The “Francis baptism” and the “O’Malley dabbing”, both of which actions I regard as canonically licit, have occasioned from observers who regard themselves as Francis-O’Malley champions some defenses that, I fear, indicate considerable ignorance (not ill-will, just ignorance) on their part about how sacraments and sacramental signs are supposed to work in the Church. I offer here some words of caution lest, in defending Francis’ and O’Malley’s actions, these erstwhile advocates confuse other Catholics about these matters and imply to the world ecclesial attitudes that the Church does not share.
May I say again, I think both prelates’ actions were, if it comes to that, defense-able. It’s the defenses of these actions that concern me.
Let’s start with the Francis baptism.
A typical defense of Francis’ decision to baptize the baby of a Catholic couple apparently ‘married’ outside the Church runs thus: “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.”
Now, every assertion in this passage is true. The problem is, this rationale is severed from the Church’s appreciation of the grave responsibilities (on children, parents, the whole community) that come with Baptism. Indeed, as phrased, this defense justifies baptisms that anyone (I hope!) would shrink from. Consider a bizarre hypothetical.
If one were to walk through a Muslim neighborhood and sprinkle water on some kid playing in the street, pronouncing baptismal form correctly, would that baptism be valid? Of course. Would “the child receive grace and become a member of the Church”? Absolutely. Would that new status constitute a “pearl beyond price for any child”? Undoubtedly. Would it be true to say that whatever else may happen to that child in life, the Church gave “the child a grand start in life”? Indeed.
But, seriously, who in their right mind would countenance such a baptism? If no one, then I trust it’s because it’s obvious that at least some other factors must be considered before pronouncing for the liceity of any given baptism. And, if any other factors should be considered, why not the very factors that Church herself has already set out in the canons on Baptism, including (among many others) the “founded hope” requirement in Canon 868? Argue, if one will, about whether couples married outside the Church can provide a “founded hope” that their child will be raised in the Faith, but don’t exclude the requirement from consideration—not, that is, unless one is prepared to defend the use of super-soakers in Muslim neighborhoods.
Nor need the example be so far-fetched. Every canonist in diocesan practice for even a few years gets “grandma baptism” questions, a la, whether Grandma may (not can, may) baptize her grandbaby some night in the kitchen sink since it’s obvious the parents have no interest in sharing the Faith that Grandma tried to pass on to her own kids. If one hesitates, as one should hesitate, to approve of Grandma’s action, then there might be something missing from the defenses being offered for the Francis baptism, too, something beyond lawful minister issues. (If one does not hesitate to approve of the Grandma baptism, then one is acting on some dangerously anti-ecclesial presuppositions best dealt with elsewhere.)
Okay, what about O’Malley and the ‘dabbing’ (to use a neutral word) he received from the Protestant minister? In defending the action, some are denying what the action actually was, this, to the detriment of those trying to assess the matter accurately.
For example: “It is not a blessing or a sacrament,” archdiocesan spokesman Terrence C. Donilon said in an e-mail. “It is a recalling of the grace of Baptism. Catholics do it every time they enter a church, by dipping their finger into the holy water font and making the sign of the cross.”
Notice, Donilon denies the Protestant minister’s action was a “blessing” but then says it was like Catholics “making the sign of the cross”—which is a blessing!
Blessings are sacramentals. Perhaps the most common Christian sacramental is the Sign of the Cross, augmented or not by the use of Holy Water, and performed by millions of Catholics every day. No canon or liturgical law prohibits baptized non-Catholics from making the Sign of the Cross nor from using Holy Water in accord with its character. Thus, one Christian making the Sign of the Cross on another Christian’s forehead (in explicit commemoration of one’s baptism or not) is simply something to be explained to those not used to seeing it performed by a female Protestant minister on a Catholic cardinal—it is not something whose character should be denied by a Church spokesman, only to be admitted by an analogy that was intended to distinguish the two acts! That is to pile confusion on top of confusion.
Bottom line: Whether Francis wants to baptize this baby or that, whether O’Malley wishes to be blessed by this person or that, is up to them; they are prelates who understand well sacraments and sacramentals, and they can decide what kind of message (if any) they want to send by their choices. Their defenders, however, should know about sacraments and sacramentals, too, and should not confuse other Catholics by offering misleading defenses of such deeds.
Further to my observation that the future of canonical form might be worthy of Synodal attention, I offer below a (mostly) English bibliography of studies from the years 1960-1965. My choice is intended to show that debates about the future of form are nothing new. Even this short list includes writers from several nations.
A few more points, in no particular order, to keep in mind.
