PopeWatch: Baptize Those Babies

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Questions arose when the Pope baptized the baby of a couple civilly married.  Father Z, channeling canon lawyer Ed Peters, gives us the details:

The Holy Father baptized the baby of a couple who are only civilly married.

¡Vaya lío!

From the excellent Canon Law blog of Ed Peters… who is probably smart not to have an open combox.  Or .. maybe he just enjoys watching me moderate the discussion over here.   I dunno.

My emphases and comments.

How popes, baptism, marriage, and form, all come together


First, unlike the foot-washing episode last Holy Week (here and here), the pope’s actions today occasion no reason to think that canon or liturgical law has been—what’s the right word?—disregarded, for no canon or liturgical law forbids baptizing the babies of unmarried couples, etc. Indeed, Church law generally favors the administration of sacraments and, in the case of baptism, it requires only that there be “a founded hope” that the child will be raised Catholic (1983 CIC 868 § 1, 2º). A minister could certainly discern ‘founded hope’ for a Catholic upbringing under these circumstances and outsiders should not second-guess his decision. [And I guess that still applies when the minister is THE POPE.]

But here’s the rub: a minister could also arrive at precisely the opposite conclusion on these facts and, equally in accord with the very same Church law, he could delay the baptism. I know of many pastors who have reached this conclusion and who used the occasion of a request for a baby’s baptism to assist the parents toward undertaking their duties in a more responsible manner, including helping them to regularize their marriage status in the Church, resume attendance at Sunday Mass, participate fully in the sacraments, and so on. [All of which, I think, we will stipulate are good things.]

Now, if the pope’s action today was as reported (again, we don’t know that yet), [then… (here we go!) ] pastors who delay a baby’s baptism in order to help reactivate the Faith in the baby’s parents are going to have a harder time doing that as word gets out about the pope’s (apparently) different approach to the rite. Whether that was the message Francis intended to send is irrelevant to whether that is the message that he seems to have sent.

[NB] But, I suggest, the whole question of whether to baptize the baby of these parents surfaces a yet deeper question.

The only reason we describe this civilly-married Catholic couple as “unmarried” is because they apparently did not observe “canonical form” in marrying, that is, they did not marry ‘in the Church’ as required by 1983 CIC 1108, 1117. Now think about this: had two Protestants, two Jews, two Muslims, two Hindus, two Animists, two You-Name-Its, otherwise able to marry, expressed their matrimonial consent before a civil official, we Catholics would have regarded them as presumptively married. But, when two Catholics (actually, even if only one were Catholic, per 1983 CIC 1059) attempt marriage outside of canonical form, the Church regards them as not married at all. [Get that?] That’s a dramatic conclusion to reach based only on one’s (non)observance of an ecclesiastical law that is itself only a few hundred years old.

For more than 50 years, a quiet undercurrent of (if I may put it this way) solidly Catholic canonists and theologians has been questioning whether canonical form—a remedy that nearly all would agree has outlived the disease it was designed to cure (clandestine marriage)—should be still be required for Catholics or [Quaeritur…] whether the price of demanding the observance of canonical form has become too high for the pastoral good it might serve.

Canonical form is an immensely complex topic. It has huge ramifications in the Church and it has major reverberations in the world. I am not going to discuss those here. But if the upcoming Synod on the Family and Evangelization is looking for a topic that needs, in my opinion, some very, very careful reconsideration, that topic would be the future of canonical form for marriage among Catholics. There is still time to prep the question for synodal discussion.

All of this, you might wonder, from the baptism of a baby? Yes, because everything in the Church is connected to everything else. Eventually, if we get it right, it all comes together to form a magnificent tapestry of saving truth.

And he is eloquent, too.

Go here to read the comments.  PopeWatch does not see a problem here.  Baptism is for the benefit of the child, not the parents.  Ideally, the child will have a mother and father who are fervent Catholics who will pass the Faith on to their offspring.  However, even if they are not, through Baptism the child receives grace and becomes a member of the Church.  That is a pearl beyond price for any child.  Whatever else may happen to that child in this Vale of tears, the Church did her best to give the child a grand start in life.  Section 1250 of the Catechism says it all:  “Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called.  The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth.”

