ASK FATHER: When should babies be baptized?

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

This subject comes up constantly in Catholic mom groups online. I would love your take on it.
Canon 867 §1. Parents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks; as soon as possible after the birth or even before it, they are to go to the pastor to request the sacrament for their child and to be prepared properly for it. There are some who baptize their babies immediately after giving birth and some who wait 2-3 months. I’m in the second camp for several reasons….  Clearly, if there was an issue with the baby, a priest would be called in to do an immediate baptism or we would do an emergency baptism ourselves. Those in the other camp say that canon law must be followed to the T. Most parish/diocese policy also makes it difficult to do a baptism immediately after birth. My parish requires a birth certificate, which I didn’t receive until about 6 weeks after my son was born. Baptism prep classes can take up to a month to complete. Some parishes do not allow baptisms during Lent or only arrange one day for baptisms in each month. I’ve never even heard of someone baptizing their child before birth. Is this really done? So, what do you say to this? I feel that those of us on both sides of the\ issue are doing the right thing in seeking the sacrament for our children soon after birth. Is the difference between 2 and 12 weeks really a big deal? Are those of us who wait a month or two sinning?

GUEST PRIEST RESPONSE: Fr. Tim Ferguson

First, a clarification, baptism is not done before birth – the canon refers to going immediately after or even before birth to talk to the priest to arrange for the baptism.

The deeper question – how long should one wait before having one’s child baptized? In some cultures and in some places, baptism take place almost immediately after birth. Pope Benedict XVI was born early in the morning on Holy Saturday and was baptized in his parish church later that same day.

The canon speaks of “the first few weeks,” without giving further specificity. A month? Two months? Three months? Perhaps a good litmus test would be: how do you refer to the age of your newborn? “Billy’s seven weeks old.” “Amanda’s just over 10 weeks now.” “The twins are five months old.” “Ryan is 37 years old, and almost ready to stand on his own now. We’re so proud!”

If you’re still referring to your child’s age in weeks, I would argue, you’re still within the canonical range of “the first few weeks.”

Making reasonable preparations for family members to attend, and giving mother and child a chance to rest up before making the big public appearance does not seem to me to be incurring any sin, especially if the parents are knowledgeable and prepared to baptize their child in case of an emergency.

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24 Responses to ASK FATHER: When should babies be baptized?

  1. juliaflyte says:

    We have baptized all of our babies within a week or two of birth. Waiting longer than that, for party planning, out of town relatives, etc, seems a little reckless to us, given what is at stake- the eternal happiness of our baby in heaven. Life is so fragile, and you might not have time the time you think for an emergency baptism. I feel like the focus on baptism celebrations have obscured the real reason for urgency in this matter- like you always say Father- you should never put off going to confession! How more so in ridding your soul of original sin!

  2. deo_volente says:

    One point the questioner raised that was missed in the response: She said some churches don’t permit baptisms during Lent. This is a real pet peeve of mine. I’m a father of 7 and two of the youngest were born just before Lent. The first time this came up I was told by the “pastoral associate” that I would have to wait until after Lent to have the baptism. When I asked why I was told out of solidarity for the catechumens who would be baptized at the Easter Vigil. That’s all squishy and huggy and feels good, but I’m pretty sure that a child’s cleansing of original sin and assurance of salvation is more important than a sense of solidarity.

    I spoke directly to the pastor, who I am close to, and he immediately said he would baptize them the next Sunday he had a chance, which was the second week of Lent. And it happened so. In fact, he was surprised when I told him what I was told. As busy as he is, I think it never occurred to him that he had not had any baptisms during Lent.

    I was also told (by the same pastoral associate) that the timing of Lent didn’t matter as my wife and I had to take the baptismal prep classes anyway. That was taken off the table when I reminded her that 1) I have been called upon to teach the baptismal prep classes, and 2) I had been running our RCIA program for several years by that point in time.

    Anyway, as far as I know (and I’ve looked pretty hard), and I’m pretty sure this has been confirmed in these very pages, there is no restriction on performing an infant baptism during Lent.