1. Canonical form, as a requirement for the validity of marriage, is only about four hundred years old; it has been universally demanded in the Church for less than 100 years. By far the greater part of Church history did not know canonical form.
2. Canonical form was hotly debated at Trent; there were serious sacramental and canonical objections raised to imposing form.
3. Canonical form was effective at eliminating clandestine marriage in places where the requirement was imposed. Whether clandestine marriage is still a great social problem is obviously a question.
4. Every year, thousands of Catholics (just in the USA) are declared free of the consequences of marriages that the Church holds non-Catholics to observe, solely because of the Catholic’s failure (whether from honest ignorance, flat defiance, or a range of attitudes in between) to comply with canonical form. What, in the 1960s, only a few Catholics knew how to manipulate to their advantage is now often seized upon by duplicitous laity, sometimes even with the encouragement of conniving clerics, so as to enter “trial marriages” just to “see how things work out”, knowing they have a get-out-of-marriage-free card to play.
5. Catholics “married” outside of form, even if they acted in good faith and are in stable relationships, are deprived of the specific sacramental graces of Matrimony because of the canonical invalidity of their marriage; meanwhile Protestant couples, not bound by form and so able to marry in a variety of ways, enjoy the graces specific to Matrimony (even if they are unaware of or uninterested in the sacramental character of Christian-Christian marriage).
6. The law on canonical form boasts a very complicated history, but it is one largely aimed at mitigating the scope of form; presently, however, (esp. after 2006), we live in a period of extreme applicability of the requirement of form. Each time the scope of form has been so greatly, and usually suddenly, extended (as is the situation now), an ecclesial reaction sets in to push back the scope of form.
7. The law of canonical form has spawned a host of legal problems and a number of work-arounds for legal problems associated with, for example, faculties for weddings, jurisdiction over parties, and even how to reckon marriages null because of different types of problems with form. Many of these problems are unique to canonical form and would disappear with its elimination; likewise, many of the solutions that stretch legal logic to an unseemly extent.
8. Much of the circum-Conciliar discussion of canonical form arose in the context of mixed marriage (Catholic-Protestant) and was concerned with protecting the promises (cautiones) to be made by non-Catholics marrying Catholics. Long story made short, the cautiones have become, juridically speaking, a non-factor in mixed, etc., marriages now. Thus, the arguments for retaining form based on protecting the cautiones are basically moot.
9. Much of the earlier discussion of form talks about retaining form for liceity but not for validity. In my view, even this approach is questionable. Liceity these days is viewed by most as the expression of a canon law that it’s okay to break. Such an approach contributes to the severe antinomianism that pervades Church and State these days. There are better ways, I believe, to achieve the good that something like form could still serve without framing laws whose violation results in, at most, a pastoral tsk-tsk.
A short reading list for those who would like to discuss the future of canonical form in an informed manner would include:
- J. Barry, “The Tridentine form of marriage: is the law unreasonable?” The Jurist 20 (1960) 159-178. • An early cogent case against the retention of canonical form.
- J. Abbo, “A change in the form of marriage” The Priest 19 (1963) 670-674 • Outlines sympathetically Barry’s arguments from The Jurist; J. Abbo, “The form of marriage” The Priest 20 (1964) 64-66, outlines some reasons to keep canonical form (though one may wonder how persuasively those latter arguments were offered even in their day).
- G. Gallen, “Proposal for a modification in the juridical form of marriage” The Australasian Catholic Record 38 (1961) 314-328. • Good historical overview of the law, argues that pastoral advantages asserted for form can be obtained without resort to form as well.
- L. Örsy, “De forma canonica in matrimoniis mixtae religionis” Periodica 52 (1963) 320-347. • Good overview in the context of mixed religion cases. Has a very good multi-lingual bibliography.
- W. Cahill, “Change the marriage law?” Homiletic and Pastoral Review 64 (1963-1964) 115-129. • Perhaps the best attempt to refute Barry’s argument, though rambling and not without its own errors and odd concessions; seems to not realize that most benefits of form can be obtained in other ways.
- J. O’Connor, “Should the present canonical form be retained for the validity of marriage?” The Jurist 25 (1965) 66-81. • Straight-forward discussion of pastoral and ecumenical problems with retaining canonical form for validity, argues that clandestine marriage is not a danger now, illustrates how Catholics abuse canonical form, and gives some startling statistics on pre-Conciliar nullity rates in Europe, all because of form. Has a short bibliography.
