ASK FATHER: Priest who baptizes any baby brought to him

From a reader…

I know of a local Ukrainian Catholic priest who baptizes any Catholic baby (whether Roman or Eastern Rite) who is brought to him by their parents (whether or not the parents knew of this priest or if a relative or friend referred them to this priest). In most of these cases, the parents who want the Baptism of their child/children from this Ukrainian Catholic priest do not practice their Catholic faith, and/or the parents are not married, and/or one of the parents is not in the picture, etc. And in most cases, the Roman Catholic priest(s) they’ve went to have refused the baptism of their child/children for all of the above listed reasons. The UC priest’s reasoning for doing all of these baptisms is that he believes that the child should not have to suffer (I’m guessing the effects of original sin by living their lives unbaptized) and that it’s not the baby’s fault that their parents are in some of the above listed reasons.

Is there anything wrong what this Ukrainian Catholic priest is doing?

Is there a violation of Canon Law? Are the Roman Catholic priests right or wrong for refusing baptism in these cases? Who is right and who is wrong here?

Liberality, or mercy, is a virtue. Prudence remains the mother of all virtues. Prudence instills temperance and strength into liberality, lest it devolve into mushy sentimentality or pompous fanaticism. Prudence helps us to keep the apple cart between the lines along the narrow path.

Holy Church – with Our Lord – wishes that all men be baptized. How different would the world look if everyone shared the Catholic faith? Problems would not be obliterated, but just imagine how wonderful a truly Catholic world would be.  That’s something that the Devil works to thwart… and pretty successfully, too.

From the outset the Church rejected frivolous baptism. Baptism requires something of the person being baptized. In the case of children to be baptized, it requires something of their parents, and sponsors.  Otherwise, to save everyone from the effects of original sin, we would have long ago sent priests (probably Jesuits) up in planes with water canons, to fly around the world baptizing everyone.

The Church asks in can. 868 that all those who administer the sacrament of baptism to children do so only when there is “founded hope” that the child will be raised in the faith. The parents, or those who stand in their place, must have a commitment to raise their child as a Catholic before we can licitly baptize that child. A priest who baptizes children without exercising that prudential judgment in discerning whether or not the parents truly are committed to raising their child Catholic errs.  The baptism is still valid, mind you.

Prudential judgment is a delicate thing. One priest might have obtained the “founded hope” in the simple request of the parents to have their child baptized. Another priest might only have founded hope if the parents are registered members of the parish who attend and contribute every week.

It seems to me that both such priests are extreme cases and not truly being prudent, but only God knows their hearts. It would have include a case-by-case investigation to get to the bottom of the matter.

The question of baptizing children whose parents do not belong to one’s particular ritual Church is a bit of further complication. The newly baptized child’s rite is not determined by the minister of his baptism, but by the ritual Church of his parents. So if both parents are Latin Catholics, their child (under the age of 14) will be Latin Catholic, no matter who performs the baptism. Still, one should not baptize the children of parents who do not belong to one’s Church unless there is a serious need (such as no priests of the parents’ Church available).


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Gerard Plourde says:

    It seems that the question actually describes three scenarios in various combinations and permutations – parents not practicing the faith, parents not married, single parent. Each of these situations presents different issues. For example, the unmarried parents and the single parent present the positive value that the scourge of abortion was avoided along with the belief that the child should be baptized (demonstrating a belief in God, the salvific mission of His Church and the efficacy of the Sacrament of Baptism). This could even be said of the non-practicing parents, since they have made the effort to actually meet with the priest. The grace of God works where He wills it. After all, St. Monica’s prayers and faith were answered in the conversion of her wayward son who had fathered a child out of wedlock, St. Augustine of Hippo, Doctor of the Church.

  2. Joseph-Mary says:

    Here is a story for you. Last fall in Missouri at one of my sister’s parish, we had a baptism. My 5 year old niece from Texas was baptized finally. And my sister’s new grandchild was baptized. And the child’s mother and her two other children were baptized. All without instruction. The child’s mother is living with my nephew and they have a baby and she is actually married to another man but never bothered to get a divorce from him. Marriage means nothing to them at all. Nothing. The girlfriend’s name is Cody and the priest had never met her and did not even know it was a female named Cody. But he baptized them and they have gone on their way, practicing no faith and still cohabiting in an adulterous relationship. How is that for ‘prudence’?

