Recipient of Baptism

Every living human being, not yet baptized, is the subject of this sacrament.

(1) Baptism of Adults

As regards adults there is no difficulty or controversy. Christ’s command excepts no one when He bids the Apostles teach all nations and baptize them.

(2) Baptism of Infants

Infant baptism has, however, been the subject of much dispute. The Waldenses and Cathari and later the Anabaptists, rejected the doctrine that infants are capable of receiving valid baptism, and some sectarians at the present day hold the same opinion.

The Catholic Church, however, maintains absolutely that the law of Christ applies as well to infants as to adults. When the Redeemer declares (John 3) that it is necessary to be born again of water and the Holy Ghost in order to enter the Kingdom of God, His words may be justly understood to mean that He includes all who are capable of having a right to this kingdom. Now, He has asserted such a right even for those who are not adults, when He says (Matthew 19:14): “Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come to me: for the kingdom of heaven is for such.” It has been objected that this latter text does not refer to infants, inasmuch as Christ says “to come to me”. In the parallel passage in St. Luke (18:15), however, the text reads: “And they brought unto him also infants, that he might touch them”; and then follow the words cited from St. Matthew. In the Greek text, the words brephe and prosepheron refer to infants in arms.

Moreover, St. Paul (Colossians 2) says that baptism in the New Law has taken the place of circumcision in the Old. It was especially to infants that the rite of circumcision was applied by Divine precept. If it be said that there is no example of the baptism of infants to be found in the Bible, we may answer that infants are included in such phrases as: “She was baptized and her household” (Acts 16:15); “Himself was baptized, and all his house immediately” (Acts 16:33); “I baptized the household of Stephanus” (1 Corinthians 1:16).

The tradition of Christian antiquity as to the necessity of infant baptism is clear from the very beginning. We have given many striking quotations on this subject already, in dealing with the necessity of baptism. A few, therefore, will suffice here.

* Origen (in cap. vi, Ep. ad Rom.) declares: “The Church received from the Apostles the tradition of giving baptism also to infants”.

* St. Augustine (Serm. xi, De Verb Apost.) says of infant baptism: “This the Church always had, always held; this she received from the faith of our ancestors; this she perseveringly guards even to the end.”

* St. Cyprian (Ep. ad Fidum) writes: “From baptism and from grace . . . must not be kept the infant who, because recently born, has committed no sin, except, inasmuch as it was born carnally from Adam, it has contracted the contagion of the ancient death in its first nativity; and it comes to receive the remission of sins more easily on this very account that not its own, but another’s sins are forgiven it.”

* St.Cyprian’s letter to Fidus declares that the Council of Carthage in 253 reprobated the opinion that the baptism of infants should be delayed until the eighth day after birth.

* The Council of Milevis in 416 anathematizes whosoever says that infants lately born are not to be baptized.

* The Council of Trent solemnly defines the doctrine of infant baptism (Sess. VII, can. xiii). It also condemns (can. xiv) the opinion of Erasmus that those who had been baptized in infancy, should be left free to ratify or reject the baptismal promises after they had become adult.

Theologians also call attention to the fact that as God sincerely wishes all men to be saved, He does not exclude infants, for whom baptism of either water or blood is the only means possible. The doctrines also of the universality of original sin and of the all-comprehending atonement of Christ are stated so plainly and absolutely in Scripture as to leave no solid reason for denying that infants are included as well as adults.

To the objection that baptism requires faith, theologians reply that adults must have faith, but infants receive habitual faith, which is infused into them in the sacrament of regeneration. As to actual faith, they believe on the faith of another; as St. Augustine (De Verb. Apost., xiv, xviii) beautifully says: “He believes by another, who has sinned by another.”

As to the obligation imposed by baptism, the infant is obliged to fulfill them in proportion to its age and capacity, as is the case with all laws. Christ, it is true, prescribed instruction and actual faith for adults as necessary for baptism (Matthew 28; Mark 16), but in His general law on the necessity of the sacrament (John 3) He makes absolutely no restriction as to the subject of baptism; and consequently while infants are included in the law, they can not be required to fulfill conditions that are utterly impossible at their age.

