Saturday, June 13, 2015

Defending the Undefendable: On Refusing to Baptize Illegitimate Children

Just shut up and baptize our kid, Father. It's not his fault we're Animists 

In a meeting with priests a few days ago, Pope Francis mentioned a point that he has stressed again and again, both as Pope as well as when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires:
He reminded them a priest does not have the right to not baptize a baby born of a single mother, or whose parents have been divorced and re-married.
According to the short online Biography of Pope Francis by the Catholic News Agency, the Pope
told the Italian magazine “30 Days” in 2009 that illegitimate children should be baptized, even if their parents are not regular churchgoers. 
“The child has no responsibility for the condition of his parents’ marriage. The baptism of children can, on the contrary, become a new beginning for the parents.”
Indeed, the Pope's opposition to the practice of refusing baptism was a well-remarked feature of his resume, as can be seen from this 2013 New York Times story on the then somewhat new Pope:
(I)n September 2012, he scolded priests in Buenos Aires who refused to baptize the children of unwed mothers. “No to hypocrisy,” he said of the priests at the time. “They are the ones who separate the people of God from salvation.”
We digress slightly to not that the story was titled "A Conservative With a Common Touch" and ended by quoting an Argentinian journalist who "expected the new pope to be 'extremely conservative in all doctrinaire questions...'"

Of course, at the time and now, it is extremely difficult to find any disagreement with the Pope regarding his stance on the issue, among either "liberals", "conservatives" or anyone else. Who are these priests in Argentina that refuse to baptize illegitimate children? No doubt "Dirty War" death squad chaplains or SSPX members, or whatever.

So, to again ask a question with what would seem by now to have an uncontroversial and even obvious answer, does a priest have the right to refuse baptism for a child born out of wedlock?

Of course.

What was that again, I missed it?

Of course.

In addition, he also has the right to refuse baptism to a child born within wedlock.

Hold on, I'm not skirting the subject or playing word games. That a priest may refuse baptism in both possible sets of cases does not mean that the particular circumstances surrounding the first set may not be relevant in and of themselves.

Here is the current Code of Cannon Law:
There must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion; if such hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be delayed according to the prescripts of particular law after the parents have been advised about the reason (868, §1).
The standard sort of example might be a parent or parents who explicitly say they have no intention of raising their child within the Church. One assumes it is more common to have a situation where, though the parents sign the document declaring they have such an intention, the priest decides that the evidence suggests otherwise. A more specific example of this might be that the parent in question is an unwed mother currently involved in an extramarital relationship, and showing no sign that she wishes to end it.

It is important to note that what is at issue is not the Catholic or unCatholic beliefs or actions of the parent or parents per se, but rather their bearing on the question of whether or not the child will be raised as a Catholic. But clearly they would often have such bearing.

It's also important to note that there is certainly room for interpretation as to the meaning of "founded hope" and "altogether lacking", among other things. In addition, there would be ample room for well-intentioned disagreement regarding the facts of any particular case.

What is clear, however, is that it is the priest's job to seriously make such a determination, just as it is the priest's job in the case of, say, an adult baptism to determine whether the candidate has in fact never been baptized previously.

What is also clear is that, contra the Pope, the fact that the circumstances of the case--the intentions or actions of the parents and therefore whether or not there's reason to believe the child will be raised as a Catholic--are obviously not the child's fault are irrelevant. Or, to put it in a politically incorrect fashion, it's similarly not the child's fault that his parents are Hindus.

Sorry Hindus.

Or more appropriately and sincerely, sorry children of Hindus.

Now, there is certainly a pastoral element to this (for the parent or parents as well as the child). The Pope would no doubt agree. But the Pope rarely if at all discusses the fact that there is usually room for honest disagreement on specific pastoral questions. In fact, I'm not sure he ever discusses this point, which, quite frankly is one of the most disturbing things about this Pope. So, for example, Francis claims that "the baptism of children can...become a new beginning for the parents." I'm sure this is often true. However, I'm sure it is also true that, yes, refusing, or more accurately delaying baptism can also often become a new beginning for the parents. Among other things they might be encouraged to go back to trying to live their lives in conformity with Church teachings, which in the end of course would also benefit the child. Indeed, the internet chat rooms are full of these sorts of stories.

The Pope has a habit of stating things that are technically absolutely true and uncontroversial--illegitimacy is not a reason (in and of itself, we should add) to refuse baptism, mercy is central to Catholic teaching, judging other people is wrong, and so on--but in such a way and a manner that they actually imply things that are false and even dangerous.

It's not just that he is erecting straw men to bash other Catholics in order to earn points. If that were all he were doing, it would be merely obnoxious and annoying. It's that he is also sewing doubt among faithful Catholics on essential elements of the Faith.

Baptism is a boundlessly important sacrament (as all sacraments are, of course). But to put it in the Pope's own terms, it is not merely a "prize"--least of all for the child.


  1. A beautifully-written article.

    I used to teach a Baptism prep class for parents and would-be godparents of babies being prepared for the sacrament, and I believed I had done a good job.

    But articles such as this would have helped improve my teaching course enormously. Thank you for this. God bless you.

    1. Thanks! I'm not sure the compliment is deserved but I'll take it. Are you the Marie that I know from Cantius?

  2. It appears the ennui of Pharisee Island has the best of you.

  3. Canon law? These are just "small minded rules" in Francis speak.

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