  3. Mary Jane says:

    That picture of the baby on the phone is great! :-)

    We drop a form off at our parish office a month or so before the due date so the pastor knows to expect a call from us once the baby arrives. (We are expecting baby #6 this summer). Once the baby is born we baptize the baby at the first available opportunity, as long as mom and baby are up to the trip to the church. I think the longest gap we’ve ever had between birth/baptism was a week and the shortest was two days.

    Something to think about…what is the reason for waiting to baptize? Is the baptism scheduled for two months out because mom and baby had a rough time during labor/delivery and they need that time to rest and recover? This seems reasonable. Or is the baptism scheduled for two months out because so-and-so friend of the family really wants to attend but they’re busy and can’t make it until two months from now? This would not seem to be a good reason to wait. Even Godparents, if unable to attend due to scheduling or distance/travel difficulties, can have a proxy stand in for them. Sure it’s not as nice as being there in person, but is it about the photos and the party afterwards, or is it about the soul of the child?

    As a side note, mothers – if your priest can do it for you, definitely ask for the Churching of Women blessing (this is for you, the mom!). It’s quite beautiful!

  4. Josephus Corvus says:

    First, as Mary Jane said, I love the pic.

    Second, I think Father Ferguson’s point about allowing the mother & baby a chance to recover is a good way of putting it. I was baptized after about 2-1/2 weeks. This was post-VII, but at a time where Baptism’s primary effect was seen as the removal of original sin rather than just welcoming a new member into the community. My mom’s take on it was that the baby was not taken out before baptism (except to see the doctor) to limit danger to an unbaptized baby. In other words, no taking baby to show off to the coworkers, or shopping, or restaurants, or parties…. Of course if the priest won’t arrange a baptism between Masses, that’s on him – he might have a justifiable reason or perhaps not.

  5. LeeGilbert says:

    This discussion brings to mind a passage I ran across the other day:

    “She was born on April 20, 1889, on Holy Saturday, between the Consummatum est and the Alleluia. Her godfather’s involuntary delay compelled a four days postponement of her baptism. In later life the child was to lament this period during which her body had not yet become the temple of the Holy Ghost.”

    From Consummata by Raoul Plus S.J. the bio of Marie-Antoinette de Geuser, the Carmelite nun Marie de la Trinite’,

  6. e.e. says:

    We had our youngest baptized at 6 weeks old. This felt like an eternity to wait for me… But truthfully it couldn’t have really happened before one month of age because it was a very rough delivery for mom. I know back in the day babies were often baptized without their mothers present, but we strongly preferred to have both parents there… So 6 weeks it was. I can’t imagine waiting much longer than that!

    As an aside, just today the priest who baptized our youngest, Fr. N., passed away. If you could, please pray for the repose of his soul.

  7. Elly says:

    Few things have angered me more than relatives who tried to guilt us into delaying our children’s baptisms so everyone can be there.

  8. Fr_Andrew says:

    Call me an ossified manualist, but most moral theologians in the manuals (Prümmer, Jone, Merkelback, etc.) say that the obligation to Baptize an infant within the first month is a grave one, thus it would be a grave sin for parents to delay.

    Halligan (The Administration of the Sacraments, p.41) writes that : To postpone baptism (private or solemn) without a reason is sinful; to delay more than a month without sufficient reason is commonlyconsidered a serious sin.

    While the law does not set some hard-and-fast cutoff, I think Fr. Ferguson does a good job of being reasonable here.

    I might focus a bit more on the few.

    Generally “a few” is “about three”. We say “one”, “a couple”, “a few” and “several”. While somewhat indeterminate, clearly “a few” is not 52. It’s a somewhat limited number, indeterminate, but in and around 3. So about three weeks … that is pretty close to the old common understanding of the grave obligation to confer Baptism within one month of birth.

