In Connection With the Baptism of Children

Author: Achille Triacca


Achille Triacca

It is the common practice of the Catholic Church and of most Christian denominations to baptize children. Generally, in the regions commonly considered Christian, they are the subjects of Baptism. In recent years this traditional practice has been the object of controversy and of particular interest on the part of theologians and men of pastoral action. According to the theological argumentation, the baptism of children always presents itself, in the framework of the sacramentality of the Church, with the unquestionable features of exceptionality, since it is a "sacrament of faith" conferred on subjects that are materially incapable of acts of faith. From the point of view of men of pastoral action, concerned with the personal dispositions of the persons to be baptized, there is a tendency to postpone the celebration of the event of salvation. In fact the concerns of the so-called "theologians" and "pastoralists" have common roots which it would not be possible to disentangle if the question isleft on the field of pure discussion without the latter being conducted with exact lines of method.

Validity and legitimacy of Baptism of children

First and foremost it is clear that the validity of the Baptism of children or its legitimacy is not questioned. This is a reality that has been sanctioned also by other Christian denominations. See the document "Faith and Constitution" of the "World Council of Churches" on "Baptism—the Eucharist—Ministries" (Baptism nn. 12-14). The discussion turns on the contrary on the suitability or the opportuneness of the baptism of children. On this question, in the Catholic world it is not the thought of individual—so-called—scholars or of particular communities that is the authority. Not only in truths but also in practice concerning the Sacraments it is ecclesial thought that counts.

The Church could not conform to the expectations of men if these expectations were to harm her faithfulness to the mandate of Jesus Christ. This is equivalent to stating that it is not merely human parameters, the fruit of intelligence or of the ways of thinking and conceiving realities, that govern the way of acting in the Church in the first, place. For this reason, a practice, if it is universal and constant within the Church, could not be understood unless in relation to the "verum" present in ecclesial vitality; which would be reduced in the last analysis to an interpretative and practical principle to be faithful tothe Lord.

It is true that usually the line of pastoral action may seem to depend solely on the socio-cultural situation in which the Church, placed in given spatial and temporal co-ordinates, happens to find herself. But, more or less indirectly, tradition in operational terms always presupposes a way of considering the identical "mysterium". This means that the activity of the Church must not be considered separately from the context of the economy of salvation, but as a historicizing of salvation, a making it present to all men. The activity ofthe Church, in fact, did notdevelop just anyhow, but organically, withthe result of enriching and deepening the same unique depositof thefaith. Sothat typical expressions by means of which the Church has given concrete forms to truth, which have taken on tonalities or emphases, enjoy a right to existence, if it is not desired to falsify the balance of the deposit of faith. It would also be the case of the traditional practice of the baptism of children, a practice which—in spite of its obviousness and venerability, has already on other occasions—in the course of history—raised for theologians and pastors the question of its suitability and opportuneness.

Methodologically, attention must be drawn here at once to the fact that the practice of the church to baptize children, beyond disputes and the "nonsolution" of objections or questions in the theoretical field, has always constantly persisted and prevailed. It would not be any use to put forward the argument that there is on the one side the "esse", the evangelical value of Baptism, that which the Magisterium and theology have highlighted in the course of the centuries, interpreting the Word of God, and on the other side the"fieri", its development in the temporality of the life (lives) of the Church; because the "esse" and the "fieri" cannot be in opposition but are in harmonious interpretation. The synthesis of these two elements, according to ecclesial understanding, must aim at a growth of the vital deepening of what the "ecclesia" has assimilated for a long time, and not to questioning always and again what has already been obtained. In fact to claim to go back over the whole way again without keeping in mind .the meaning of ecclesial practice, is to err and seriously, since understanding of ecclesial vitality is either weakened or partly falsified or misinterpreted.

The least that can be said is that we could find ourselves up against a case of infantilism or snobbism of the theological type.

