One of the most painful experiences for faithful Catholic parents is knowing that your kids don’t share your faith. This pain is compounded when your kids have their own children, and then don’t bother to get them baptized.
Catholic grandparents in this situation can easily find themselves with a choice: should they secretly baptize their grandchildren? After all, even though infants and small children don’t have personal sin, they do have original sin. And baptism is more than just the forgiveness of sin. The Catechism describes it as “the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit . . . and the door which gives access to the other sacraments.” In addition to freeing us from sin, it is through baptism that we are “reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: ‘Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word’” (CCC 1213). Of course we want our loved ones (and everyone else!) to be baptized. And yet the Church generally forbids grandparents to baptize their grandkids in this kind of situation. Why?
The Code of Canon Law says that for an infant to be baptized licitly (that is, lawfully), “the parents or at least one of them or the person who legitimately takes their place must consent,” and “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” (can. 868 §1). This is true not just for babies, but for any children under seven, along with anyone who “habitually lacks the use of reason” (for instance, for reason of mental illness or development disability) (can. 97 §2; can. 99).
Notice what the standard isn’t: it’s not required that the child’s parents be faithful, practicing Catholics. It may happen that there’s one faithful parent. Or perhaps neither parent is practicing, but there are other faithful relatives (like grandparents) who will be able to bring the child up in the Catholic faith, and the parents are okay with their child being baptized. Those aren’t perfect conditions, but there’s still a reasonable hope that the child will be raised as a Catholic, and the baptism may proceed.
But in the case of grandparents wanting to secretly baptize their grandchild, it’s clear that the conditions laid out in canon law haven’t been met. After all, if the parents were okay with their child being baptized, there would be no need for secrecy. And if the child’s parents refuse to even allow their child to be baptized, it’s hard to claim there’s a “reasonable hope” that these same parents will then allow their child to be raised in the Faith.
This might seem cruel, particularly to troubled grandparents. After all, the Catechism warns that “the Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer baptism shortly after birth” (CCC 1250). Yet here is the Church, seemingly denying the child that priceless grace. What gives?
The critical point is that although baptism is “the sacrament of faith,” the sacraments aren’t magic. The “faith required for baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop,” and this faith “needs the community of believers” to develop as it’s meant to (CCC 1253). To baptize a child and then leave him to languish spiritually in an unbelieving family isn’t really doing him any favors.
But that’s also why there’s one important caveat to everything I’ve said so far: danger of death. “An infant of Catholic parents or even of non-Catholic parents is baptized licitly in danger of death even against the will of the parents” (can. 868 §2). If a child is dying, or at least is in danger of dying, the whole calculus changes. Why? Because now it’s not a question of raising the child in the Faith, but of allowing him to be freed of all stain of original sin, and to give him access to all the graces possible while preparing him for possible death.
If the past two generations have shown us anything, it should be that lukewarm and half-formed Christianity doesn’t work. As Our Lord warns the church in Laodicea, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15-16).
This isn’t to say that Catholic grandparents are helpless. There are several things you can still do, beginning with trying to evangelize your wayward children. Successful family evangelization probably won’t look like scolding your children or nagging them to go to church. On the contrary, that approach is likely to backfire by associating Christianity with guilt. Instead, make your home (and your presence) something that your kids and grandkids enjoy. Be welcoming and inviting and hospitable. Don’t hide your faith, and don’t be afraid to talk about Jesus—particularly about how he’s changed your life—but don’t imagine that your job is simply to remind them that they’re not Catholic and should be.
What does a welcoming Catholic home look like? The Catechism calls for the creation of homes in which “tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule” (2223). Moreover, parents of adult children are cautioned to “be careful not to exert pressure on their children either in the choice of a profession or in that of a spouse,” although this “necessary restraint” does not preclude giving your children “judicious advice, particularly when they are planning to start a family” (2230). In other words, don’t nag them or try to tell them what to do, or live their lives for them. Be gentle and respectful and forgiving, respect their God-given freedom, and serve them (as they’ll let you) by giving good counsel.
Finally, remember St. Paul’s words: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). There’s no method that’ll guarantee that your children will come back to the Faith, or that you’ll be able to persuade them to get their kids baptized. Faith is a gift, and while we do what we can in planting the seeds of faith, or watering the ones that we find, we’ve got to ultimately turn in prayer to the only one who can bring your kids and grandkids home.