    Generally the riskier the birth, the sooner the Baptism should be, because the consequences and risks of them are greater. If it’s a complicated birth, Father should be called to the Hospital. In fact, when preparing couples for marriage I always carefully train them to administer Baptism in an emergency, even bringing out an old doll for practice. I tell them they are to call me, but if there is not time, at least they can do it, and I can supply the ceremonies later.

    The two most common reasons I have run into which delays Baptism are (1) A lack of understanding about the effect/necessity of Baptism, (2) a desire to have certain people present like at a wedding.

    A short delay (a “few” weeks) for the latter seems just if the baby is healthy, but often too much can be made of this, and often the desire to have a big ceremony with the whole family is a consequence of error 1 : that it is just an initiation ceremony, and not the only tool we have to remove Original Sin (thus the risk of Hell—Limbo is in Hell) for someone who does not have use of their reason.

    We can wait for adults, since we can rely on Baptism of Desire (and Faith is a pre-requisite for an adult Baptism). Infants have no such advantage. For them there is only Sacramental Baptism to give them the State of Grace. Nothing else substitutes.

    What’s more important, that the whole family is present or that baby is in the State of Grace?

  9. TonyO says:

    When I asked why I was told out of solidarity for the catechumens who would be baptized at the Easter Vigil. That’s all squishy and huggy and feels good, but

    But it’s a crock of shh…nonsense, in my opinion.

    I have been hearing this mantra of “unity” and “solidarity” about doing things “together as a parish” and such for more years than I care to admit to, and as far as I can tell it’s only pulled out when the pastor (or parish assistant) wants an excuse to NOT do whatever it is that you want to do.

    Here’s what you should respond: “oh… does that mean that all of the parish’s weddings are going to be celebrated ‘en masse’ (all in the same event), maybe twice a year, for ‘solidarity’? What a wonderful thing that would be – and the brides can all save money on the flowers and photographers, too! Are we going to go down to one mass per Sunday, so that the whole parish can celebrate together as ‘one united community’? ”

    Looking down the road, there is nothing about “we were baptized on the same day” that a catechumen and an infant (or, later, the infant-grown-larger) will be sharing solidarity about that would not be true of any two members of the parish. This fake, pretended sense of solidarity actually gets in the way of recognizing the unifying reality: we are all members of the one Body of Christ, and it is through being baptized that we share this, not through being baptized on the same day.

    That said, taking into account that the priest cannot drop everything else he is doing to baptize a baby whenever a couple comes to him with a newborn (or almost newborn), just because that’s their schedule. It certainly makes sense for the parish to schedule them: depending on how large the parish is and how young it is (how many couples are in their child-bearing years), scheduling baptisms either twice a month or once a month seems reasonable. Not less often than that.

    And if a baby is born just 1 week before the monthly baptisms, and needs to delay (I have seen WAY too many new mothers unable to cope just a week after delivery to think one week is enough time), surely 5 to 7 weeks is enough time for nearly all cases. As to family: in large families where people are spread out, there should be no EXPECTATION among them that the baptism would be delayed “until their schedule frees them up to come”. That’s ridiculous. Either they can get there on the appointed day, or the baptism can happen without them. Even for godparents: you can fulfill the proper role without being present. Get a grip already: it’s a sacrament, not a performance. Nobody would ask a catechumen to delay baptism past Easter just because somebody “could not get there for that occasion”!

  10. “We can wait for adults, since we can rely on Baptism of Desire (and Faith is a pre-requisite for an adult Baptism). Infants have no such advantage.”

    Actually, this distinction is a theological opinion. I am not saying it a “bad” opinion, just that it is an opinion. Other views are possible.

    Cardinal Cajetan (Tommaso de Vio), for example, held that unbaptized children of believers were saved by a “a vicarious Baptism of Desire” through their parents’ desire to have them baptized. This is parallel to the “vicarious Faith” of their parents supplying for the child’s inability to accept the Baptism Vows and make the Profession of Faith. Couples who have miscarriages or infant death before Baptism, find this opinion very consoling.

