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

January 12, 2014

Apparently—I say ‘apparently’ because the only reports I’ve seen are from the Italian media (I don’t know who’s reliable and who isn’t) and because the story itself has some ambiguous assertions in it—but apparently, Pope Francis baptized the baby of a Catholic couple not married in the Church. May I offer some thoughts.

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.

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.

Now, if the pope’s action today was as reported (again, we don’t know that yet), 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.

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. 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 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.

Updated, 13 Jan 2014. Cdl. Bergoglio’s comments on baptism are being misapplied by folks debating Pope Francis’ baptismal actions.

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