Why parents should go ahead with baptizing their newborns if a priest is forbidden to do it
April 23, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — We all hope and pray to God that the draconian policies of many dioceses during this time of coronavirus lockdown will soon give way to a more flexible, reasonable, and pastorally responsible approach. It is understandable that larger public gatherings should be limited, but it is impossible to understand why safe-distance confessions, appointments for Holy Communion, anointing of the dying, and infant baptisms should be prohibited or subject to stringent regulations.
Catholics object to the lack of sacramental access not because of “displaced individualism, denial of reality, and bourgeois entitlement,” to borrow words from a recent author, but because Christ our God has given us these sacraments for our spiritual journey, especially at the more crucial moments of it, and He has willed that our salvation hinge on these graced means of contact with His divine humanity. Desire for the sacraments is spiritually efficacious, but it is precisely a desire to receive them as they are and as soon as may be; and the Church’s hierarchy, for its part, has a solemn obligation to meet that desire as soon as may be. I would go so far as to say the pastors of the Church should bend over backwards to figure out how to bring the sacraments to the faithful in situations of crisis and emergency, when spiritual battles will tend to be worse, not easier.
Here, I will not argue any further for such obvious points, which others have already covered. I simply wish to point out that parents of any newborn, if they cannot obtain the ministrations of a priest within a reasonable time frame (a few weeks maximum), should go ahead and arrange for someone else (a relative, a friend) to baptize their children. As the Church teaches, baptism is the most necessary of all the sacraments; indeed, in a certain sense, we can say it is the only absolutely necessary sacrament. It removes the stain of original sin from the soul, removes the child from the dominion of the prince of darkness, and makes him a member of the Mystical Body of Christ. “Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5).
An instruction of the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda, July 31, 1902, to the missionaries among the Nestorians, states that baptism shall be conferred on the infants within eight days after birth, and if necessary, private baptism should be given rather than wait longer for solemn baptism. It adds that if circumstances are such that the priest cannot be had within a month, some layperson should be asked by the parents to baptize the child, rather than delay the baptism. It is better for the parents themselves not to baptize the infant, since, as the instruction adds, the one who is the natural parent should not also be the sacramental parent (unless there is no one else to baptize the infant). This is a matter of fittingness and explains why, in a church baptism, the godparents are always distinct from the natural parents.
On the basis of these truths, St. Thomas Aquinas spells out quite clearly why laymen may baptize:
It is due to the mercy of Him “Who will have all men to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4) that in those things which are necessary for salvation, man can easily find the remedy. Now the most necessary among all the sacraments is Baptism, which is man’s regeneration unto spiritual life: since for children there is no substitute, while adults cannot otherwise than by Baptism receive a full remission both of guilt and of its punishment. Consequently, lest man should have to go without so necessary a remedy, it was ordained, both that the matter of Baptism should be something common that is easily obtainable by all, i.e., water; and that the minister of Baptism should be anyone, even not in [holy] orders, lest from lack of being baptized, man should suffer loss of his salvation. (Summa III, q. 67, a. 3)
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger says: “Nobody is born a Christian, not even in a Christian world and of Christian parents. Being Christian can only ever happen as a new birth. Being a Christian begins with baptism, which is death and resurrection (Rom 6), not with biological birth” (Truth and Tolerance, 87). The child of nature’s womb has to be re-formed in the Church’s womb. The helplessness of fallen man is met and mended by the mercy of God. In this way the baptized infant is already spiritually eating and drinking the reality of Christ, that is, are united to Him in the Mystical Body: “By baptism a man is ordered to the Eucharist, and therefore from the fact of children being baptized, they are destined by the Church to the Eucharist; and just as they believe through the Church’s faith, so they desire the Eucharist through the Church’s intention, and, as a result, receive its reality” (Summa III, q. 73, a.3).
Urgent appeal to the bishops of the world: Feed your flock Sign the petition here.
That a baby should be baptized as soon as possible after birth is not open to dispute, as this article lays out compellingly. The current Code of Canon Law removes all doubt:
Can. 867 §1. Parents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks; as soon as possible after the birth or even before it, they are to go to the pastor to request the sacrament for their child and to be prepared properly for it. §2. An infant in danger of death is to be baptized without delay.
It is certainly fitting that a priest or other hierarchical minister do a baptism. St. Thomas Aquinas says this pertains to the nobility of the sacrament: it can be conferred with an appropriate completeness of ceremony and with all due solemnity, particularly when the traditional Roman rite or the Byzantine rite is utilized. Canon law reflects this fittingness, while also providing for extraordinary ministers of baptism:
Can. 861 §1. The ordinary minister of baptism is a bishop, a presbyter, or a deacon[.] ... §2. When an ordinary minister is absent or impeded, a catechist or another person designated for this function by the local ordinary, or in a case of necessity any person with the right intention, confers baptism licitly. Pastors of souls, especially the pastor of a parish, are to be concerned that the Christian faithful are taught the correct way to baptize.
I find it fascinating that canon law says that pastors are supposed to teach all Christians how to baptize. Is that something you have ever heard from the pulpit? I certainly haven’t.
Bishop Athanasius Schneider, in his magnificent book Christus Vincit: Christ’s Triumph over the Darkness of the Age (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2019), describes how his mother baptized him:
There were no priests in Kyrgyzstan, and only very rarely would a priest come secretly. My mother could not leave me without baptism—it was impossible for her. So, one week after my birth, she baptized me herself because she knew her catechism well, and she knew that it was possible[.] ... They were always repeating the basic contents of their good old German catechism and they had written down the most important Catholic truths. To baptize me, my mother took a prayer book, in which the baptismal formula was written, and water. I was one week old, and my father was present. She spoke the words as she poured the water over me, and when she finished, she looked up at my father and asked, “Did I do this correctly?” And my father said, “I don’t know.” And then she said, “Well, I have to repeat it.” And she repeated the entire ceremony. Again, she poured the water over me, pronouncing the words, and then she felt reassured that it had been done properly. I was baptized Antonius, after St. Anthony of Padua. Six months later, a Jesuit priest, Fr. Antonius Šeškevičius, came from Lithuania and told all the German mothers to bring the babies who had not been baptized by a priest because he wanted to make sure we were baptized. My mother brought me to him and I was “baptized” for the third time. So, I have no doubt about the validity of my baptism! (pp. 11–12)
A complete guide on how to do the baptism correctly and how to document it for Church records may be found here, courtesy of the Latin Mass Society of England & Wales. Since there are those, like Bishop Schneider’s dear mother — or, more likely, a pastor or chancery official later on — who might be anxious about whether or not the baptism was done correctly, it seems prudent to have someone film the baptism, so if there were any doubt later, one could easily demonstrate that all had been done properly.
Once the quarantine has passed and a priest is available again, parents may request that he use the Rituale Romanum to supply ceremonies omitted in baptism.
May 5, 2020 update: This article has been modified to make it clear that it is not the parents who should baptize their own child (though this would not be by any means invalid!), but someone else, because it is an ancient custom that a biological parent should not simultaneously be a "spiritual" parent (that is why we have "godparents").