ASK FATHER: Can lay people baptize?

From a reader…


May a lay natural father baptize his own child? As an expectant father, I have heard conflicting views on this practice. Obviously, the priest is the proper and ordinary authority for this, I was simply curious. (P.S. I appreciate any anonymity you can provide).

I’d happily provide anonymity for you, but I don’t know who you are.

First, congratulations.

That said, your question is a little puzzling.

If you are not trapped in a hunting lodge surrounded by wolves 30 miles from the road during the winter when your wife gives birth, I’d wait for the baptism to be in church by the priest.  If you are trapped, however, by all means, administer baptism right away.

Lay people can baptize.  In fact, non-Catholic and non-believers can baptize, provided they use water and intend to do what the Church intends by using the proper Trinitarian form.

Sometimes lay people must baptize, as in the your case of being trapped in the hunting lodge.

May lay people baptize?  That’s more complicated.  Sometimes, in the absence of ordinary ministers of the sacrament, the Church will provide that some appointed person, such as the village catechist, should do the baptisms.   Otherwise, while still understanding that “can” and “must” and “emergencies”, etc., in general lay people may not baptize.  That is what bishops, priests, and deacons – the ordained – do.

This is particularly important in when the traditional Roman rite of baptism is used, because of the additional elements in the rite.  Those additional elements of the exorcisms and so forth are considered important enough that, after emergency baptisms, they were ritually “supplied” after the fact.

And let’s not forget the importance of witnesses: baptisms need to be done properly and documented in the parish register.

And let’s not forget the important of godparents, who aren’t in the hunting lodge with you… unless your child is to be raised by the circling wolves.

I am glad you are concerned for your child’s baptism.   I warmly recommend having the priest do it, without much delay.

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  1. Eoin OBolguidhir says:

    Be careful what you wish for. My father baptised me as an infant when he was concerned I was in extremis with a respiratory infection. I was later conditionally baptised when my twin was baptised in the usual way. When I had grown to adulthood, my father expressed dismay at how seriously I took the Faith. I was able to remind him it was probably all his fault.

  2. MrsMacD says:

    My dear husband baptized our 13th child in an emergency. The old rite of baptism is sublime, anyone can do an emergency baptism but only a priest can use the old rite to baptize.

  3. Sword40 says:

    13 years ago, as my 93 year old mother lay dying in a bed at a nursing home, I called the local Catholic church and asked for a priest to come Baptize her. (she had never been Baptized but had watched me convert and wanted to enter the church). I was told that neither the priest or the deacon were available as it was their “day off”.

    The On-duty nurse asked me why I didn’t do the job. So I went out to the car, got a brown scapular and came back in. Mom had gone into a coma, so I proceeded to Baptize her as best as I could. I place the scapular around her neck and began reciting the prayers for the Dying. She hung on for another 24 hours but never regained her faculties.

    When I saw the deacon a few days later and told him the story, he just gave me a sweet smile and said I was “overly concerned” with the situation.

    I have since changed parishes. No more Novus Ordo .

  4. Malta says:

    This is a very complicated topic, and I take it very seriously. For baptism, of course, you have to have the correct form and intent. My first four kids were baptized by a Priest; but just before my divorce, and when my ex-wife was leaving the Church, I baptized my fifth child. Recently my now Protestant daughter came to visit me with her 1 y/o son, Ronan (his dad was deported to Mexico). She said, “he can be baptized when he is an adult, if he wants to.” I said, “Bekah, may I baptize him for my own peace of mind.” She said, “sure.” I know this carries the burden of me teaching him the Faith as he grows up. But I feel like I committed no sin in what I did.

  5. Ages says:

    I am struggling with this myself. I come from a Protestant family, but I converted some years ago. My brother and his wife are expecting their first child. They attend a non-denominational megachurch that rejects infant baptism. They are fairly strong Christians, but simple, and don’t see a lot of value in what they consider theological minutiae.

    I simply cannot fathom how a child could go through her life in today’s world unbaptized, outside the family of Christ. And while their current church has a Trinitarian form of baptism, who knows if it will 10, 15, 20 years from now? Who knows if my niece will ever receive a valid baptism?