  3. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Thank you for this in all its detail!

    Does the matter of ritual Church also apply to Use? For instance, ought Milanese babies have an Ambrosian Baptism? (Is that what St. Augustine, had, in fact? – I need to study the history of uses!)

    What has been – and what is (or tends to be) – the practice with orphans in orphanages?

  4. New Amsterdam says:

    We can point to all sorts of examples where the baptized are not living in a Christian environment. But isn’t that all the more reason to agree to a baptism? The sacrament has real grace beyond the powers of those involved; it’s not just a symbol of Christian initiation. Later in life, the baptized might feel mysteriously drawn to Christ and come to realize that He has working through His merciful sacraments and His merciful priests.
    I say trust in Christ’s mercy. He’s the one at work in the sacrament and super-abundantly so.

  5. Panterina says:

    And yet, although not practicing, the parents cared enough to go out of their way and have their child baptized. This looks like founded hope to me, with the emphasis being on “hope.” (Certainty being reserved for death and taxes.)

  6. Supertradmum says:

    Sadly, I know of two priests who yearly went out for years into “the field” and baptized babies and children of gypsies, who had no intention of raising the children in an orthodox fashion. When I questioned this, the answer seemed as if the person’s involved believed in what I call “magical thinking”, as if baptism were pixie dust guaranteeing a life of Godliness.

    I am afraid that some priests cannot say “no” and perhaps do not even understand the nature of sacramental grace in a family .

  7. Mac_in_Alberta says:

    we would have long ago sent priests (probably Jesuits) up in planes with water canons, to fly around the world baptizing everyone.
    Would the water canons be the bits of theology and church teaching authorizing the flights?
    I am most worried about the baptized child not being raised in any Christian community or the Church and later winding up in complete ignorance and good faith (not being ironic) on the wrong end of rules about such matters as the marriage of a baptized person, or any place where the Church has varying ideals for the baptized and the non-baptized.

  8. vandalia says:

    I believe your interpretation of Canon 868 §1/2 is not exactly correct. Let us look at the English text of the entire Canon (for ease of the majority of readers and since a quick review does not reveal any obvious case where the Latin would lead to a different conclusion):

    868 §1/2 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.

    Most priests focus on the first part of that sentence and ignore the operative later part of the sentence. That is, Baptism may be delayed (refused) only if hope is altogether lacking. (iri quae si prorsus deficiat). This is an important distinction. The decision to Baptize or not is not determined by having to prove the presence of a founded hope. Instead, one may make the decision NOT (technically to delay) to Baptize a child only if such hope is altogether lacking – a much different standard. This must also be read in light of Canon 18.

    When is hope altogether lacking? Well, if one is in Mongolia, and there is not another Catholic within 500 miles, then one may reasonably say hope is altogether lacking. If an aunt shows up and asks that the child be baptized in secret and the parents not be told, well, one may make the reasonable determination that hope is altogether lacking.

    On the other hand, if one or more parents show up and ask for baptism – and absent a grandparent with a shotgun – one may reasonably conclude that hope (that the child be bought in the “Catholic religion” is NOT ALTOGETHER lacking. It may not be a very strong hope, but it is not entirely (prorsus) lacking. And to refuse – delay – baptism, the minister (ideally the proper Pastor) must be convinced that hope – once again – is altogether lacking.

    If a parent makes the effort to come to an ordinary minister and ask that his or her child be baptized – and absent obvious evidence of deceit or external coercion – the standard needed to refuse (delay) baptism has not been met. Baptize! (Obviously, a child in danger of death presents a different situation.) Of course, a Bishop or a proper Pastor may issue instructions that provide a definitive interpretation of these situations.

  9. Wiktor says:

    That reminds me that my grandparents (Roman Catholics) were married before an Eastern Catholic (Ukrainian) priest. I never asked why, but since this was a dual-rite parish (Latin/Byzantine) I think priest availability played a role.

