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About the Catholic effect of Catholic baptism

September 23, 2016

Canon 868 of the Johanno-Pauline Code regulates the administration of baptism to infants (basically, kids up to about age seven). Currently the law restricts the Catholic ministration of baptism to infants for whom there is a “founded hope” of being raised Catholic. Most Catholic couples presenting their children for baptism satisfy this requirement, but requests from non-Catholic couples for their children to be baptized occasion questions. Notwithstanding the profound benefits of baptism, it seems counter-productive to impose Catholic obligations on a child (e.g., Sunday Mass attendance, annual confession of grave sins, observance of canonical form when marrying, and so on) if there is little hope that the child will be raised in a Catholic environment where such observances can be explained and supported.

Now, both the current Canon 868 and its Pio-Benedictine predecessors, Canons 750-751, allow Catholic ministers (even outside danger of death, where the rules support administration of baptism over the objections of parents) to baptize the infants of non-Catholic Christians (e.g., Orthodox, Protestants, and so on), if the Catholic raising of the child would somehow be provided for. So if, say, a Methodist-Baptist couple approached a Catholic priest to baptize their child, the priest is allowed to baptize the child if the parents (or even just one of them) offered a reasonable plan whereby the child would be raised Catholic. This is settled matter among canonists.

Henry Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology III: 52, “It is contrary to the mind of the Church to baptize a child who will not be brought up Catholic.” Abbo-Hannan, Sacred Canons I: 754, “If [a Protestant] parent asks for the Catholic baptism of his child, before his request can be granted, there must be moral certainty from the circumstances that he intends to bring it up Catholic”. And this whole line of thought seemed upheld by a 1941 reply from the Holy Office [now, CDF] which stated “Children who are presented by schismatical parents for baptism, except in danger of death, should generally not be baptized by a Catholic priest unless there is probable hope of their Catholic education.” CLD III: 300.

That these baptisms, when performed by Catholic ministers with (or even, strictly speaking, without, in danger of death) parental consent, were considered baptisms into the Catholic Church seemed conclusively proven in 1948 when Pius XII revoked (on unrelated grounds) an exemption from the requirement of canonical form that had previously been granted to “this class of persons baptized into the Catholic Church”. CLD III: 463. In short (and regardless of whatever “ritual Church” one might be ascribed to according to other canons) baptism by a Catholic minister is, and always has been, regarded as baptism into the Catholic Church.

Now, a few days ago, Pope Francis issued a motu proprio De concordia inter Codices, dealing with, among several things (some of which are routine, some of which need to be talked about, but not now), the baptism of the children of “non-Catholic Christians” under Canon 868. He added a new section to the current canon, as follows:

§ 3. Infants of non-Catholic Christians are licitly baptized if their parents or at least one of them or the person who legitimately takes their place request it and if it is physically or morally impossible for them to approach their own minister.


Given that the canonical tradition behind Canon 868 has always recognized that Catholic ministers may baptize the children of non-Catholic Christians upon parental request, provided that provision was made for the child’s Catholic up-bringing, what does this new language add?

Is it a restriction on the authority of Catholic ministers to baptize such children as long as their parents’ minister is somehow deemed ‘available’? Perhaps so, though I suppose one may ask, first, if the desire of the non-Catholic parents is to provide a Catholic up-bringing for their child, would a non-Catholic minister want to go forward with the rite, and, second, why would the Church not want a Catholic minister to perform the sacrament under those happy conditions?

Or (respecting the implications of Canon 21) do non-Catholic parents understand that, in seeking baptism from a Catholic minister, they are seeking what has long been recognized as entrance into the Catholic Church? I am guessing that many such parents do not understand that.

Or does the assumption about the Catholicity of baptism by Catholic ministers somehow no longer hold; might Catholic ministers risk being asked to perform a rite of baptism that some at least perceive as being into (objective) heresy or schism? Perish the thought, of course, but it seems to me that either the new language does rather little or it risks doing quite a lot.

Numerous experts were consulted over a long period of time in the run up to De Concordia so I am confident these questions were asked and answered. It would be useful, though, for the rest of us to know whether this passage of De Concordia simply amounts to a minor restriction on the interfaith conferral of baptism, one that preserves the Catholic effect of baptism performed by Catholic ministers (and occasions the need to explain this effect very clearly to non-Catholic petitioners), or whether it steps back from a well-established canonical understanding about the Catholic effects of baptism at the hands of Catholic ministers.

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