Question: May a close relative bring a child to be Baptized without the consent of the parents who are fallen away Catholics? Wouldn’t that be better than allowing the child to go unbaptized and have no chance of salvation? What about the child who was baptized with a ritual that seemed invalid?
Answer: Canon Law is clear about the first question:
In essence, the law says that a child may be baptized if he is in danger of death, or if there is a solid probability that he will be educated in the Catholic Faith and at least one parent consents. Before a priest could baptize a child in the latter situation, he would have to receive credible assurances that those requesting the Baptism were actually in a position to control the child’s Catholic education, and likely to carry out that responsibility. A seventy-five year old grandfather might not be prudently counted upon to see to the next fifteen years of rearing the child; and even a much younger person might not be able if the parents had a strong will to do things their own way.
We have two historical examples which may help to illustrate the problem: the Baptisms of the centurion Cornelius and the members of his household by Saint Peter, and the deferral of Saint Augustine’s Baptism until his adult years.[ii]
Cornelius was a pagan, the commander of a hundred men of the Italian Cohort, located in Judea. He invited Saint Peter to his home to instruct him and his family in the Faith, and then requested to be baptized. The Scripture records that his entire household was baptized with him, presumably including some children. Peter knew that as a Roman “paterfamilias,” Cornelius exercised great authority over his entire household, especially over his own wife and children. With Cornelius’ commitment to the Catholic Faith, it was clear that the members of his household would be raised according to the Faith. Therefore all of them could be baptized.
Saint Augustine was born in Thagaste, Roman North Africa in 354 to a Catholic mother and a pagan father. His mother Monica, later a saint in her own right, was intensely concerned for the spiritual well-being of her husband Patricius and her son Augustine. As a boy the future saint’s mother enrolled him among the Catechumens (those preparing for Baptism) and he came close to being baptized during the course of a serious illness. But he recovered and his Baptism was deferred. He wrote in his Confessions that his father tried to dissuade him from the Faith of his mother, and may have been one of those who suggested that his lack of Baptism was license to sin—"Let him alone, let him act as he likes, for he is not yet baptized"—on the theory that Baptism would forgive all his sins, and by waiting he could make the most of that forgiveness. Monica prevailed over Patricius and he was baptized about 371, but by that time Augustine was already off on wilder part of his life and did not receive Baptism until 387. Patricius was “a poor Freeman of Thagaste,” not a centurion like the biblical Cornelius, but his influence as “paterfamilias” of the family was still legally strong—strong enough that Monica was unable to Baptize Augustine as in infant or to force the issue after his recovery from the nearly fatal illness, even though he records being a believer at that time.
Concerned relatives—usually grandparents, uncles, and aunts with children or siblings who have ceased to practice the Faith—often argue that the Church is being hard hearted by not baptizing the infant even if the parents refuse consent or there is no hope of the child being raised as a Catholic. They argue that it is unfair that the Child be deprived of eternal salvation for the lack of Baptism.
The Church meets this objection half way: the Child may indeed be baptized if there is a realistic danger that he will die before attaining the use of reason and requesting Baptism on his own.
But the Church does not force Baptism on those who don’t desire it, nor on their children who most reasonably can be expected to grow up with attitudes similar to the parents who will rear them. Even where the Church wields great political power, it does not go around capturing the unbaptized and forcing them or their children to receive the Sacrament. Such Baptisms would certainly be invalid in the case of the adults, and if valid for the children would do little more than convert them into non-practicing Catholics.
In addition to being a great spiritual privilege, Baptism brings with It the responsibilities of practicing the Catholic Faith. The Council of Trent defined that:
Everyone is required to keep the precepts of the natural moral law, but Baptized Catholics are held to a higher standard under penalty of sin. We are required to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days; to observe the laws of fasting and abstinence; to contribute to the support of the Church and clergy; to observe the laws concerning marriage, confession, and the reception of Holy Communion; and may be bound by other particular laws as well. While there might be some excuse for the person unaware of his Baptism as an infant, the obligations of Church law would bind those who were aware in much the same way as they bind the fallen away children of lackadaisical Catholic households.