Fr. Peter Daly’s essay against the annulment process (and indeed, against the heart of Church teaching on the permanence of marriage) is mostly a repackaging of common historical errors, irrelevant platitudes, and bad theology. But before responding to some of those (but only to some, for there are too many to address) let me acknowledge one thing Daly has right.
Canonical form, says Daly, “rewards people who were disobedient to the [C]hurch years ago and got married outside the [C]hurch.” I would prefer that Daly admit that canonical form served an important pastoral purpose for some centuries and that he alert readers to some important issues to be considered before jettisoning form, but basically, Daly is right about this aspect of canonical form. That said, though, I differ with almost everything else Daly wrote.
First, Daly’s sarcasm is off-putting. “The pope wants to know what we think. That in and of itself qualifies as a minor miracle.” How can anyone say something like that about Pope Francis? Daly maintains his petulant tone, describing, for example, the annulment process as a “roadblock” that basically means “No grace for you!” Childish.
More substantively, Daly seems not to understand several crucial aspects of Church teaching on marriage, asserting, for example, that “The problem with the [annulment] process in the Roman Catholic [C]hurch is that it takes what ought to be a pastoral matter and turns it into a legal one.”
The annulment process does not do that.
Marriage itself, and the annulment process concerned with it, is (in part) a legal matter because of Christ’s own actions. Jesus did not invent a new human relationship and call it ‘marriage’; rather, He took an existing, partly juridicized, institution and, respecting its character, restored marriage to its natural stability and raised it for the baptized to the level of sacrament. Thus, to whatever extent marriage is, and has always been, a juridic relationship, so the annulment process is, and will always be, in part a juridic process. Complaints about the juridic aspects of marriage and annulments are ultimately complaints about Christ’s economy of salvation.
A curious comment occurs part-way thru Daly’s essay: “Over the years, I have had several couples get infuriated with me or with the [C]hurch and just walk away in anger … Sometimes, I have just taken the pastoral route. For instance, I’ve had couples in their late 70s and 80s who were married decades ago. They can hardly remember their first marriage, let alone dredge up the records. Or I’ve had people who are terminally ill and want to come into the church. There is no time or energy to get an annulment.”
What does that phrase, “I have just taken the pastoral route”, mean?
Daly doesn’t say, but my surmise is that Daly, though loath to admit it, simply took it upon himself to officiate at some weddings of people whom he believed were previously married, this, during the lifetime of their original spouses. If, I say if, this is what Daly means, then he (and those involved) need to know that such rites are gravely illicit (Canon 1085 § 2), possibly invalid (Canon 1085 § 1), potentially sacrilegious (Canon 1379), and would represent a repeated abuse of ecclesiastical power or function (Canon 1389). Catholics should have nothing to do with such stunts.
Back to annulments, Daly seems to be calling not for the reform of the annulment process but rather for its abandonment. For example, he writes “Let divorced and remarried people make a good confession and offer sincere contrition and a firm purpose of amendment. Then let them start again.”
Umm, start again…with what? With holding oneself out as married to someone other than one’s true spouse? Is that what ‘starting over’ post-confession means? For that matter, confess what, exactly? One’s first marriage? Why? Was it a sin? Or one’s second marriage, which, however one has no intention of leaving? And what is one to be ‘sincerely contrite’ for? Getting married the first time or for (pretending to) being married the second? What a mishmash this proposal is!
Daly’s position is confusing but I think it boils down to: Divorce and remarriage is not the worst sin one can commit, and don’t make a habit of it, but, well, whatever you guys decide is fine. I for one think that would be pastorally disastrous advice to give people living in contradiction to Christ’s words on marriage. Moreover, I think that Daly’s offering such terrible advice as part of his call for reform in the annulment process only sets back the case for true reform by linking in people’s minds genuine reform with destructive approaches to marriage problems. + + +
John Allen is among many who are citing then-Cdl. Bergoglio’s baptismal practices in Buenos Aires as precedent for Pope Francis’ decision to baptize the baby of two Catholics apparently not married in the eyes of the Church. This assertion is, I suggest, muddying the waters of an already complex matter.
Allen writes: The choice by Francis to forge ahead was utterly consistent with his practice as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio criticized priests who declined to baptize the children of unwed mothers in 2012. “These are the hypocrites of today,” Bergoglio said, “the ones who clericalize the church, who keep the people of God from salvation.”
I don’t see the parallel between these two cases.
Quite simply, being an unwed mother is not sinful. Besides the fact that the acts by which a single woman became pregnant (assuming they were objectively sinful in the first place) could have been repented of long before the baby comes for baptism, a variety of circumstances could result in there being no sin associated with the pregnancy whatsoever, let alone with motherhood! I don’t know what priests might be like in Argentina, but I am very sure I have never heard of an American priest withholding baptism from a baby based solely on the fact that the mother of said baby was not married. A pastor could well arrive at a founded hope that the child of such a mother could be raised Catholic and proceed with the baptism in accord with Canon 868.