  10. aquinas138 says:

    What of the situation of new parents who are Latin Catholics who have been long-term members of (and contributors to) an Eastern parish but, for whatever reasons, have not applied for a formal change of canonical enrollment? Doesn’t it make sense for their child to be baptized where they attend the Sunday liturgy?

  11. Pcito says:

    My vicar and I baptize an average of 600 children each year (often 20-30 kids at a time, every Saturday). Logistically, this would be difficult, but we have a good preparation system in place to form the parents and godparents well, and to handle any delicate cases. But the proof is in the pudding: last year we had 550 First Communions. I call that the “retention” rate, which is very good, despite demographic and economic changes in the area over the past decade. After six years as pastor here, I don’t imagine what I would do if I were assigned to a withering church that was not full of children every Sunday (at each of our 11 Masses).

    The key, aside from a good preparation program, is the prudence of the priests, as Fr. Z indicates. I tend to interpret “founded hope” on the “minimum” side of things. Give me evidence of something that gives me reason to hope, and your child will be baptized (assuming all basic canonical requirements, of course). I do not impose burdens impossible to fulfill. Denial of baptism would result from cases of obstinance (refusing preparation) or obvious animus towards the faith. I would also deny anyone who wanted to baptize a child in secret or baptize a child against a spouse’s legal rights (e.g. when a court spells out that one spouse has a deciding role in the child’s faith upbringing).

    The “hard cases” are not so hard to handle, if done with prudence and sensitivity. For the unmarried or civilly married couple, they are given instruction and encouraged to get married in the church, offered advice about their situation, and are required (as in all cases) to choose godparents who meet the requirements (e.g. married in the church). In the case of a single mother, open arms and all the help we can offer her, with follow-up and community support. In the case of an indifferent couple who promises to allow (for e.g.) the grandmother to raise the child in the faith, no problem, so long as I know about the home situation and the character of the grandmother.

    In other words, the “founded hope” also includes the hope that the parents will overcome their weakness and grow in the faith in the years to come. That’s possible if you treat the couple like a pastor would treat a lost sheep. For some reason, some priests see themselves in an adversarial role with their flock, and that is a guaranteed fail before you start.

    And the fruits are there: I see any single moms coming to church with their children, getting their life in order. Many couples who eventually do marry in the church. And many couples who come back to the faith simply because they were welcomed when they came.

  12. We must respect the Church’s ordinances in these matters, but what is the danger here? What will Prudence safeguard? (I’m not being facetious, just curious.)

    Unless someone has a better answer, my guess is that the Sacrament includes a responsibility/burden upon the Baptized and the penalty for failure to fulfill it is significant enough that it shouldn’t be left to chance.

    My understanding is that Baptized Christians in hell suffer greater pains than those who were not. To whom much is given, much is expected. Although, in the case of infant Baptism, since they gave no ascent to the Sacrament, their culpability could be lessened.

    Anyways, I find it an interesting topic. I’ve heard stories of nuns who used to work in hospitals or in the mission fields who would baptize children that they feared would never be offered the Sacrament.

  13. Imrahil says:

    Ah yes. I cannot pretend I’m neutral in the matter.

    There was once a parish priest who was approached, by a man who had officially left the Church (over doubts, not money…) and his non-practicing Catholic wife, civilly married: approached not quite with a request to baptize their new-born son, but with the desire to hear what he has to say – on whether the son should be baptized, at all. Whether it was not preferably “let the child decide for himself once he has grown up”, etc.

    (Of course the “larger family”, nearly all of which Catholic and some of which devoutly so, was expecting a Baptism…)

    What did he say, when he – as the somewhat romantic stories tell – had gone, on foot, through the streets covered in late-autumn snow to the newborn baby’s home and was received, I assume, with some nice hot tea or coffee? “out of the question”?

    For some reason, he didn’t. He said – though I’m sure he used less of technical terms than I now – that the real “deciding for oneself” can only be with the aid of grace, and if religion is known, not unknown. Or so.

    The end of the story is, of course, that I was baptized, and I continue to be glad about it.

