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Baptismal debates: different fact patterns might yield different results

January 13, 2014

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?

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