But the situation of Catholics actually married outside the Church is quite different. Setting aside my concerns that canonical form itself has become a pastoral stumbling block, I know how the law on canonical form currently reads and that, in the great majority of cases in which canonical form is violated, the Catholics involved are in objective grave sin and give scandal by their state. From that fact, it seems quite plausible to me that a pastor might delay the baptism of the child of such parents until, also in accord with Canon 868, a founded hope that the child could be raised Catholic is attained.
Thus, for one rightly to condemn, as Bergoglio did, the withholding of baptism based solely on the single status of the mother does not at all imply that one must always baptize the babies of parents regardless of their contrarian matrimonial status. Let alone do I find these two very different situations “utterly consistent”! Different facts could, and often should, result in different conclusions.
Final point: Lost in this whole discussion has been, I fear, any recognition of the fact that, while baptism is of great value, it is also to take on very serious, life-long duties. Imposing via baptism those burdens on a child who is at heightened risk of not receiving adequate assistance in the Faith, and on some parents who in public respects seem ill-equipped to live the very Faith they want passed on to their children, is itself pastorally problematic, no?
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.
I have long held that nothing can rehabilitate the institution known as the Legion of Christ nor any of its affiliated works, and I’ve seen nothing in the last three years that gives me any reason to change my views. The LC and its progeny should be completely and forever dissolved. Period.
The question of “what to do with” the many wonderful people taken in by the Legion is partly pastoral and partly practical. Obviously, the good people therein need to be invited and welcomed into authentic Catholic institutions; priests in particular should be assisted to incardination elsewhere (several savvy bishops have already incardinated highly talented former-LCs into their local Churches). As for Legion property issues, canon law has norms governing the assignment of goods once belonging to (dissolving) canonical juridic persons. Bottom line, the Church is master of ecclesiastical assets, assets don’t control her. No insoluble problems lurk there.
But, in my opinion, the protracted efforts to resuscitate the LC, the LC what? – - – the LC corpse seems not too strong a word—need now to cease. Indeed, even proposals to let Legion survivors, clerical and lay, as survivors, found new canonical institutes seem quite unsound to me. Ask yourself: what, besides their Catholic faith, do survivors qua survivors of the Legion have in common, except that they were all deceived into affiliating with a deeply disordered institution founded by a sick and/or evil con-artist? Such shared traumas might make for some level of survivor-bonding, and they certainly leave such persons deserving of special pastoral outreach, but they are not the foundations on which lasting, healthy religious institutes are built. Do we have to say that?
The Catholic Church has zero tradition of institutes of perfection being founded, directly or even indirectly, by predatory charlatans. Admittedly, Maciel, we see now, seemed to pull that off for a few decades, but his cult imploded almost immediately upon his death.
What I can’t fathom is why we are still talking about ‘reorganizing’, or ‘reforming’, or ‘refounding’, anything having anything to do with him or his concoction.
I suspect we’ll see more of this in coming months: certain Catholics, including some prelates, calling for the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to holy Communion, which calls will be lionized by the secular press, of course, and only occasionally countered by other Catholics, such counters being dismissed by the secular press. Pope Francis’ governing style seems unlikely to put the kibosh on pro-reception agitation or, for that matter, to discourage its occasional rebuttal. So we’ll just have to deal with it.
To me, though, the whole thing is rather simple: either holy Communion is Who the Church says it is or it isn’t; either typical divorce and remarriage by Catholics constitutes objective grave sin (nb: no one is reading souls here, rather, one is noting public conduct) or it doesn’t; and, either those manifestly remaining in objective grave sin are prohibited from reception of holy Communion, or they aren’t.
Now, since time immemorial, the Church has answered all three questions affirmatively. But if she were to answer any ONE of those questions negatively, Eucharistic discipline would certainly (and immediately, and drastically) change for divorced and remarried Catholics—and inevitably for several other groups, too. Those calling for this momentous change need, therefore, to understand exactly what they are asking the Church to do; those opposed to the change need to understand exactly what’s at stake in the call.
Now, frankly, no one in the Church is challenging the Church’s answer to the first question, but, if the Church decides that typical divorce and remarriage is not objectively sinful for Catholics, and/or if the Church decides that holy Communion need not be withheld from those who openly persist in objectively sinful conduct, then we are all in for, as the saying goes, interesting times.