  14. ck says:

    I have a story that relates to this. My parents married in the Catholic Church in 1970, mainly to please my grandparents, with no intention of practicing their Catholic Faith, being open to life, raising kids Catholic, etc. By the time they welcomed their first child (me) almost ten years later, they were Atheist/ Agnostic and didn’t believe in Original Sin, so my Baptism was not even a consideration. Lucky for me, they went to out to dinner one evening and left me in the care of my Father’s Mother, who promptly summoned my Mother’s Mother to come over with some Holy Water she brought back from a recent Fatima pilgrimage, and they Baptized me in the kitchen sink.
    Anyway, much to my parents chagrin, from the time I could talk, I would beg to go to church and talk about Jesus. By the time I was 6 or 7, I figured out that by staying the night with my grandparent’s on Saturday nights, I could attend Sunday Mass. Eventually, I asked to become Catholic and my parents agreed that if I still felt that way at 12, they would allow it. Shortly after my 12th Birthday they brought me down to my local Parish to meet with the Pastor and I entered the Church the following Easter.
    In time, my parents divorced and a few years after that, my Father returned to the Church. As I got older, the Catholic Church became an even more important part of my life as I began to navigate questions about marriage and family. I married in the Church and my husband and I have been blessed with five children, all of whom have a vibrant faith. Against all odds, I was largely spared the Dogmas of our day. (radical feminism, contraception, abortion, etc)
    I learned of my illicit Baptism about 5 years ago, and although I certainly would not encourage such a thing, it is hard for me not to see it as a turning point in my own life, in which as the Catechism says, God showered me with the “priceless gift of His Grace” and the “imperishable seed of the Word of God” was planted. (CCC 1228, 1250)
    So, while not “magical pixie dust”, certainly powerful enough to turn hearts toward God, and to keep calling them back, even in the absence of proper formation.

  15. vandalia says:


    The issue is that once someone is baptized into the Catholic Church, it provides that child with certain rights, and also certain responsibilities. As an example, I know of a man who thought he was baptized in a Baptist Church as a teenager, later married a Baptist woman, and then both were received into the Catholic Church. 35 years later, while preparing his recently deceased mother’s house for sale, he discovered a birth certificate and learned that he was in fact baptized a Catholic while his mother was with his father who was stationed on the other side of the country during WW II. This was confirmed by an inquiry to the Archdiocese for the Military Services. Of course, since he was Catholic, he was bound to canonical form, and he was therefore not validly married for nearly 40 years. (One more example of why the requirement for canonical form needs to be changed.)

    Now, I am as certain as humanly possible that there was no sin imputed (to the man and his wife at least) from this situation, and I am reasonably certain that God out of His own Free Will provided (at least some measure) of Grace to aid this couple and their family. It is also clear that someone who is not aware (invincibly) that he must attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, or do the “Easter Duty” will not be guilty of any sin. However, this is in no way a desirable situation. This is one reason why we want to make an effort to make sure children receive at the very least the knowledge, and hopefully the religious formation, necessary for their new status.


    That is one reason why I strongly believe ( a proper pastor at least) should delay (in reality it basically ends up as refuse) baptism only in the most extreme and exceptional circumstances. Let me put it this way: I am much more willing to put up with the letters from Jehovah Witnesses asking that their baptism be revoked, or deal with a situation like the one I mention above, than arrive at Judgement and find that as a result of my decision a person was not baptized and may therefore be denied heaven (whatever their ultimate state may be).

    So that is the balance that needs to be struck. I do not think it is a coincidence that the canon under discussion makes use of the word hope.

  16. Tricia says:

    Dear Father,
    I really struggle with this issue.
    Since “there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church” why would baptism be denied?
    Why would the opportunity for heaven be denied because of various parental issues?
    At baptism, faith , the three theological virtues, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit are given. Why would a child be denied that? Should a child be denied these necessary things because of parental issues?
    I see that it is better if the parents are involved to properly form the child but why is this absolutely necessary?
    In your post, someone cared enough for the child to be baptized by the Ukrainian priest. If the parents are not caring enough to do it, why isn’t it sufficient for another caring person to present the child for baptism? Having a caring(non- parent) person present the child is not the same as baptizing from planes.
    Please help!
    God bless you.