While not denying the validity of infant baptism, Tertullian (De Bapt., xviii) desired that the sacrament be not conferred upon them until they have attained the use of reason, on account of the danger of profaning their baptism as youths amid the allurements of pagan vice. In like manner, St. Gregory Nazianzen (Or. xl, De Bapt.) thought that baptism, unless there was danger of death, should be deferred until the child was three years old, for then it could hear and respond at the ceremonies. Such opinions, however, were shared by few, and they contain no denial of the validity of infant baptism. It is true that the Council of Neocæsarea (can. vi) declares that an infant can not be baptized in its mother’s womb, but it was teaching only that neither the baptism of the mother nor her faith is common to her and the infant in her womb, but are acts peculiar to the mother alone.

(3) Baptism of Unborn Infants

This leads to the baptism of infants in cases of difficult delivery. When the Roman Ritual declares that a child is not to be baptized while still enclosed (clausus) in its mother’s womb, it supposes that the baptismal water can not reach the body of the child. When, however, this seems possible, even with the aid of an instrument, Benedict XIV (Syn. Diaec., vii, 5) declares that midwives should be instructed to confer conditional baptism. The Ritual further says that when the water can flow upon the head of the infant the sacrament is to be administered absolutely; but if it can be poured only on some other part of the body, baptism is indeed to be conferred, but it must be conditionally repeated in case the child survives its birth, It is to be noted that in these last two cases, the rubric of the Ritual supposes that the infant has partly emerged from the womb. For if the fetus was entirely enclosed, baptism is to be repeated conditionally in all cases (Lehmkuhl, n, 61).

In case of the death of the mother, the fetus is to be immediately extracted and baptized, should there be any life in it. Infants have been taken alive from the womb well after the mother’s death. After the Cæsarean incision has been performed, the fetus may be conditionally baptized before extraction if possible; if the sacrament is administered after its removal from the womb the baptism is to be absolute, provided it is certain that life remains. If after extraction it is doubtful whether it be still alive, it is to be baptized under the condition: “If thou art alive”. Physicians, mothers, and midwives ought to be reminded of the grave obligation of administering baptism under these circumstances. It is to be borne in mind that according to the prevailing opinion among the learned, the fetus is animated by a human soul from the very beginning of its conception. In cases of delivery where the issue is a mass that is not certainly animated by human life, it is to be baptized conditionally: “If thou art a man.”

(4) Baptism of Insane Persons

The perpetually insane, who have never had the use of reason, are in the same category as infants in what relates to the conferring of baptism, and consequently the sacrament is valid if administered.

If at one time they had been sane, baptism bestowed upon them during their insanity would be probably invalid unless they had shown a desire for it before losing their reason. Moralists teach that, in practice, this latter class may always be baptized conditionally, when it is uncertain whether or not they had ever asked for baptism (Sabetti, no. 661). In this connection it is to be remarked that, according to many writers, anyone who has a wish to receive all things necessary to salvation, has at the same time an implicit desire for baptism, and that a more specific desire is not absolutely necessary.

(5) Foundlings

Foundlings are to be baptized conditionally, if there is no means of finding out whether they have been validly baptized or not. If a note has been left with a foundling stating that it had already received baptism, the more common opinion is that it should nevertheless be given conditional baptism, unless circumstances should make it plain that baptism had undoubtedly been conferred. O’Kane (no. 214) says that the same rule is to be followed when midwives or other lay persons have baptized infants in case of necessity.

(6) Baptism of the Children of Jewish and Infidel Parents

The question is also discussed as to whether the infant children of Jews or infidels may be baptized against the will of their parents. To the general query, the answer is a decided negative, because such a baptism would violate the natural rights of parents, and the infant would later be exposed to the danger of perversion. We say this, of course, only in regard to the liceity of such a baptism, for if it were actually administered it would undoubtedly be valid.St. Thomas ( III:68:10) is very express in denying the lawfulness of imparting such baptism, and this has been the constant judgment of the Holy See, as is evident from various decrees of the Sacred Congregations and of Pope Benedict XIV (II Bullarii). We say the answer is negative to the general question, because particular circumstances may require a different response. For it would undoubtedly be licit to impart such baptism if the children were in proximate danger of death; or if they had been removed from the parental care and there was no likelihood of their returning to it; or if they were perpetually insane; or if one of the parents were to consent to the baptism; or finally, if, after the death of the father, the paternal grandfather would be willing, even though the mother objected. If the children were, however, not infants, but had the use of reason and were sufficiently instructed, they should be baptized when prudence dictated such a course.

In the celebrated case of the Jewish child, Edgar Mortara, Pius IX indeed ordered that he should be brought up as a Catholic, even against the will of his parents, but baptism had already been administered to him some years before when in danger of death.