Vitality of the Church and the life of faith

It is a question in the last analysis of grasping all the implications of the principle of the organicdevelopment of enrichment and deepening ofthe deposit of the faith. Thisis equivalent to being able to assert: when it is a question of authentic living and vital theology—that is, theology which, though renewing itself and adapting itself to the requirements of the times, remains, in the continuity of tradition, faithful to itself as the science of Christian Revelation—then it is certain that the affirmations arrived at in the investigation and the operational practices derived from them, will be nothing but the confirmation in a clearer, more convincing and thorough way, of what was already professed, believed and celebrated elsewhere and in other times.

Organic development of deposit of faith

This principle of vital increase is, moreover, in direct connection with another one that helps us to understand the continuity of ecclesial practice in the service of the organic development of the deposit of the faith. We are referring to the principle of the pastoral functioning of the ways of celebrating at which the Church arrives—always enriching herself—inthe course of the centuries, "subductu Spiritus Sancti". In fact it is the Holy Spirit which, in ecclesial action, leads the Church to progressive development, to an ever wider deepening, to become more vitally operative. In other words, there does not exist in the critical realities of the Church a degradation of her vitality. Without any doubt, it is possible to read, with the eye of faith, in the present discussions on the suitability and opportuneness of the Baptism of children, a passing of the Spirit, provided his way of acting in the Church from the Apostles until today is not contrasted. The theoretical discussion, in fact, if carried out along the correct and sound methodological lines, will certainly lead to rediscovering the intrinsic preciousness of the practice of the Baptism of children, its value for the life of faith and of full love for Christ-the Church.

Turning to the reality of the Baptism of children, through the understanding that every Christian age has had of it, it is for us today to discover and penetrate again the meaning of the "Mysterium" of Christ-Church, which gives a meaning to all the events of history. We mean to stress that if the baptism of children belongs to the order of salvation and is a gift actively welcomed by the Church, it can be known, understood and studied only as a result of accepting the whole word of God developed and matured organically in the Church which is its depositary. This amounts to saying that we can speak of the baptism of children only where there exists a continual and simultaneous reference to the whole ecclesial tissue; that is, we can speak of it where there exists a deep connection with the Revelation carried out and made perennial in the life of the Church. While the baptism of children is the gift of Holy Trinity, it is at the same time the ecclesial activity of response to the gift: the activity of faith answering God who speaks. It is not an abstract reality, it is not the fruit of intellectualistic or voluntaristic positions. On the contrary, it is an existential and dialogical attitude.

It is a question, therefore, of investigating that adherence to Holy Trinity—also in the modality of the baptism of children—is not an affective attitude, but is to enter the perspectives of the plan of salvation, which is a plan of efficacious signs or a sacramentary plan: in a word, liturgical. This aspect which integrates, completes and expresses lived faith, ecclesial life, requires greater study in relation to the baptism of children. And this study must not and cannot be reduced to the desire to "produce something new'" or to discover some nicety that has escaped preceding investigations but must extend to the aspiration to succeed—by it gift of God—in deepening study of the divine message of salvation. This is equivalent to saying that the study is of the word of God, transmitted and vitalized by the Church, celebrated, put into practice, vivified and realized by a vital attitude of worship.

The efforts that are being made nowadays to understand and study more deeply the reality of the baptism of children, must move, therefore, in the perennity of what Christianity has done and is doing to grasp the "newness of the Gospel" and the magnificence inherent in the practice of the baptism of children. With regard to this event, it is legitimate to discuss and it is right to investigate in order to face the truth and become more deeply aware of the vitality of such a significant ecclesial practice. The latter will be more and more incomprehensible the more the claim is made to study it in wrong perspectives, such as the following three.

Three possible errors

Those errors are: Minimism, which is a tendency to stop only at some elements among those required in order that these may be the event of salvation, and to intensify investigation only on them, degrading the magnificence of the event to which we have just referred, and also breaking the balance of the parts inserted in a whole. Fragmentation, which consists in not keeping in mind the fact that Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist must be considered as a whole, in an overall view. The subject, more than "celebrate" this or that sacrament, unites with God in Jesus, gradually and more deeply. The globality of the adherence and of the richness of the response to the Father's invitation in Christ by virtue of the Spirit is pedagogically sanctioned and emphasized in "various" rites. Particularism, by means of which, in dealing with and in seeking to solve a problem, only some necessities are preferably kept in mind, sometimes to the extent of losing sight of the whole in which a detail must be integrated. In a word it is not so much the empirical level, by means of which the ritual element is emphasized, that is important in the baptism of children as in the baptism of adults. It is rather the theologico-liturgical level, through which the event of salvation is integrated in the interpersonal relationship that man can and must have with Trinity and will, the Church.