  17. vandalia says:

    In practice, there are several groups who generally tend to place greater restriction on baptism.

    One, is the more liberal, “Spirit of Vatican II” wing. I was visiting my parents and heard one priest say “Baptism is not magic. It just symbolizes the child’s inclusion in the community of the Church. That is why it is so important for the Sacrament to take place in front of the whole community at Mass.” Like many heresies, that contains an element of truth. However, it also ignores some exceptionally critical realities. However, it is easy to see if you believe that how you would not want to baptize a child if there was no certainty that he “would later be a part of the community.”

    There is also a very (t)raditional side to this. (Note very carefully the use of the lower case “t”. Here I am referring to those, for example, who never attend Church but want a big “christening” or a big Church wedding.) For some, having your child baptized is seen a reward for being married. As one Italian grandmother told me – upset that someone she did not approve of was having her child baptized – “If anyone can get their child baptized, what is the point in having a respectable marriage?” Again, if you view baptism as being only a social event, you will probably want to keep it socially exclusive.

    I also think there can be in some places a Jansenist-like (since a better term doesn’t come immediately to mind) tendency to think that we have to protect the Sacraments. Again, there is a certain element of truth to this. There are some canonical and at its core theological standards. However, the temptation to think that a family or individual doesn’t deserve to have their child baptized, or celebrate a wedding, or deserve the Sacrament of Penance, is real, and must be avoided.

    These in my opinion are some of the political forces in and around the Church that would tend to be unnecessarily restrictive when it comes to Baptism.

  18. jhayes says:

    The Code of Canon Law says that it is illicit to baptise an infant without the consent of at least one of its parents. That rules out the kitchen-sink baptism by a grandparent or nanny who wants to get around the fact that neither parent is willing to have the infant baptised.

    Can. 868 §1. For an infant to be baptized licitly:
    1/ the parents or at least one of them or the person who legitimately takes their place must consent;

    If the grandparent or nanny takes the infant to a church, it should mean that a latin-rite priest will not baptise the infant absent some convincing proof that a parent consents (best demonstrated by appearing in person). I haven’t tried to look up whether the eastern-rite code is different.

    There is an exception if the infant is in danger of death

  19. Ben Kenobi says:

    “the parents cared enough to go out of their way”

    A rather charitable assertion. More like, “they knew this parish was less demanding of them so they went there for the baptism”. Why *wouldn’t* you go to the one parish that didn’t make you jump through hoops if the baptism were exactly the same?

    I see the arguments for baptizing everyone who shows up, and I have great sympathy for the argument that those who choose to live by the rules of the faith (getting married, etc), should be accorded with greater respect than those, who for whatever reason find themselves in an irregular situation. And I’m one of those who’s in an irregular situation, so it’s not like I’m ‘lacking compassion’ etc.

    Compassion is a poor reason to engage in a sacrament. You wouldn’t marry someone because they showed you compassion – you’d marry them because you wanted that lifelong commitment. Sometimes saying no is the more compassionate thing because to people who are used to being told yes all the time it would be a bit of a shock and stir them from spiritual lethargy.

    Baptism is a commitment on the part of either the individual or the family to raise the child in the faith. Absent any indication on the part of one or both parents to do so, I see no reason to baptize.

  20. vandalia says:

    @Ben Kenobi

    Two problems:

    those who choose to live by the rules of the faith (getting married, etc), should be accorded with greater respect

    Fine. But that does not apply to receiving the Sacraments. No one deserves to receive the Sacraments. At the same time, there is no person who is otherwise qualified by Canon Law, who does not deserve to receive a Sacraments.

    Also, Sacraments do not exist as teaching points. One is canonically qualified to receive a Sacrament or one is not. As some of the crazier “VII” priests have been known to do, they cannot stop the celebration of the Sacraments to emphasize the “dryness of lent”, or others use Baptism as a means to demonstrate the importance of marriage. Nor can you say “no” to an otherwise qualified individual (or parent) simply because hearing “no” might be good for them in the abstract.

