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Archbishop Cupich holding court with select media during a break at Synod on the Family in Rome.John-Henry Westen / LifeSiteNews

CHICAGO, March 27, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) ― The Archdiocese of Chicago, under the leadership of Cardinal Blase Cupich, has reportedly told its priests that all baptisms “must be postponed” in response to the coronavirus pandemic and that even an “emergency” baptism requires the “permission” of the bishop. 

In an analysis published yesterday, Ed Condon and J.D. Flynn of Catholic News Agency (CNA) reported that Archbishop Cupich’s priests “have been told that during the (coronavirus) pandemic, the emergency celebration of baptism requires permission of the bishop ― despite canonical norms permitting anyone, even a layperson, to celebrate baptism in a true emergency.” 

LifeSiteNews has been informed that this policy has not been publicly posted. However, when challenged by Twitter users, Condon posted parts of a document, including a paragraph stating, “All weddings and baptisms must be postponed and can be rescheduled only when the order is lifted. There is no exception to this, regardless of the size of the group. However, in case of an extreme emergency for baptism, please seek the permission of your bishop.” 

LifeSiteNews reached out to the Archdiocese of Chicago for comment but had not received a response. 

In fact, not only a layperson but a non-Christian may baptize another in an emergency. Anyone at all who says the proper formula ― “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” ― while pouring water over the recipient’s head and intending to do what the Catholic Church means by baptism can baptize, even if they don’t understand or believe its theology. Episcopal permission does not have to be obtained in what Canon Law calls “an urgent necessity,” most usually the danger of death. 

This is the instruction that Father Darrin Smith called for on Twitter. 

“If you're going to restrict or have pastors bypass some of the ceremonials/sacramentals in the baptismal rite to abbreviate it, fine,” he tweeted. 

“Give an instruction on how anyone can baptize in an emergency. Don't just say, ‘Watch your child die without baptism as you wait for the bishop.’”

In general, baptisms happen only with permission, usually because the priest or deacon who performs them has received the appropriate canonical permission, either by virtue of being assigned to a parish or by having received explicit permission from the relevant authority.  

Catholic philosopher Dr. Joseph Shaw of Oxford University told LifeSiteNews via social media that there seems to be no justification for the claim that private baptisms require episcopal permission.

“Canon law tells parents that they have an obligation to ensure their children are baptized in the 'first few weeks' (Canon 867.1); as a matter of logic, if priests are unable to do it, then parents must arrange a 'private' baptism to fulfil this duty,” he said. 

“Naturally, this should not be done lightly, and ideally parents should discuss it with their pastor, but clearly if priests are going to be unavailable indefinitely, then at some point this would be both licit and obligatory.”

Shaw suggested that Cardinal Cupich might be worried that parents will fail to ensure that the baptism is done correctly or to report it afterward. 

“It may be that the Archbishop (of Chicago) is concerned that parents arranging private baptisms will not know the proper form, matter, and intention, or may fail to have the baptism recorded in their local parish,” he told LifeSiteNews.  

“It would be better, surely, to inform the people about these things than to attempt to forbid private baptisms.”

Theologian Dr. Peter Kwasniewski told LifeSiteNews that the directive to seek episcopal permission before an emergency baptism was “horrible.”

“The Church teaches, as have all theologians until recent decades of confusion, that baptism is above all 'the sacrament of necessity,' that is, one that cannot be omitted,” he said via email.

“It is not just the gateway to the Christian sacramental life; it is the moment when God makes a beloved son in the Son out of a fallen child of Adam,” he continued.  

“As Our Lord teaches so clearly, 'unless a man be born again of water and the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God' (Jn 3:5). In other words, we have no certainty of the salvation of anyone who has not been baptized either with the baptism of water, the baptism of desire (such as a catechumen), or the baptism of blood (one who gives his life for Christ), and the likelihood is that those who remain unbaptized will not be saved.”

“It is therefore an appalling dereliction of pastoral duty for clergy not to baptize any child or adult (provided any due conditions are met), even during a time of pandemic.”

Kwasniewski concurred that anyone at all is allowed to baptize a child in a case of emergency. 

“In the old days, nurses or relatives would baptize a newborn infant if there were any danger of death and a priest could not come,” he added.  

“In a situation of pastoral dereliction like ours, there is no reason for the parents not to baptize their newborn infants.”

The CNA reporters observed that some American bishops have imposed sacramental restrictions that go beyond Vatican advice and “have left canonical experts, and some clerics, wondering about their legality.”

Marriages and baptisms have been suspended in many places, and the Archdiocese of Newark, which is under the stewardship of Archbishop Joseph Tobin, has suspended the Sacrament of Reconciliation “until further notice with the exception of an extreme emergency.”