Baptism of Infants

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The Baptism of Infants is a long-standing practice in the Church. Although the New Testament makes no specific mention of infant Baptism a number of Scripture texts seem to witness to the custom. St. Paul uses the example of circumcision to explain the significance of Baptism and thus implies that Baptism like circumcision could be administered to infants (1 Cor 7.14). He exhorts children to obey their parents "in the Lord" (Col 3.30; Eph 6.1), and at no time does Paul or any of the other N.T. writers suggest children will have to seek Baptism at some later date as they grow into adulthood.

In Mark's Gospel Jesus is pictured putting his arms around a child and saying, "Whoever welcomes a child such as this for my sake welcomes me" (9.37). Some scholars read into this passage a justification for infant Baptism. When as in the case of Lydia's (Acts 16.15), an entire "household" (oikos ) was baptized, children are presumed to have been included along with the adults (see Acts 16.33; 18.8; and 1 Cor 1.16).

A century later evidence for infant Baptism becomes more definite. St. Justin speaks of Christians 60 or 70 years old who had "from childhood been made disciples" (Apol I, 5). St. Irenaeus speaks of Christ as giving salvation to people of every age, and he expressly includes "infants and little children" (Adv Haer ii, 39). In the 3rd century Tertullian voices opposition to infant Baptism (the protest itself witnesses to the practice). He urged that the Baptism of children be deferred until they can "know Christ." As he grew older Tertullian became stricter. His principal reason for postponing Baptism was that he felt the remission of sin after Baptism was difficult if not impossible. In the detailed account it gives of the baptismal rites The Apostolic Tradition, attributed by some to St. hippolytus (d. 235) states, "And they shall baptize little children first. And if they can answer for themselves, let them answer. But if they cannot, let their parents answer or someone from their family" (N. xxii [Dix, 33]).

By the 4th century the catechumenate was no longer for a fixed period, and the practice of deferring Baptism was widespread. St. Ambrose (339396), for example, was baptized only after he was acclaimed bishop of Milan at the age of 35. St. Jerome (345420) was baptized at 19. As in the case of Ambrose and Jerome, the offspring of Christian families were frequently inscribed in the catechumenate as infants or small children and were given a Christian upbringing. The list of prominent churchmen of the period baptized as adults includes St. Basil the Great (d. 379), baptized at 26; St. Gregory Nazianzen, baptized at 28 or 29. (It has been suggested that the latter, living in a monastic community, deferred the sacrament until he could return home and be baptized by his father who was a bishop.) John Chrysostom's mother, widowed when he was a baby, put him under the tutelage of monks,

was nearly 20 before he received baptism. Nonetheless in an Easter Sermon to Neophytes, c. 390, he said,

You have seen how numerous are the gifts of baptism. Although many men think that the only gift it confers is the remission of sins, we have counted its honors to the number of ten. It is on this account that we baptize even infants, although they are sinless, that they may be given the further gifts of sanctification, justice, filial adoption, and inheritance, that they may be brothers and members of Christ, and become dwelling places for the Spirit." (N. 1) [H/H, p. 166]

The Eastern Churches, Orthodox and Catholic alike, follow the ancient custom of administering chrism (Confirmation) and Eucharist at the time of Baptism, even in the case of infants. (Infants received the Eucharist in the form of wine.) This was also the custom in the Roman Church until well into the Middle Ages.

Infant Baptism Questioned. In the course of time individuals and groups raised objections to the Church practice of infant Baptism. In broad outline, three periods can be distinguished: the period up to the Protestant Reformation, that of the Anabaptists at the time of the Reformation, and that of the present day.

Beginnings to Reformation. The first clash of any importance arose during the controversy over Pelagianism (see pelagius and pelagianism) at the beginning of the fifth century. Although Pelagius denied original sin, he seems to have accepted the practice of infant Baptism. He asserted the necessity of Baptism to enter the kingdom of heaven, but not to obtain eternal life. The full meaning of this distinction still puzzles us today. At any rate, on the Pelagian controversy was the occasion for St. Augustine to reassert the Church's teaching that even infants are baptized for the "remission of sin."

Another denial appeared in the Middle Ages when certain sects such as the cathari rejected infant Baptism. Because of their dualist views on material things, all Sacraments were repulsive, but especially infant Baptism. In any other Sacrament the conscious assent of the recipient may mitigate the charge of materialism, but not in infant Baptism. In response Pope Innocent III defended infant Baptism by emphasizing the difference between original and actual sin. Original sin, which is contracted without consent, is in the case of infants "remitted without consent by the power of the sacrament" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum 780).

In the early years of the Protestant Reformation, the meaning and purpose of the sacraments, especially Baptism, became a point of controversy. The Swiss Brethren held that Baptism is important because, in the words of the Schleitheim Confession (1527), it represents a public confession of "repentance and amendment of life" by those "who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ." The Swiss Brethren, insisting that everyone make his or her own public profession of belief, rebaptized individuals who had been baptized as small children. Thus they became known (along with others who rejected infant Baptism) as anabaptists. "Believer's baptism" became the outward trait of the movement. In dissociating himself from the Anabaptists, Luther made a strong defense of infant Baptism. The Church, he says, could not have been permitted by God to remain in error for so long a time. He pointed out that the agreement of the entire Church about infant Baptism is a special miracle. To deny it is to deny the Church itself. The Confession of Augsburg, 1530, condemned the Anabaptists because they repudiated infant Baptism and asserted that children are saved without Baptism. The position of the Anabaptists was also clearly rejected by the Council of Trent (Denzinger 1514).

