Infant Baptism For A Modern Age

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Sunday, May 10th, 2015

From the end of the Roman Empire into early modern times the Christian Church has, here and there, practiced forced conversions. The most frequent objects of this practice were Jews; and among them were most especially children, “converted” in the form of forced baptism.

The official teachings of the church since the 5th century at least, forbade such forced baptisms, but the practice continued nonetheless. One problem that the church had to face was how to deal with the children thus baptized. Forced baptism of Jewish children judged to be of the age of “reason” was assumed to be valid, without question: by the age of 7 or 8, a child was capable of making his or her own decision for the faith, and Jewish children baptized at that age, even if against the wishes (and pleas) of their parents, were no longer permitted to be classed as Jewish or to live in Jewish settings. But what about younger children and infants? Was their forced baptism, although illicit, still valid – that is, were the children truly baptized? Assuming the form and bare intent of the baptism were followed, the Church judged the baptisms to be “real”: the children were indeed now “baptized Christians”. But then what? If truly baptized Christians, the church concluded, the children needed to be raised as such. Hence, the common practice of the church was to remove from their families Jewish children forcibly baptized, however illicitly, and place them in Christian families or institutions.

We can learn something from this tragic set of episodes in Christian history, besides the deep failure of adults to guard the rights of children. (On the history and debates, there is recent work by Benjamin Ravid, Marina Caffiero, and Marcia Colish.) We can learn something more positive, in that the struggle to deal with forced baptisms, however illicit, points to three key elements in the Christian understanding of baptism itself. First, the sacrament has, in its performance, a divine “effect”; hence, baptized children become Christians. Secondly, baptism assumes reasoned consent by the baptized, or his or her parents. Finally, and as a result, baptism demands, for its integrity, that the baptized be formed within a Christian setting – nurtured and grown in the Christian life (sponsors might assure this somehow). All three elements are necessary to a full understanding of Christian baptism. And yet, as the history itself shows, these elements exist in a kind of malleable integration, that requires discernment about each element’s place in the life of the individual, family, and church in a given place and time.

Within the tradition of the church, the manner of integrating these elements has never been clearly regulated. In the modern era, the practical rejection by the Church of forced baptism has been fueled in part by a growing importance given to the aspect of reasoned consent, which demanded a rethinking of the weight placed on the “effective” side of things. We consider this development faithful and salutary. But in some instances, the three elements have risen up in unbearable tension with each other, so that certain groups of Christians have simply seized on only one aspect, and run with it to the exclusion of the others. This has usually caused ecclesial fragmentation. The Anabaptist movement of “believer’s baptism” is one such example.

But more generally, the catholic tradition, including Anglicanism, has steadfastly maintained that baptism stand as a locus of discernment regarding the three elements of sacramental effect, reasoning consent, and formative context. The current Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law and Catechism mention all three (and stress the parents’ own commitments in faith through the promises and renunciations) but do not calculate their integration. The famous “Gorham Controversy” in the Church of England (c. 1850) ended by practically affirming the same result, if somewhat more dialectically: the church would be a place where a strong doctrine of “baptismal regeneration” (sacramental effectiveness) would coexist with a strong doctrine of reasoned consent and Christian growth (Gorham’s so-called “Calvinist” option). And to this day, the practice of baptizing children and adults both has involved, at least in theory, a careful process of discerning the opening to divine grace, desire, readiness, and commitment to discipleship. The 1979 American BCP reflects this in both its baptismal liturgy and its catechism. This discernment has been in the hands mostly of parish priests, under the direction of their bishops. And it has been accomplished with differing emphases based on circumstance and the individuals involved, but most especially bound up with the various truths and pressures of Scripture’s calling, the church’s teaching, and the encounter of the individual with the Christ who is the “pioneer of our perfection”, leading us forward through testing into life eternal.

I am not providing here a “theology of baptism”, but only identifying essential aspects of baptism’s shape. But these aspects do seem to be essential. And since baptism as a rich locus of discernment seems no longer to be understood, this raises disturbing questions about the future of baptism. An example of this loss of understanding is the recent outcry in Florida related to the baptism of the infant child of a same-sex civilly married male couple. The baptism was scheduled to take place, but was postponed at the last moment. It was never clear why, even when, after it was rescheduled, there were public statements issued by participants. But the assumption made by many was that the original postponement was due to the cathedral dean’s and bishop’s (illegitimate) concerns over the child’s gay parents. This assumption, furthermore, was accompanied by various claims about what baptism “really” is, made by irate bloggers, most of which come down to an almost exclusive sense of baptism’s “effective” aspect: the saving grace of baptism should be withheld from no person. In addition, another and more novel aspect of baptism was also suggested: that it should mark the social recognition of the parents’ own lives (in this case, their same-sex civil marriage), and must therefore be free from discerning pressures altogether. Those, like the Anglican Communion Institute, who have suggested that issues of reasoned consent and formative context should properly be considered in the baptism of the infant, have been excoriated.

In the case of the Florida example, is quite possible that such discernment would yield a legitimate decision to baptise the child; I do not doubt this for a moment. Having gay parents does not automatically preclude such a baptism at all. There are reasons a priest might decide to go forward with it, and I do not necessarily question colleagues who would come to this conclusion. However, it is also possible that discernment regarding the integrity of this baptismal act might yield another decision – and that too must be acknowledged. But the new, thinner view of baptism, buttressed now by an ideological notion of baptism as an instrument of social legitimation for gay couples, seems to have made it morally inexcusable even to suggest that the church has an obligation to discern whether the child’s parents or sponsors properly understand and consent to the teaching of the church on behalf of the child, or whether there is a reasonable expectation that the child himself will be raised into a proper understanding of this faith and practice. This is deeply unfortunate, for it basically rules out reasoned commitment related to the doctrinal context of the church as essential elements of Christian existence. And it does so just at the time when these aspects are more important than ever as necessary aspects of Christian witness in the face of a rapidly expanding secular culture. Put another way: in our era of beleaguered Christian witness in the West, the practice of infant baptism bereft of a robust commitment to self-conscious discipleship and its formation is a recipe for ecclesial collapse. Christians rightly no longer believe that babies must be baptized “no matter what” for whatever reasons – a popular notion that partly lay behind the forced baptisms of the past. Yet we seem to have lost a sense of why this might be so.

In any case, the rapid civil embrace of same-sex coupled parenting, made possible through the civilly upheld techniques of surrogacy – so that children are no longer assumed to have the right to being raised by their mother and father in the first instance – is deeply problematic, and should be resisted by the church. This is not because gay adults cannot provide children with nurturing love. It would be absurd to suggest this. The problems lie elsewhere, including in the social realm of guaranteeing children their rights to their own birth family, and to a context where they themselves will learn to respect and further such rights for others. These rights themselves embody a profound set of realities founded on divine grace. It is only recently that this has become a live issue in our society, so recent, in fact, that churches do not even have any explicit teaching about it.

Churches do, however, have a broad and rich set of teachings about human creation, flourishing, sexuality, marriage, and family that support the fundamental rights of children to their own birth parents, all things being equal, and these lie in part within the realm of marriage doctrine and practice. It is more than appropriate that this rich set of teachings by the church first be saved from being thinned out by ideological debate; and second, that it be brought to bear in the discernment process that is a necessary part of baptism. Not only is it appropriate, it is demanded if the church is to remain faithful to her calling.

May 10 2015 08:29 pm | Articles