Friday, October 18, 2013

Should I baptize my heathen neighbor's child?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

My next door neighbor is a heathen. He refuses to have his children baptized. I have an in-ground pool and we have neighborhood pool parties. I was thinking of secretly baptizing all the neighbor children while no one was looking. After all, one can’t go to heaven without baptism. What do you think of this plan?

Duncan Rivers

Dear Duncan,

This is a horrible idea! Who do you think you are? Ned Flanders? Never baptize anyone if there is not a reasonable hope that they will be able to practice the faith, and certainly never baptize a child without the collaboration of its parents or legal guardians. The only possible exception I can imagine is the real and certain danger of imminent death. It makes me even crazier than I already am that people have so little understanding of sacraments. First of all, we don’t know that only the baptized go to heaven. I refer to paragraph 1257 of the Catechism

The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are "reborn of water and the Spirit." God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.

What the Catechism is saying is that we leave these things to the mercy and justice of God. As you may know, I am not real big on locutions. I think they should be taken as pious meditations once they have been vetted by the Church, but there is something that St. Faustina has said about the issue. She asked the Lord during one of her visions, “What about all the souls that haven’t had the chance to hear the Gospel.”  If I understand the quote properly, Jesus said in essence  “Don’t worry. At the hour of death I am my own apostle.” 

St. Dismas, the good thief, was received into eternal life without baptism and Jesus went to preach to the souls in prison after His crucifixion. (1Peter 3:18 and following) here we have two Biblical examples of salvation without baptism in water. These were near-death and post-death instances of what we have always called baptism of desire. I want to be baptized, even though I am unable to be. 

There is also baptism by blood. If a person dies a martyr’s death, even though he is unbaptized, we believe him to be with the Lord in glory. This passage from the catechism tells us that we can be sure of baptism’s efficacy to those who have heard the Gospel preached and are responding to it. We know no other sure means of entering into eternal life, but we trust in God’s love, justice and mercy that he make the offer of heaven to all people in the way most appropriate. That is why the catechism add the line, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”

Baptism and all the other sacraments are not voodoo rituals that initiate us into a club. They are not magic. They are in fact solemn responsibilities. Sacraments are “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace.”  To give grace! Well, shouldn’t we want grace? Isn’t grace always a good thing? Maybe not. Grace neglected and grace denied become not a gift but condemnation!!! 

Remember the story of the talents in the 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel? A man gave his three slaves ten, five, and one talent respectively. A talent was a huge amount of money, and the slaves were expected to invest the money. The first two double their master’s money. The third, fearing failure, buried the money and returned it to the master when the accounts were settled. The master was furious. He called him a wicked and lazy servant and said.  “You should have invested my money with the bankers, and then I would have received what was my own with interest... Throw this worthless servant into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!” Youch! God does not give us grace as a plaything, or a nice bauble to trot out when we’re feeling religious.

“For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace.” John 1: This is a frequent but inaccurate translation of a very obscure verse. The text literally says “Kharin anti kharitos” which literally means “grace against grace,” or “grace instead of grace”. Huh? The word “anti” in Greek means pretty much what it means in English. Grace opposed to grace? This makes no sense, at least as most of us understand grace. 

Grace is not just a gift, it is the gift of responsibility. It is an invitation to collaborate with Christ in His work of redemption. In the parable above cited, the one talent is taken from the lazy slave and given to the industrious slave. That doesn’t seem fair! Shouldn’t the industrious slave have given something to help out the lazy slave? You’re missing the point. Not only was the money the property of the master, the slaves who invested it were the master’s property. The money they earned wasn’t theirs to keep. It was a responsibility that they were to care for according to the master’s will. 

In the same way, grace isn’t ours to keep. God gives us a gift that we might give it to the world. It is not for our own amusement or enrichment. If, like the industrious servant, we do well the Lord gives us not more money but more work. Grace instead of grace. Responsibility in place of responsibility. 

To confer a sacrament on someone who has neither the ability nor the desire to serve the Lord with the grace given imposes a serious responsibility on that person. The sacraments don’t protect us from the boogeyman. They bring us headlong into spiritual warfare with the boogeyman. A sacrament isn’t just a nice thing. It’s a calling. Don’t baptize someone who will never live the life of grace. You will be questioned by the Master when the accounts are settled and He will ask you, “where is that person you insisted in having baptized?” 

People who have no intention to live the Christian life themselves and have no intention of encouraging their children to do so, nag me to baptize a child. I always wonder why. Is it because Grandma and Grandpa would be angry? Understand that you are swearing yourself to a lifelong responsibility when you are baptized, or when you sponsor someone who is to be baptized. Do not swear an oath which you will not honor and do not impose such a grave responsibility on another human being. 

Either these things are real or they just superstitions. For my part I have staked my life on their reality.

Rev. Know-it-all


  1. "Do not swear an oath which you will not honor and do not impose such a grave responsibility on another human being."

    Um...doesn't this exhortation kind of speak against the practice of infant baptism in the first place?

    I mean, don't get me wrong...I've always wondered about the logic of that. I'm prepared to give dutiful assent to the teachings of the Church on the subject, but to my own mind it's always seemed rather dubious...sacraments are indeed oaths to the death, and each carries a burden with it. It is annoying when adults engage in them without taking them seriously, but as adults they'll have to answer for their own consciences at the end.

    But I really honestly don't see how it's genuinely different to impose this duty (which, since we're talking about very young children in either case, they can't understand well enough to take it upon themselves) on other people's children as on our own.

  2. Father, I wonder if we might implore with you to make this a multi-part post. The responsibility of the person performing the baptism is certainly a topic on which I would be interested to hear more. And these sorts of bathtub baptisms have gone on for a really long time. If I recall correctly there was one that caused something of a diplomatic crisis during the reign of Pius IX. I don't recall seeing an ecclesiastical condemnation of the baptizer in the reading I did on it. I'm not trying to quibble, I'm just saying it's an interesting topic and that I would like to hear more on it, if you're going to be writing a column anyways.