    Also, Canon law is very clear on this. To delay the Baptism of a child when requested by a parent, hope that the child will be raised in the Catholic faith must be altogether lacking. Since this restricts a right, this must be interpreted strictly (Canon 18). This means the parent does not have to prove with certainty that the child will be raised in the Catholic faith, rather the ordinary minister must demonstrate that hope is altogether (prorsus) lacking. Some of the other words suggested by Lewis & Short to translate this term are “certainly, truly, precisely, utterly, absolutely.” If a parent approaches his pastor and asks that his child be baptized – and ulterior motives are absent – it is difficult to conclude that hope the child will be raised in the Catholic faith is altogether/utterly/absolutely lacking.

  21. Imrahil says:

    Dear vandalia,

    thanks for your kind words.

    I’m, er, rather disappointed that the person with the “what then is the good of a decent marriage” was actually Italian. I had been thinking that we on the Catholic-shaped Continent had always had our lots and lots of illegitimate children, and all of them were baptized in their first days of life as was then usual.

    The simple two things (also at the dear Ben Kenobi…) about “those getting the better respect that adhere to the rules of faith” is a) that noone must be punished except the guilty and b) that noone must be stripped of a right they canonically have (and yes, I’m saying “right”).

    As to a). Whatever the situation is, it’s not the child’s fault. The Church asks for someone fit to hold ecclesiastical office taking care of the newborn-in-Faith: that is called a godparent. As for the parents, the position of “parent of a newborn-in-Faith” is not (strictly speaking) an ecclesiastical office. It just happens.

    I may concede (with a slight heartache due to my own story) that, perhaps, the fear that parents hinder development of the Faith in the child may constitute (in extreme cases) such a situation of hopelessness; and that they utterly refuse to learn about the doctrines of the Faith themselves, or never visit Church, or are just to lazy to get married despite the Church insisting to do so, might – perhaps! – be signs for this.

    However – and this is a big however – if it is true (and I’d somewhat contest it on the really big picture, but let’s take it for true for these purposes) that the Faith is difficult to live sometimes, then by implication it’s also true that people can have it even though they don’t live by it. In which case, they’re Catholic all along. Not to baptize their child would turn the child into a means of disciplining their parents for mere moral shortcomings. I think we agree that we don’t want to do that?

    And in any case, if family A is divorced and remarried (say, diligently abstaining from Communion) and goes to Church every Sunday, and family B is respectably and happily married but only goes to Church at Christmas (but, as they used to in the 1950s, sends their children every Sunday because that’s the decent thing to do), then the easier amendable situation is of course B: they just need to go to Church. But the situation where the child will be brought up in the Faith better is, equally certainly, A.

    Baptism is a commitment on the part of either the individual or the family to raise the child in the faith. Absent any indication on the part of one or both parents to do so, I see no reason to baptize.

    It leads, here, also to writing the child into both civil and parish registers as Catholic. The first effect will lead to him receiving Catholic religious education at school. The second will lead to him receiving a letter when the usual first-Communion time comes, for preparation.

    Also, I’ve heard similar arguments about, say (straying a bit from the topic), marriage. You know: “let’s deny marriage to those who cohabit”. Big problem: the point is, “get them quickly married” was, of old, the very remedy the Church’s pastors used against that moral problem. And it, too, is a right of the faithful. (Yes, they should call a reasonable time before-hand whether the pastor has time. No, he has no business denying them marriage, and consequently closing to them the legitimate path to have sex, for one year or two years to test them in pre-marriage courses.)

    It is in itself true that this “right of the faithful” consists in having an appointed witness to exchanging marriage vows, not in the “big ceremony” usually connected with it. So, in itself not without sense, some have said: well then let’s marry the cohabitors without festivity, and only the others with. This, as I said, makes more sense, but to be effective it would have to be done nation-wide (otherwise, it would only have negative effects), and then you’d have to take into account whether this doesn’t as well chase people to the city-halls or even other denominations ever eager to prey upon lax Catholics. Sometimes things are complicated.

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