Lines of pastoral action

Wishing to summarize from a historical of view the two main lines of pastoral action that refer to the Baptism of children, it would be necessary to recall the one that aims at conferring the sacrament on those who offer sufficient guarantees of personal dispositions, and the other which is concerned chiefly with its celebration. They are two extreme cases, two trends which seem dictated solely by practical reasons of adaptation to concrete situations: the more or less intense Christianization of the environment. Thus an apostolate concerned mainly with the personal dispositions of the persons to be baptized is conditioned by the sociological situation of the Church as a minority; seeks to find its theological justification in the close relationship existing between faith and sacrament, to such an extent as to consider Baptism mostly as "sacramentum fidei". And, viceversa, the practice of Baptism conferred "quamprimum", though depending on the historical situation of the "faith of a community", has its roots in the theological vision of Baptism considered principally as an "instrument of salvation" whose efficacy is "ex opere operato".

Going on to consider the roots of the present discussion on the Baptism of children which are found in the polemics kindled by Karl Barth, this discussion should already be considerably redimensioned. Barth's positions would be plausible, if at all, only within his theological system. It is not honest to deduce from heterodox premises consequences of heteropraxis. Nor is it wise to borrow conclusions originating in a matrix completely "sui generis" and apply them in other situations. In the Catholic field, at least as regards theoretical discussion, acquired data are fixed within precise limits.

From the historical point of view, the authors prove almost unanimously the very ancient origin of the traditional baptismal practice; and in any case the Baptism of children, which is not in any way the fruit of a late and degenerating process of evolution, is proved as a legitimate and historically justified custom. From the theological point of view it is justified with the classical terms of Augustinian thought and of the declarations of the Council of Trent, as an event carried out in the faith of the Church. In fact it is a particularly expressive sign of the anticipating grace of God and of the universality of his plan of salvation. There still remains today, according to a fringe of theologians, the task of studying and investigating what deep theological view is at the origin of the pastoral practice itself. However, the legitimacy of the Baptism of children leaves open, it is true, the problem of the suitability and opportuneness of its administration. This is said to be connected with the deep change of the opportuneness of the Baptism of children.

Now it would be possible to discuss the pros and cons "sine die" on the theoretical plane. However, to keep the discussion far from landing up at something exotic or extemporaneous, we would like to recall what we wrote above and to add a further series of reflections, still in the sphere of method and what is more, pastoral method.

First of all it should be considered that on the pastoral plane the exacerbating of problems that can concern the ecclesial structures, is in bad taste and already harmful from the outset.

Supposing that the intention is not to exacerbate, but to weigh up and take seriously into consideration the problem of the baptism of children, then it will have to be agreed that, from a point of view of professional ethics, the pastor must create the conditions typical and characteristic of a Christian setting in order that the baptism of children may be celebrated. Therefore the pastor must first endeavour to create the typical ground in order that the practice may continue according to the criteria of the Church. Nor is the Pastor justified in imitating or transplanting solutions ofother countries or of other local churches "sic et simpliciter", even if, in his judgment, the conditions are similar, without having first pondered all the themes and all the possibilities in agreement with his bishop, and bishop, according to the wise norms of "overall pastoral care", in agreement with his confrères in the episcopate according to those typical regional territorial divisions created recently and strengthened after the Second Vatican Council.

Then, too, there is clear proof of lack of aggiornamento,that is, of lack of qualification in the matter, on the part of those theologians and those pastors who approve and admit the validity and legitimacy of the baptism of children in theory (otherwise they would be outside the Catholic world) but in practice justify and support, sometimes rashly, sometimes with apparent prudence, the practice of delaying Baptism for children, to such an extent as to fall into contradiction and create a dichotomy between "esse" and "fieri". This is outside true theology. There exists, in fact, and unfortunately not only for the case of the Baptism of children, a kind of "dichotomy" in some theologians and pastors. The latter, when reasoning theoretically, when asserting on the intellectual plane, are in agreement with the tenets of the Church. But when it comes to practice, they act or make people act, as if everything were the reverse of what they profess.