The issues raised by the Anabaptists persist in the Protestant communities and account for the diversity of practice in infant Baptism. Although lineally unrelated to the Anabaptists, those who do not practice infant Baptismfor example, the Seventh-day Adventists and Baptistsshow doctrinal affinity with them. The Baptist position is that Baptism is a voluntary public profession of Christian faith and that only persons old enough to understand its significance and its symbolism should be accepted for Baptism.

About the time of World War II Karl Barth and Emil Brunner published harsh criticisms of the practice of infant Baptism. Joachim Jeremias and Kurt Aland were among those who examined at great length the evidence as to whether the Church baptized infants in her earliest days. (Jeremias answered "yes," while Aland was more cautious stating that, if the Church did, it was very much the exception and not the rule).

Rite of Baptism for Children. The Rite of Baptism for Children (RBC), published in 1969, among the first of the sacramental rites to be revised after the Second Vatican Council (revised edition, 1973), is the first rite of Baptism designed specifically for infants and young children.

Three characteristics of the new RBC distinguish it from the 1614 Roman Ritual, "adapted for infants" that had been in common use. First, the RBC places infant Baptism in an ecclesial and Eucharistic context that emphasizes the paschal character of the sacrament. Ecclesial context : The ritual specifies that, unless necessity warrants otherwise, infants are to be baptized in the parish church so that [baptism] "may clearly appear as the sacrament of the Church's faith and of incorporation into the people of God" (10). Further, "all recently born babies should be baptized at a common celebration on the same day" (27). Eucharistic context : "To bring out the paschal character of baptism," the RBC recommends "that the sacrament be celebrated during the Easter Vigil or on Sunday, when the Church commemorates the Lord's resurrection. On Sunday, baptism may be celebrated even during Mass [occasionally], so that the entire community may be present and the relationship between baptism and eucharist may be clearly seen" (9).

Second, the RBC makes a notable change in the focus of and ethos surrounding the sacrament. Previously, parents were required to baptize their infants quam primum ("as soon as possible") after birth, even if the child's mother could not be present. The postconciliar RBC retains a sense of urgency, but put the onus on the parents who must prepare for the Baptism quam primum even, as the RBC says, before the child is born (8.2). This preparation involves not only arranging for the liturgical celebration, but also, and especially, for examining and strengthening their own faith and participation in the life of the Church. The RBC even calls for the Baptism to be delayed "in the complete absence of any well-founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion" (8.3).

Third, the RBC highlights the parents' participation in the baptismal liturgy and their responsibilities afterwards, stressing the fact that the parents who, "because of the natural relationships have a ministry and a responsibility in the baptism of infants more important than those of the godparents" (5). The RBC, moreover, underscores the essential role of these "first teachers of their children in the ways of faith" (70). It states, "To fulfill the true meaning of the sacrament, children must later be formed in the faith in which they have been baptized. so that they may ultimately accept for themselves [that] faith" (3).

Fate of Unbaptized Infants. Catholic teaching on the necessity of Baptism for salvation must be read in the context of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The CCC states: "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments " (1257). As for children dying without baptism, the Catechism says:

The Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: 'Let the children come to me, do not hinder them' (Mk 10:14), allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism (1261).

In the past many Catholic theologians postulated that unbaptized infants, with no personal sin, were destined for a state they called limbo. In Limbo unbaptized infants were excluded from the joys of heaven, but they did not suffer the torments (poena sensus ) of hell. It was never official Catholic teaching, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not mention it. Contemporary theology emphasizes that the Church baptizes infants in hope of what they are to become as children of God, and not, primarily, out of our fear of what might happen to them not baptized.

Bibliography: p. j. hill, j. c. didier, ed., Le Baptême des enfants (Paris 1959). k. aland, Die Säuglingstaufe in Neuen Testament und in der alten Kirche (Munich 1961). a. hamman, ed. Baptism: Ancient Liturgies and Patristic Texts (Staten Island, NY 1967). congregation for the doctrine of the faith, "Instruction on Infant Baptism" Acta Apostolica Sedis, 72 (1980) 113756 (English translation in Origins 10 [1981] 474480). p. covino, "The Post-conciliar Infant Baptism Debate in the American Catholic Church," Worship 56 (1982) 240260. g. huck, Infant Baptism in the Parish: Understanding the Rite (Chicago 1980). m. searle, Christening: The Making of Christians (Collegeville, Minn. 1980). j.h,. mckenna, "Infant Baptism: Theological Reflections," Worship 70 (1996) 194210. l.l. mitchell, Worship: Initiation and the Churches (Washington, DC 1991). k. stasiak, Return to Grace: A Theology for Infant Baptism (Collegeville, Minn. 1996).

[k. stasiak/eds.]

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Baptism of Infants

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