It was a slap heard ’round the Internet.
Earlier this year, a video of a child’s baptism went viral when an elderly French priest, frustrated that the child was bawling and resisting the priest’s ministrations, smacked the child across the face. In response to the public outrage, the bishop suspended the priest from celebrating baptisms and marriages, and the priest will only be allowed to celebrate Mass publicly with permission.
Unnoticed during the uproar was the age of the child. I couldn’t find reports of the child’s age, but in the video the child appears to be about one year old. He sits up on his own in the arms of the woman holding him, which would mean that at the time of the baptism he was much older than a few weeks.
It’s not unusual these days for Catholic parents to delay having their child baptized, often for months after the child’s birth, and occasionally even for years. What does the Church teach about this?
In the early Church, there was a controversy over whether baptism should be delayed until the eighth day after a child’s birth, the idea being that baptism on the eighth day would call to mind infant circumcision as a sign of entry into God’s covenant. In a letter to an opponent, St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote:
As to what pertains to the case of infants: You [Fidus] said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born.
Cyprian saw no need for unnecessary delay in baptizing a child and thus denying him the grace necessary for salvation (1 Pet. 3:21). The current law of the Church upholds this teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church stresses the importance of baptizing infants:
Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called. The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant baptism. 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).
The Code of Canon Law gives a time frame for when newborns ought to be baptized:
Parents are obliged to see that their infants are baptized within the first few weeks. As soon as possible after the birth, indeed even before it, they are to approach the parish priest to ask for the sacrament for their child, and to be themselves duly prepared for it. If the infant is in danger of death, it is to be baptized without any delay (canon 867).
Although canon law doesn’t specifically define a time frame beyond “a few weeks,” it seems reasonable to conclude that if the time stretches beyond seven weeks then we start counting the baby’s age in months. No unserious reason—not a convenient party date, not godparents’ travel schedules, not the fit of the gown—should put off reception of the sacrament any longer than that.
Sometimes though, it’s not parental dawdling that’s to blame for delays in getting a child baptized. I’ve heard from plenty of frustrated parents who want their baby baptized right away but are met with obstacles at their parish. The parents will be told that they can only have their child baptized after taking a class—for which they aren’t allowed to register until after the baby is born. Or they’ll be informed that they can’t have the baby baptized unless they’re registered members of the parish. Or they’ll be told that the baby can’t be baptized during Lent . . . or at Easter . . . or at Christmas . . . or outside of a Sunday Mass.
Canon law provides that baptisms can be performed on any day of the year:
Though baptism may be celebrated on any day, it is recommended that normally it be celebrated on a Sunday or, if possible, on the vigil of Easter (canon 856).
Although canon law does require adults who are presenting themselves for baptism to be instructed in the Faith (865), Catholic parents are ordinarily presumed to know their faith well enough to desire baptism for their child. Registration in a parish and a remedial class on what baptism is and does may be helpful for parents and godparents, but there is nothing in Church law that mandates infant baptism must be delayed pending parish registration or the completion of such classes. All that is required for an infant to be baptized is that there be “a well-founded hope that the child will be brought up in the Catholic religion” (868).
For parents who are expecting a child, infant baptism should be one of the first things they plan for after the baby’s birth—and that means preparing for baptism before birth. For although the Catechism assures parents that “the great mercy of God . . . allow[s] us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism,” it also points out that “all the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy baptism” (CCC 1261).
If parents know their obligation but are being thwarted by parish employees in scheduling the sacrament for their newborn, they should persevere, perhaps by calling their diocese for assistance in finding a priest or deacon willing to work with them. Just as parents are solemnly warned to take baptism for infants seriously, those who administer the sacraments also should be reminded that the Catechism includes an admonition to them not to delay baptism:
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, emphasis added).
As Cyprian stated back in the third century, “We all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born.”