Thus for the baptism of children its non-suitability or non-opportuneness is advocated in such a way, in practice, as to give rise to serious suspicions that they find it advantageous to assert the truth in words but then to demolish it in practice. Sometimes, too, it is claimed to justify it with enquiries or surveys of the sociological or some other type: things which are all useful but so relative and contingent that they—most certainly—cannot say the last word. All the more so in that these methods can always be manoeuvred or preconstructed according to the intention of the collector and are bound up with the "ground" on which they are applied. This "ground" could be so falsified by bad catechesis or the lack of it that it would not give rise to any result except that of becoming aware of the necessity of catechizing, or even of preevangelizing.

It remains therefore an unalterable necessity to integrate the baptism of children in the wide framework of the opening of present-day sacramental theory in order not to debase or distort the dynamism of this event of salvation: taking into account, obviously, the methodological lines to which we have referred up to now. To this we would like to add that, as always happens, the apostolate must find a justification in the theological field, so that a falsified theology is always accompanied by an unbalanced apostolate. This is so even if it is inevitably true that the sound and perennial apostolate may not yet be consciously aware of what the theology on which it is based is like. This is the case of the baptism of children, the practice of which already reveals in itself a way in which the Church, in the course of the centuries, has thought fit to interpret and put into practice her fidelity to the Lord's mandate. Today, in fact, people are becoming consciously aware of this and other truths, which constitute the substratum underlying the necessity of baptizing also children.

Vatican II aided by theological understanding

It is true, certainly, that points of theological discussion also exist today. This legitimate discussion cannot stop the practice but should aim only at deeper study of the theological hinterland of the practice itself. It is, in fact, this deeper theological study that will make the apostolate of the baptism of children necessarily become more exacting. For this reason it should be recalled that the observations that can, and we repeat, must be made, cannot aim in the slightest at denying or underestimating the pastoral duty of the Church to go towards all and to welcome all those who present themselves and ask to participate in her signs of salvation. It is a question on the contrary of shedding better light on some aspects of the sacramental reality of the baptism of children, in order to guide pastoral reflection and help it to emerge from some blind-alleys or from some contradictions in which it happens to fall.

Now it is the very emphases contained in the documents of the Second Vatican Council that help us to end the errors which it is sometimes difficult not to make. In fact, it is true that Baptism is the event through which men participate in Christ's paschal mystery (SC 6; LG 7; UR 22; AG 14),are incorporated into the Church, the new priestly, prophetic and royal people (LG 10. 11. 14. 31; SC 14; AA 3; AG 6. 15; PO 5), the event which marks the beginning of the new life in the Spirit of Christ, aiming entirely at worship and at the commitment of testimony (SC 14; AG 10. 11. 33. 40. 44; AA 3).Consequently, this means that it will no longer be a question of justifying the practice of the baptism of children as an isolated fact, or of affirming its necessity primarily or solely with a view to purification from original sin. It will be a question of clarifying the very meaning of Baptism in relation to the great theologico-liturgical lines, the achievement of the theology of this century, sanctioned and adopted by the official Magisterium of the Holy Church of God, solemnly supported by the Second Vatican Council. These mark on the one hand a return to the ancient sources, and on the other hand a sign of the presence of the Spirit in the Church.

It seems to us, in fact, that in this way "research" will find the right way which keeps it far from a repetition of commonplaces, deprived of vitality, announcements and practical results, and far also from continual and inorganic innovations which would disturb the perennity and authenticity of research itself. Consequently the collateral pastoral practice takes on more and more the tonality and characteristic of ecclesial practice. Just from the constant and lasting practice of baptizing children, must be gathered, in harmony with the points stressed by the Second Vatican Council, the necessity inherent in the Church of integrating children in the new life in the Spirit of Christ, constituting as they do an important stage in the development of the Christian community. And this is far from being a utilitarian view. It is, on the contrary, a critical reality in order to put into practice the Saviour's will, which the Church tries to carry out.

