Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Chris Jones: Do We Have A "Right" To Baptism?

Here is Chris Jones' excellent post from 9-19-02, which he mentioned earlier on my post about the strange court case of baptism. Chris brings out the heart of the discussion: help and encourage the parents to create a Christian household for the baptized baby to come home to! I've put the whole post here, because it is such a great post. Be sure to read his simple theological and pastoral principles near the end of the post.

Do We Have A "Right" To Baptism?

There's an interesting dustup going on at the Catholic Heart, Mind, and Strength weblog about under what circumstances (if any) a priest should refuse a parent's request to baptize a baby. HMS contributor Greg Popcak started it (not knowing the powderkeg he was touching off) by suggesting that the Church should have higher expectations of her members. Greg started with the general idea (he called it the Mercedes principle) that if something costs you a lot, you'll value it more and take better care of it. Applying that to Christianity, Greg says

... if we wish to evangelize in an effective way, we cannot water things down. In fact, we have to raise the bar. ... The evangelistic message needs to be, "Yes, come as you are, but be prepared to give everything you are in service of the gospel" This is the Mercedes Principle and it results in strong growth with strong committment.

Welborn (of In Between Naps fame) countered that the pastoral strictness that Greg was recommending often has the effect of driving marginal Catholics away from the Church:

you know, believe it or not, many of the people come to church seeking answers and meaning are coming out of very messy, complicated personal situations. Sometimes the Mercedes principle can be used to discourage these people, rather than bring them out of their messes. We can risk giving the impression that God is only for the perfect, and until you have reached that exalted state - don't bother.

and she brought up the specific situation about baptism:

I say this as a former parish minister who worked all day and night with people who were creeping back into church, sometimes after years or decades out, only to have their heads and souls reeled around for them by a priest, other parish minister or legalistic volunteer who ... wouldn't let a couple get their baby baptized until their marriage was validated in the Church. Never mind that the woman was married to a non-Catholic man unwilling and uncomprehending as to why his first marriage in the Methodist church needed annulling by the Catholic Church, and that getting this couple to the point where both could see the importance of that might take a while...And so the baby went unbaptized.

Well, after that it was off to the races. I recommend you go over to HMS and read the whole thing. The two camps seem to be (1) if they want to be in the Church, make sure they're in it for the long haul - no cheap grace; and (2) get them in the door by any fair means, and trust that baptismal grace will do its work in the long run.
I have some sympathy for both sides in this debate. Theologically I think Popcak has the better position; but though he acknowledges the need for pastoral sensitivities, he doesn't give us an idea of how that would work in practice, which leaves us thinking that he just thinks the priests should be more hardass.


What I saw as missing from the debate are some simple theological and pastoral principles:

  • Despite the fact that, numerically, most baptisms are infant baptisms, theologically and liturgically the norm is adult baptism. The baptismal liturgy makes it clear that baptism is predicated on the new Christian's free and conscious confession of faith in Jesus Christ. The normative pattern for becoming a Christian is (1) hearing the proclamation of the Gospel; (2) believing in the Gospel; (3) catechesis; (4) entering the Church through Holy Baptism; and (5) participating in the full sacramental life of the Church.

  • Infant baptism, at first glance, seems to stand this pattern on its head. Baptism comes first, not fourth; evangelization and catechesis are all mixed up together; participation in the sacraments (confession and communion) comes in middle childhood; and the personal confession of faith in Jesus Christ comes whenever it comes (if ever). One can see where the Baptists are coming from. But the key that makes infant baptism make sense is that the child is born into a household where the Christian faith is being lived in a serious, consistent way. The theory is that in a genuinely Christian household, evangelization and catechesis will like the air the child breathes. If the child will not, in fact, be raised in such a household, baptizing the child is certainly valid, but pastorally questionable.

I agree with Greg that baptism in that situation is being treated as a "get out of hell free" card, when it should represent a "take up your Cross and follow Me" card.The problem with infant baptism without the Christian household is that the child will end up living in this fallen world without proper evangelization, catechesis, and consistent use of the means of grace. What are his chances of successfully following the way of salvation?

So what is a pastor to do? It seems to me that, given that infant baptism is theologically predicated on the existence of a genuinely Christian household, the pastor's first goal is not to baptize the child, but to create that household. In other words, to evangelize and catechize the parents. The parents, after all, are the primary evangelists to the child; and they cannot pass on what they have not got.

1 comment:

Chris Jones said...

I'm honored that you thought this worthy of being re-posted. Thanks.