For the Catholic Church, infant baptism is the norm for children born to practicing Catholic parents. It’s a beautiful sacramental celebration enjoyed by close family and friends, usually accompanied by baptism gifts, cake, lots of photos, and generally a good faith-filled time is had by all. The Catholic Church teaches that baptism is the moment when the stain of original sin is removed and the child first receives the mark of the Holy Spirit. At baptism, the child receives the first sacrament of initiation into the family of God.
But what about the children in your close circle of family who will not be baptized? A little pang of sadness creeps in when Catholics think about some of the children in their life who will not receive this sacrament, at least not while they are young children. What about their souls? If Catholics have loved children in their life—usually grandchildren, nieces, or nephews who belong to parents who do not have them baptized (whether through neglect, unbelief, or refusal)—the question arises as to whether or not they should take it upon themselves to baptize the child. Believe it or not, this is an actual dilemma in the minds of many Catholics.
There are certain limited situations in which it is permissible that a regular, everyday person can baptize another person as long as the baptism is done according to the Christian Trinitarian formula, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” So, is this a window of opportunity for Catholics to ensure that the child in their life is baptized? Should Catholics take matters into their own hands and baptize the precious child they love so much, knowing that through this baptism the child will be saved from original sin and be marked for God’s kingdom? Or should they refrain, pray, and trust that God will take care of this child?
Believe it or not, this has long been a dilemma for Catholics. And St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the foremost Doctors of the Catholic Church, answered the question for us in the 13th century in his Summa Theologica. First, Aquinas explains the reason why Catholics desire so strongly to baptize infants against the will or knowledge of their parents; it seems more important to step in and rescue the child from the danger of eternal death than to regard the will of the parents. The reasoning is that if it is good and right to step in and rescue a child from physical death if their parents neglected to do so, how much more is it good and right to step in and rescue a child from an eternal spiritual death if their parents neglected to do so? Isn’t eternal death the greatest danger of all? Moreover, all children belong to God first and then parents second, so it doesn’t seem wrong if children are consecrated to God through baptism apart from their parents’ will.
Sounds reasonable so far, right?
Not according to Aquinas. St. Thomas responds to this line of reasoning by saying that these are not good reasons to baptize children against the will of (or without the knowledge of) their parents. Aquinas replies that if children are not old enough to reason for themselves, then they are under the care of their parents as ordained by God via the natural order. It would be unjust to undermine the parents in this regard, even if done with good intention; that is, for the sake of the eternal soul of the child. For Aquinas, baptizing a child against the will of the parents is just the same as if you would baptize anyone against their will; you shouldn’t do it, because that would be to use the sacrament sacrilegiously.
Aquinas also adds another element to the discussion, that there is actual danger involved if children are baptized against their parents will. This is because apart from the belief of the parents and their commitment to raise the child as a Christian, the baptized child may fall into unbelief—which leaves them in a worse condition. According to Aquinas, parents have charge of the child until the child is of the age of reason “and it is according to their ordering that things pertaining to God are to be done in respect of the child.”
This is why the Catholic Church normally baptizes children if the parents are practicing Catholics, and never against the will of the parents, so the child has the best chance possible of continuing in the faith and being lead to heaven. It isn’t normally a good thing to baptize a child when faith is not present on the part of the parents (of course, there are some allowances in limited circumstances, such as, if the child has a guardian who will take on this responsibility). Interestingly, this also means that parents who are willing to baptize their child shouldn’t do so merely for the purpose of appeasing family members (such as grandparents) without any serious intention on their part to raise the child in the faith. Baptism should be treated as the holy thing it is, which places serious obligations on the one receiving the sacrament and on the one committed to raising the child in the Catholic faith.
So, in the case of these loved children who are unbaptized, it is best that Catholics stay in their lives as a witness of the faith. Then, when the child is old enough, they by their own will may receive the sacrament of baptism, even if against the will of their parents. However, the one big exception to this is if the child is in immediate danger of death. In this case, it is good to intervene and baptize the child even if against the parents. Therefore, unless a child is in immediate danger of death, secretly baptizing a child “for their own good” is against Church canon law regarding the proper reception of baptism.
Copyright 2012 Gretchen Filz