Are there reasons for the non-appropriateness of baptism for children?

If it were necessary to suggest motives that militate on the pastoral plane for the non-suitability of the baptism of children, it should be said that there are fundamentally two. First, the experience that a large number of baptized children do not subsequently receive, in actual fact, sufficient instruction and education in the Christian faith; then, the motivations which lead many parents to ask for the baptism of their children are far from the real sacramental nature of Baptism. It is a question, radically, of a problem of adequate and appropriate catechesis of adults, that is, of creating the suitable ground for maintaining the practice in force in the Church. We are certain that, in practice, there will be unity in the apostolate of the universal Church. This apostolate of the baptism of children must move on concrete lines in order to create the ideal ground for the continuity and perennity of the practice of the baptism of children. Then the apostolate will have to vivify some key points, to which we wish to draw attention,

Faith and baptism of children

Today, too, stress is rightly laid on the inseparable bond that links the faith to every sacrament. As a result of this the real attitude of faith is considered as belonging to the "truth" of the sacrament itself. This holds good also for the baptism of children which is celebrated in the faith of the Church. Now it is clear that the faith of the Church is necessary and sufficient to constitute the sacrament in its objective plane, but that it cannot properly replace, unless in an inchoative way, the faith of the candidate, which has it's place on the subjective plane of personal acceptance of the salvific sign. The sacrament is not just a gift of God, but also man's response to the gift. Now the child (and like him also anyone who is physically an adult and psychically a child) is a person. As such he is able to enter upon a multi-personal relationship with the divine Persons and with the faithful of the Church. He is a person capable of receiving the gift of faith, which is made to him by Holy Trinity through the Church. He is capable of it in a "childish" way and therefore actual personal acceptance of the reality signified by the Baptism celebrated is pressed for in the person of the child (as moreover in that of the adult).

From the pastoral point of view the matter becomes a very important one from a double standpoint. The first one, faith, that of the Church, involved for the baptism not only of the child but of the adult, must be made visible by the real and concrete faith in and by the local Ecclesial Community in which the person to be baptized is integrated and lives. In the case of the baptism of children it must be present and made visible also in the family "domestic church" which accepts the child. The second standpoint is that of the human reality which surrounds the child, that is, the educative capacities of the parents and the whole set of conditioners of his human and Christian development. These realities must be aimed and directed at the dynamism of the child's education in the faith of the Church, and so the faith of the parents, together with the faith and the commitment of education to the faith of the ecclesial community, plays a very important role in the dynamism of Baptism. It is not actually a "sine qua non" role or an irreplaceable role "in absoluto". It is a question, on the contrary, of approaching the apostolate as an apostolate of initiation, deepening growth and maturing of faith, which is an essential part of Christian experience. Catechesis, not only in preparation for the celebration but also following it, would regain the whole truth. New tonalities would colour the Lenten itinerary, in which the whole Church is invited to go back over and relive the stages of one’s own catechumenate (whether it was really carried out in personal lifeas an actual preparation for the celebration of Baptism, or whether it was postponed or shortened or replaced or neglected) in order to mature every year in the reality of Baptism-Confirmation-Eucharist, until the age of full stature in Christ. This annual Lenten catechumenate as a whole puts to the test the Christian "depth" of communities and families. This periodic catechumenal experience would allow also children and the young to rediscover the reality of the Baptism-Confirmation vocation to the faith. Also the penitential dimension of Christian life, a requirement for conversion, could be lived in its authenticity in this pastoral perspective. This, though admitting a variety of formulas for different circumstances, is fundamentally the most convincing pastoral line on the methodological plane. Among other things, it leaves room for the correct understanding of the practice of the celebration of the sacrament of penance itself in children. This celebration—if carried out as the Church teaches us—would be a privileged moment for the maturing of the individual towards sacramentary and ecclesial realities.