(7) Baptism of the Children of Protestant Parents

It is not licit to baptize children against the will of their Protestant parents; for their baptism would violate parental right, expose them to the danger of perversion, and be contrary to the practice of the Church. Kenrick also strongly condemns nurses who baptize the children of Protestants unless they are in danger of death.

(8) Baptism with the Consent of Non-Catholic Parents

Should a priest baptize the child of non-Catholic parents if they themselves desire it? He certainly can do so if there is reason to hope that the child will be brought up a Catholic (Conc. Prov, Balt., I, decr, x). An even greater security for the Catholic education of such child would be the promise of one or both parents that they themselves will embrace the Faith.

(9) Baptism of the Dead

Concerning baptism for the dead, a curious and difficult passage in St. Paul’s Epistle has given rise to some controversy. The Apostle says: “Otherwise what shall they do that are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not again at all? Why are they then baptized for them?” (1 Corinthians 15:29). There seems to be no question here of any such absurd custom as conferring baptism on corpses, as was practiced later by some heretical sects. It has been conjectured that this otherwise unknown usage of the Corinthians consisted in some living person receiving a symbolic baptism as representing another who had died with the desire of becoming a Christian, but had been prevented from realizing his wish for baptism by an unforeseen death. Those who give this explanation say that St. Paul merely refers to this custom of the Corinthians as an argumentum ad hominem, when discussing the resurrection of the dead, without approving the usage mentioned.

Archbishop MacEvilly in his exposition of the Epistles of St. Paul, holds a different opinion. He paraphrases St. Paul’s text as follows: “Another argument in favor of the resurrection. If the dead will not arise, what means the profession of faith in the resurrection of the dead, made at baptism? Why are we all baptized with a profession of our faith in their resurrection?” The archbishop comments, as follows:

It is almost impossible to glean anything like certainty as to the meaning of these very abstruse words, from the host of interpretations that have been hazarded regarding them (see Calmet’s Dissertation on the matter).

In the first place, every interpretation referring the words ‘baptized’, or ‘dead’ to either erroneous or evil practices, which men might have employed to express their belief in the doctrine of the resurrection, should be rejected; as it appears by no means likely that the Apostle would ground an argument, even though it were what the logicians call an argumentum ad hominem, on either a vicious or erroneous practice.

Besides, such a system of reasoning would be quite inconclusive. Hence, the words should not be referred to either the Clinics, baptized at the hour of death, or to the vicarious baptisms in use among the Jews, for their departed friends who departed without baptism.

The interpretation adopted in the paraphrase makes the words refer to the Sacrament of Baptism, which all were obliged to approach with faith in the resurrection of the dead as a necessary condition. ‘Credo in resurrectionem mortuorum’. This interpretation—the one adopted by St. Chrysostom—has the advantage of giving the words ‘baptized’ and ‘dead’ their literal signification.

The only inconvenience in it is that the word resurrection is introduced. But, it is understood from the entire context, and is warranted by a reference to other passages of Scripture. For, from the Epistle of the Hebrews (6:2) it appears that a knowledge of the faith of the resurrection was one of the elementary points of instruction required for adult baptism; and hence the Scriptures themselves furnish the ground for the introduction of the word.

There is another probable interpretation, which understands the words ‘baptism’ and ‘dead’ in a metaphorical sense, and refers them to the sufferings which the Apostles and heralds of salvation underwent to preach the Gospel to the infidels, dead to grace and spiritual life, with the hope of making them sharers in the glory of a happy resurrection. The word ‘baptism’ is employed in this sense in Scripture, even by our divine Redeemer Himself—‘I have a baptism wherewith to be baptized’, etc. And the word ‘dead’ is employed in several parts of the New Testament to designate those spiritually dead to grace and justice. In the Greek, the words ‘for the dead’, uper ton nekron that is, on account of or, in behalf of the dead, would serve to confirm, in some degree, this latter interpretation.

These appear to be the most probable of the interpretations of this passage; each, no doubt, has its difficulties. The meaning of the words was known to the Corinthians at the time of the Apostle. All that can be known of their meaning at this remote period, can not exceed the bounds of probable conjecture.

(loc. cit., chap. xv; cf. also Cornely in Ep. I Cor.)

Written by William H.W. Fanning. Transcribed by Charles Sweeney, S.J.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume II. Published 1907. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York

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