    So, I am struggling with whether to seek out an opportunity to just do it myself sometime in her first year. I feel that the risk of her eventually getting baptized again is less than the risk of not getting baptized at all. Is this wrong?

  6. Alice says:

    “Natural father” usually refers to a man who fathers a child by a woman who is not his wife. Baptism (except when the child is in grave danger) should only be administered to a child when there is a reasonable expectation that the child will be brought up in the Church. If the child’s mother is opposed to the Baptism and the father is likely to have little say over the child’s religious education, the father should pull a St. Monica and storm heaven for the conversion of the child (and the child’s mother). If the child’s mother can be persuaded, the father should go to his pastor and ask for Baptism for his child. It might be embarrassing, but the parents wanted to avoid embarrassment, they could have followed the Sixth Commandment a few months ago.

    If the question is about preference order for lay ministers in case of emergency, I seem to recall that the ideal layperson to baptize is a Catholic adult man who is unrelated. I believe that the father or mother is only to baptize if they are the only person available who knows how to baptize. Even a non-Catholic hospital chaplain would be preferred. I assume this is to add extra witnesses, but I’m not sure. If there is a prenatal diagnosis that makes it unlikely that the child will live, talk to your pastor or the pastor of the parish where the hospital is! I’ve seen priests drop everything and run to the hospital for an emergency Baptism and the priest can also confirm the baby and be the healing presence of the Church for the grieving parents.

  7. bobbird says:

    In 1982 my #2 son was born at 7 mos as a preemie with serious respiratory distress, quite typical for males at that stage of delivery. I was in the OR standing behind the head of my conscious wife, who was having a C-Section. We were both immediately concerned, for the baby was not crying, merely gurgling and struggling. The pediatrician who was working on him was a good Southern gentleman and evangelical who understood differences in faith, and I handed him a note that said, “If this baby is not going to make it, I need to baptize him NOW!” He turned to look at me and said, “Not yet”, which reassured me [Years later he became a valued hunting and skeet shooting companion for both me and my son!]. A Lear Jet was on its way to whisk the baby to the Big City newborn intensive care until, so while this was coming, and my son was stabilized in an incubator, I asked a nurse for some water. She came up with an empty jar of baby food filled with tap water! I baptized my son on the head, reaching inside the incubator with the jar. I guess the only witness was the nurse. After he was released maybe 10 days later, the priest completed the rite with anointing, exorcism, etc … something a layman I am certain CANNOT do. Now, there’s another story — my mother, while baby-sitting for the children of her apostate son (my brother) baptized her grandkids. Valid, yes, or so I am told, but definitely outside of being licit. Is this an occasion sin, done for love of the then-innocent grandchildren? I am told this is a typical practice among doting grandmothers. Fr. Z’s opinion would be valued.

  8. Gerard Plourde says:

    This question raises a number of complex issues, many of which have been addressed by previous posters. As Catholics, we understand the essential salvific grace it provides. This is the reason the Church has recognized that valid Baptism can be conferred by anyone so long as the form is correct (water and invocation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). In times when medical care was less sophisticated and newborn death more common (a time before the Second Vatican Council), the performance of the heroic action (even by non-Catholic and non-Christian doctors and nurses who understood its significance for Catholics) in performing the rite were recognized and honored. The present, as Malta and Ages attest, present new situations where Baptism by non-clergy is not only proper, but necessary. The efficacy of emergency Baptism is shown by Eoin OBolguidhir‘s experience. All Catholics should know the rite and be prepared to administer the Sacrament in an emergency.

  9. Liturgy Lover says:

    My second child was born 3 months premature in an emergency situation. I was unconscious as it was an emergency C-section, and my husband was locked out of the operating room. Our son had no signs of life immediately after birth, and it took 20 minutes of CPR to revive him. The doctors and nurses were not sure if he was going to survive. We are ETERNALLY grateful that a good friend from our parish was on duty as a nurse in the OR that day, and he baptized our son during the CPR process. Our son revived shortly thereafter, and spent 3 months in NICU. After he arrived home, we had our priest supply the rest of the rites. Thanks be to God, our son today is a totally healthy and rambunctious 21 month old.

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