Ecclesiology and baptism of children

In the last analysis: it is the whole Church which must become aware today that it must take its place at the side of every member of the faithful to accompany him in the path of faith and Christian responsibility that encompasses his whole existence. The practice of baptizing children is not just a practice which is solved in an isolated way. Like all sacramentary practices, it is fundamentally a problem of the Church, a problem of constructing the Church. It is impossible to conceive an apostolate of the baptism of children that does not have repercussions on every catechetical activity of a parish; on preparation for Confirmation, for the Eucharist, for the Sacrament of Marriage; or on the family apostolate, on special group movements within the local community, etc. It is a question, therefore, of strengthening at all levels processes of the maturing of faith, of awareness of one's daily conversion, of membership of the Church, and so on. In its deep theological structure, Baptism is not only preceded, but rather followed by a Christian life in continual evangelizing and catechizing aimed at strengthening the processes which we have mentioned.

Sacramental action not only constitutes the ultimate goal at which the apostolic work of the Church aims, but is also the foundation of its very existence as a community of salvation. It is in the sacraments that God builds his Church, making it the communion of faith and love with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and with men. And it is again in the sacraments that the Church responds as a community to God's gift in faith and in worship. In this context one understands that it is the Church, as community of salvation, that ensures to man a real meeting with God, by inserting him in Christ's paschal mystery.

This means that even before being the fruit of a personal search, salvation is a gift, a loving meeting that the Church obtains for us objectively and efficaciously from God, by means of the salvific-sacramentary events left by Christ to the Church by virtue of the Spirit. It is the Church, the people of worship, which celebrates in the individual, and the individual in the Church, the event of thesacrament.

The axiom holds good: The sacrament "fit in Ecclesia, pro Ecclesia, cum Ecclesia". The validity and the authenticity of thesacraments depend, fundamentally, on the fact that if the sacrament exists, it exists because itis an act of the Church, community of salvation, and not so much because it is an act of an individual or several individuals who celebrate it. Personal dispositions are involved: in an optimal view, in the greatest ofways; in a normal view, at least with that "minimum" required in order that there may be an action carried out by men.

The optimal view, at which it is right and necessary to aim, is in practice, both on the theological and on the pastoral plane, a goal towards which we must strive with all our might.

The normal view is that which must be kept in mind, without ambiguity, in the apostolate. In fact, the sacraments are an ecclesial fact of such a kind that the normal view and the optimal one are jointly present either in their exercise and unfolding or in their implicit realization, not only because the sacraments are celebrated in, by, and with the Church, but also because the Church herself is generated by the sacraments. The Church as community of salvation is the great fundamental instrument of God's salvific gesture, which therefore precedes and founds the salvation of individuals as it also and concomitantly follows the salvation of individuals.

Baptism of children a reality of worship

Let it be added that the event of baptism is an event in which the Lord Jesus "acts" personally in the person to be baptized and "accomplishes" salvation in him. In this the Father of Jesus, and he is also our Father, has the concrete initiative of "entering" the existence of the man in order to give it new value. In this the Holy Spirit becomes "possessor" of the man redeemed by Christ in order be able to say in a renewed way "Abba—Father". No Catholic questions that, simultaneously and concomitantly with the reality-event, the gift of divine life in the member of the faithful must become shared more radically, more vitally, and in continuous progress. However, one must not fail to recall that ontological priority is to be attributed to the divine action that carries out the plan of salvation, in such a way that the subject of Baptism obeys the mandate ofrendering real and full praise to the Holy Trinity.

All things considered, in the tendency to postpone the baptism of children a vein of anthropocentrism is concealed which is not completely justified with the criteria ofRevelation. There should emerge, on the contrary, the line of a Christocentrism in which also rightful anthropological requirements would have value. On the other hand it is not just the perspective of sanctification (descending dimension) present in Baptism which must be strengthened. This dimension accentuates in a marked way the effort of conversion that the subject should "de facto" profess, by professing not only noetic and intellectual but operative and dynamic faith. This dimension, which can also be correct, is nevertheless a partial one.

In today's openings of sacramentary theory, the dimension of worship (ascendent dimension) has rightly been restored—following the example ofantiquity. This re-emphasized dimension of worship, balanced with the other one ofsanctification, gives theological reflection a possibility of broad development in relation to a correct evaluation of the community dimension of the sacraments; making them be understood not only as a point of arrival but even more a source and starting point for a significance in terms of worship of the whole of Christian life in the body of the priestly people which is the Church.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
6 April 1978, page 9

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