the Sacraments are ineffective for the dead. If there are signs of life, the priest must baptize absolutely (“I baptize thee....”); if there is a possibility that the child is still clinically alive, the priest baptizes conditionally (“If thou art alive, I baptize thee....”); if there are signs of certain death, no Baptism is possible.
The same procedure governs the giving of the last Sacraments to one who is dying or dead. The Church has always assumed (and modern science supports Her) that death is not an instantaneous process. Something of life may endure even after the heart has stopped or the brain has ceased to function; consequently the soul may still be present and capable of receiving the sacraments.
If there is an error to be made, the priest will always make it in the hopes of saving a soul. But death has a way of making its reality unquestionable, and at that point soul is beyond the ministry of the Sacraments and would not be helped at all by the sacrilege of simulating Baptism.
Yes, there are priests out there who have “drunk the Kool Aid,” and have no scruples about conferring invalid Sacraments if that is what it takes to enhance their careers, protect their pensions, or bring in donations. But real Catholicism is about reality—real Baptisms, real Weddings, real Masses, and so forth. No Catholic should have anything to do with such falsifying priests—not now and not on Judgment Day!
[i] LuAnn Wierdsma, Milwaukee, Letter to the Editor New York Times , “Science” section, 14 March 2006