    Cajetan certainly knew that until not that rather recently in Italy it was the practice to delay Baptism of infants until the Easter Vigil and those born in Paschal Time until the Pentecost Vigil. I discuss this practice at length in my book _Cities of God_. And he know that in Antiquity men often postponed baptism until late in life (e.g. Constantine, Augustine). So practice has also been diverse over time.

  11. disco says:

    We baptized our daughter exactly one month to the day after her birth. It worked out well because her middle name was rose and it was Gaudete Sunday. Bonus points because my wife’s favorite color is pink. A month was late by the standards of our parish but wicked early by the standards of friends and family.

  12. sekcatholic says:

    The loose teaching on baptism is another example of where lack of clarity causes problems. It comes down to a simple question: do we or don’t we believe that the sacrament of baptism is efficacious for the removal of original sin and, therefore, salvation? If we do, then infants should be baptized as soon as possible.
    With our first child, we were about to move when she was born and so we delayed the baptism until we arrived in our new hometown–about six weeks. I wouldn’t do it that way again. Our second and third children (the third one was born three weeks ago) were baptized two weeks after birth. Our third daughter was born a week early and so we moved the baptism date accordingly. In all three cases, my wife delivered by C-section, so her health and ability to participate had to be taken into account (she is one strong woman!). In the case of each child, I had a small bottle of holy water in my pocket at the delivery in case of complications.
    My mother, who isn’t Catholic, asked me why I was so concerned with having the baptism. As I told her, I know of one sure way of protecting my child and claiming her for God. So why delay?

  13. KateD says:

    Saint Junipero Sera received the entire rite of initiation, Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation within hours of his birth. The bishop was in town and might not be again for a decade, so his mom jumped up and got him squared away. Maybe helped him in his life of holiness….

  14. Alice says:

    Our local parishes suggest going through Baptism prep BEFORE the baby is born, so, as soon as I’m out of the morning sickness stage, I call the parish and ask what we need to do. We fill the paper work out, leaving the date of birth, name, and sex blank. We ask the godparents to get their letter of recommendation in. All of our children have been baptized by the time they are a month old. It would be earlier if parishes offered Baptism more than twice a month. I can’t figure out why, when we always have at least 1 priest and 2 deacons in our parish, we can’t have Baptisms more than twice a month, but whatev. If it were up to me, I’d send the baby to the church with the godparents for Baptism as soon as we get out of the hospital. I just want to know that, God forbid, something should happen to my baby, my baby would go before God clothed in Baptismal grace. My devout Lutheran friends tend to do the same, but very few of Catholic friends -even the ones who love the EF- feel the same urgency.

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  16. Fr_Andrew says:

    Fr Augustine,

    I don’t intend to, nor do I want to start some kind of thread for discussion here. I will reply just to what you say about Cajetan, and just this once, if Fr. Z allows, then leave it at that.

    I respect your right to hold such an opinion. You are probably quite a bit better studied, probably a far better theologian as well. I can only claim to be a priest who is still farily close to his seminary studies, and when you mentioned Cajetan, it was back to my seminary notes I went.

    From that study I feel morally obliged to say I think you do a disservice to suggest that “a vicarious Baptism of Desire” is any more than just the opinion of a very small minority (Cajetan, Durandus, Biel, Gerson, Toletus and Klee, as far as I can tell). It does not seem easily tenable in the light of what some other considerations.

    For instance (as noted in the Catholic Encyclopedia article “Baptism”) in publishing Cajetan’s commentary on St. Thomas, St. Pius V had the section which mention “vicarious Baptism of Desire” expunged. Later Pius VI in Auctorem fidei (DS 2626) seems to condemn the opinion indirectly. It also is contrary to what Pius XII says in his 29 Oct 1951 address.

    St. Thomas Aquinas also seems quite against this idea (ST III q.73, a. 3) : “children … consequently before receiving Baptism, in no way have they Baptism in desire; but adults alone have it: consequently, [children] cannot have the reality of the sacrament without receiving the sacrament itself.”

    “Vicarious Baptism of Desire” then is not directly condemned, but also is not the common theological opinion and seems to have St. Thomas and at least three Popes against it.