We always think of our own grandchildren, nephews, and nieces as good, sweet, and holy people—particularly when they are only a year or two old. But it is unrealistic to think that Baptism alone, without solid Catholic nurturing, will bring them all the way through life to eternal salvation—even those who are properly raised sometimes fall away. With Baptism come responsibilities and the possibility of serious sin for those who refuse to live up to them. Baptism imparts a character on the soul; a character that must be a constant source of additional torment for those who lived a life apart from God’s graces.
Answer (2): The issue of invalid Baptism has raised its head a goodly number of times in the past forty years or so. For our purposes, we will assume that the parents are in agreement with the Baptism and intend to raise the child as a Catholic, but there is some defect in the administration of the Sacrament.
Anyone may baptize, although normally only priests and deacons do so, so there is no question of an invalid minister of the Sacrament. Even the non-believer who intends to do what the Church does can baptize validly. Those who use the rite prescribed by the Church must be presumed to have an adequate intention, unless they state otherwise.
The adequate matter of the Sacrament is water—it may be warm or cool; from the ocean or the lake or the tap; thawed from ice, snow or hail; condensed from vapor or gathered from dew; blessed or not; it may even be a little dirty, contain minerals, or purification agents—water “in the common estimation of men.”[iv] Any other substance would be invalid (e.g. blood) or doubtful (e.g. very weak tea). The person to be baptized my be completely immersed in the water, or have it sprinkled or poured on the skin of his head—at the same time and by the same person who pronounces the form.
The form of Baptism is “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Some non-Roman rites use a form like “The servant of God is baptized in the name of the Father, etc.”
It is possible for a priest to baptize doubtfully or invalidly due to some accident. Say, for example, a blind priest who pours the water and only gets it on the child’s hair, or misses the child’s head altogether. The relative who notices this ought to bring it to the priest’s attention—politely, of course, but firmly. Hopefully, the priest will repeat the essentials of the Sacrament so that there is no doubt. But sometimes people are proud and stubborn and refuse to do things they know very well they should do. Apart from some immediate danger of the death of the child, recourse should be made to the priest’s superior; the pastor or the bishop. It is not supposed to happen, but if the authorities refuse to confer the Sacrament it would be reasonable to find another priest to do so, or if this is not possible, a family member. In order of preference canon law lists priests, deacons, subdeacons, clerics, laymen, laywomen as the ministers of private Baptism; with the child’s father or mother baptizing only in danger of death (in order to distinguish spiritual from physical parenthood).[v]
Perhaps an even greater concern is the possibility that the authorities will do nothing to rectify a Baptism that is invalid due to foolishness rather than accident. In recent years there have been reports of (invalid) Baptisms in which the priest purposefully altered the ritual. One had the godmother pour the water while the priest said the words of the form. Another changed the form, replacing the names of the three divine Persons with their attributes—“... in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer.” A recent case had the priest “baptize” by immersing only the babies’ backsides into the water!
Certainly, a child invalidly baptized due to a purposeful alteration of the rite ought to be validly baptized with the authentic rite. But in this case, when valid Baptism is refused, the relatives ought to be much slower to act behind the backs of the authorities or to take matters into their own hands. The parents need to do some serious soul searching at this point. They have an obligation to bring their child up in the Catholic Faith. But how can they do so if the priest and pastor of the church they attend and the bishop are so detached from the Faith as to condone a purposefully invalid Baptism? What else will they purposefully get wrong? other Sacraments? the Catechism, the Sunday sermon? their own personal behavior? Lord knows what else! This is a good time for the family to impress upon the parents the need for attending a traditional Catholic church where not only are the Sacraments valid but they and their children will receive orthodox teachings on all the aspects of the Faith.
[ii] Acts of the Apostles x; Confessions of Saint Augustine, Books I and IX
[iii] Council of Trent, Seventh Session, 3 March 1547, Canons on Baptism (Denzinger 863, 864).
[iv] Decisions of the Holy Office 17 April 1839 and 21 August 1901 in Nicholas Halligan, The Administration of the Sacraments, 32, 72.
[v] Canon 742.
[vi] Rev. Joseph Marcoux “baptizing” at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester, on Pentecost Sunday, 15 May 2005. http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-religion/1414029/posts