ASK FATHER: Does a stillborn baby have to be baptized?

From a reader…


Does a stillborn baby have to be baptized? A friend just gave birth to an 8-month stillborn baby who died in her womb early yesterday morning. What is the procedure before burial? Would appreciate your help.

Firstly, my condolence for their profound loss.

We are all in God’s hands and we entrust our loved ones, no matter how small, to His merciful loving care.

Shifting to the immediately practical, if the child was stillborn after death which occurred yesterday, then, lamentably, it is too late for baptism. [More about length of time in relation to Sacrament of Anointing HERE.] The child should still be given ecclesiastical funeral rites.  Canon 1183, §2 says that permission of the Ordinary is required, HOWEVER in many places, pastors have been given blanket permission to do so.

May I also suggest that this is a good moment for the mother to request the Church’s beautiful rite and blessing we sometimes call “churching”?  The Church has in the Rituale Romanum special blessings for expectant mothers and for mothers after childbirth.  The rite is lovely and consoling, expressed thanksgiving to God, and has been traditionally done also when children were still born or who died without baptism.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Mario Bird says:

    Thanks for posting this, Fr. Z. Prayers for the reader’s friend and her baby.

    Rorate has a blog entry on this from exactly a year ago today.

    It mentions the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which seemed to permit or encourage conditional baptisms for miscarried or stillborn babies. I have done so as well, but perhaps I was in error. Is this practice still licit? Thanks.

  2. ex seaxe says:

    There are rites, including Mass, if appropriate. In the OF Missal, and in the Order of Christian Funerals. And pastoral advice for example

  3. The Rorate post is quite detailed and good in many ways. It’s interesting that this came up on the same day of the year. The emphasis on the importance of baptism is very good. I fully endorse the point about naming and burying and the churching for the mother.

    The venerable 1917 Code, while based on sound principles of the day in which it was written, some of which are perennial, is not the Code that governs the Church now.

    As far as the conditional baptism issue is concerned… that’s a tough call, particularly if through the use of technology that wasn’t available at the time of the 1917 Code, it is hardly to be questioned that the death of the unborn child occurred a day or more before the birth. As in the case of anointing after a long period has passed, conditional baptism after that length of time is questionable. “If you are capable… if you are alive…, I baptize you….” Can it do any harm? It could in some cases lead to an erosion of the meaning of the sacrament. Could it do any good? After a full day… I really don’t know and so I circle back to, can it do any harm?

    The manuals specify that the subject of baptism must be capax and homo viator. The manuals say that if it is doubtful that an infant is alive, he should be baptized conditionally, except in the case where there are some signs of deterioration. Of course those manuals were written some time ago and our monitoring technology is better now than when they basically had to guess.

    It is to be hoped that once it is established that the child’s heart is not beating, delivery should be as swift as possible and, hopefully, conditional baptism administered. But if a long period passes, I fear that even conditional baptism becomes moot.

    These are profoundly serious issues which concern the length of time that it takes for the soul to separate from the body, the sensibilities of the family, the eternal destiny of the child, the integrity of sound sacramental and pastoral practice, etc.

    One thing we have to affirm, however, is that however powerful and clear we have it from God’s direction and the teaching of the Church, that baptism is so very necessary for salvation, God Himself is not constrained by the Church’s laws or teachings. Augustine, who was so firm on the necessity of baptism for salvation, taught that God can save whom it pleases Him to save, even without baptism. How? We don’t know. But we know that He can.

  4. Mario Bird says:

    Dear Fr., thank you so much for reading the Rorate post and spending time to explain this. May God bless you, now and always, and encourage you in this apostolate.

  5. When my priest was here not long ago he blessed my granddaughter using the Rituale Romanum special blessings for expectant mothers. He also gave her 3 cases of Blessed Torelli holy water. We are so blessed to have him as our Pastor

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