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Francis and O’Malley are fine; it’s some of their defenders who concern me

January 18, 2014

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.

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