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  1. Ok, so I said this about another one of your Posts, but this one takes the cake. I promote this PopeWatch as your best one to date.

    “..through Baptism the child receives grace and becomes a member of the Church. That is a pearl beyond price for any child. Whatever else may happen to that child in this Vale of tears, the Church did her best to give the child a grand start in life.”


  2. I pray this civilly-married couple asked for their child to be baptized as a first step for the child’s faith life and their ultimate return to Holy Mother Church.

  3. Synchronicity: Having entered into a discussion of my own about Baptism, the question arose of the ways of Baptism: the Sacrament, blood or martyrdom, desire, and water and the Spirit, tears. Correct me if I have not got it right.
    This is one of the finest posts, for most of the posts are excellent and make my day.
    Spambot: Your name very well describes your comment on this post. Rejoice, celebrate. If you have ever heard the words of the Sacrament of Baptism you might know that all heaven rejoices. If the couple are using the Pope as photo opportunity, the Pope is using the photo opportunity to bring the Faith and the truth of Jesus Christ to the world. Fair is Fair.

  4. I completely agree. I think that priests should baptise the children if those who ask for it unless there’s a serious reason not to. Canon Law should perhaps be reformed to stop communion for adults who support abortion instead.

  5. I would invite Dr Peters to reflect on the Scottish experience of clandestine marriages.

    The Scottish Reformation took place in 1560, three years before the Council of Trent, by the decree “Tametsi” made canonical form essential to the validity of marriage. Accordingly, the Pre-Tridentine law remained the law of Scotland until 1st July 1940. Marriage required no notice, no formality and no record of any kind. Lord Stair explains “It is not every consent to the married state that makes matrimony, but consent de præsenti, not a promise de futuro matrimonio. Marriage itself consists, not in the promise, but in the present consent, whereby they accept each other as husband and wife; whether that be by words expressly, or tacitly, by marital cohabitation or acknowledgment, or by natural commixtion, where there hath been a promise or espousals preceding; for therein is presumed a conjugal consent de præsenti [Institutions of the Law of Scotland 1681 (B i tit 4 sect 6)]

    The absence of public and easily accessible records, produced any number of applications to the courts for declarators of marriage or legitimacy, frequently after the death of one or both of the parties and 40 or 50 years after the event. This involved the tedious and expensive examination of witnesses and correspondence and the construction of doubtful expressions and ambiguous language, imperfectly remembered. Too often, the result was the nullity of a second de facto marriage and the bastardizing of issue. Not a few of these actions were little better than attempts at blackmail, to extort money from the surviving spouse or children.

  6. you people drive me crazy….the child was baptized….so what if it was done in the Catholic Church?…so what if the couple was civilly married?….you people make to much of a big deal of things….what is most important is that the couple had their child and did not abort….why is it that you cant think positive about things???….

  7. Perphaps JAC is fed up with the attention this Baptism is getting elsewhere, and took out his frustration on this Blog.

    There has been much criticism elsewhere of the Pope “sending out the wrong message”- for baptising a baby- of all things!

    It seems someone who is inclined to be a reactionary, will try and find fault in every action of of the current Pope.

    You cant help negativity JAC. But you can direct your frustration in the right places…

  8. Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Matthew 28:19….At risk of betraying the paucity of my knowledge of Canon Law, it seems a relationship of legislation and rules adopted thereby should be at work. That is to say, the scripture is the legislation and the Canon Law comprise rules promulgated to implement the purpose of the scripture. Pope Francis gave the child, and secondarily the parents, a pearl of great price. Had he refused, what might be gained?

  9. I think it’s great that the Pope baptized the baby into the Catholic Church. I commend the parents for initiating it. A good thing for all.

    I commend Pope Francis for an act of kindness and generosity toward the least among us.

Comments are closed.