    Comforting as that possibility is to a couple that has lost a child to miscarriage, I just don’t see how Cajetan’s opinion is tenable, but admit I could be wrong. The opposite opinion is what I expressed above.

    In my limited experience, explaining that real risk of Hell for an unbaptized child to a couple will motivate them to get the child Baptized ASAP, and is a “teachable moment” about the doctrine on the Sacraments and Original Sin.

    But that’s just my opinion …

  17. Imrahil says:

    re “no baptism in Lent out of solidarity for the catechumens who would be baptized at the Easter Vigil

    I guess the real reason is because they want to have baptizands for the Easter Vigil. To be fair it is more impressive if there’s an actual baptism in there, not just the blessing of the font.

  18. Imrahil says:

    As for Jone et alii,

    note that they implicitly or explicitly (I would not know) interpret what the Church’s legislator then called an obligation to baptize children quamprimum, the proper translation of which into English is “asap” (can. 770 CIC 1917).

    The quamprimum does no longer stand there, we have intra priores hebdomadas (can. 867 CIC).

    I’m not a legal expert, but from language I should guess that if “asap” possibly allows a month (but certainly not more – and it is rather intuitively obvious that even a very leniently interpreted quamprimum does not allow more than a whole month), then “within the first weeks” can perhaps allow three months (but certainly not much more).

  19. Joseph Mendes says:

    Was Benedict XVI baptized at the Easter Vigil?

  20. Alice says:

    Joseph Mendes, before the reforms of the 1950s the Holy Saturday Mass was in the morning, so most likely Mass was over by the time the future pope was baptized. I don’t even think Baptism ever happened during Mass in the 1920s but I might be wrong about that.

  21. Imrahil says:

    Dear Joseph Mendes,

    yes. That’s in one of his interview books, I believe: his parents said, “well, now the boy is there, and the Easter Vigil is about to begin, let’s get him baptized there”. At that time, that was on the morning of Easter Saturday, and he gave some thinking in, I believe, Spirit of the Liturgy on the peculiar Holy Saturday feeling with Easter not yet there but the Easter Vigil already celebrated.

    Wherefore, later, some thought that the Liturgical Movement was perhaps to quick in calling developments like that “long-standing abuse”.

  22. Yes, Fr_Andrew, that is your opinion and nothing more. And what I evidenced is Cardinal Cajetan’s and nothing more.

    And there is no definitive judgment by the ordinary magisterium on this. So there is freedom of opinion. So go on continue to tell your parishioners that their miscarriages and suddenly taken unbaptized children are in hell or limbo, it you think that is the best pastoral response to their suffering.

    By the way, I do think limbo is a likely position for the young children of non-believers. But that too is a theological opinion, even if Pope Benedict tried to rule it out.

  23. Uxixu says:

    My youngest was baptized at about 4 months. Would have done it at about 2 months, but were in a struggle with the territorial pastor to allow a traditional baptism in the same church as his siblings. He was willing to sign the release but didn’t like the departure from the normal paradigm of a dozen families at a time as a ‘community event.’ He was willing to sign the release but took some time to convince him to allow a local FSSP priest to do it and to his credit he did relent, but had to be scheduled after he had take a trip for a couple weeks.

    The parish church is great late 1950’s architecture… basilica pattern with transept and side altars, still has the marble altar rail. It has a small octagonal baptistry off of the narthex, but it’s used for storage and a large “jacuzzi” style font was installed in the sanctuary probably in the 1970’s or 80’s.

  24. HeatherPA says:

    We were fortunate enough to be able to have our children baptized within a few days of their birth. Our priest was more than willing to accommodate us and we didn’t care about having a party or a lot of people there, just our other children and the godparents- also we have very little family anyway, and most of them don’t grasp the importance of baptism at any rate. Our priest only requires prep for godparents that he isn’t familiar with their grasp of the faith or or who come from other areas. This is not said to criticize anyone else’s manner of how they chose to do their baptisms, just to relate how we did ours.

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