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In order to better understand why, since the days of the Apostles, the Catholic Church has always and everywhere baptized babies, we must first understand what baptism does.
Christ told us, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). The earliest Christians understood him to mean that being “born anew” by water and the Holy Spirit refers to the sacrament of baptism, and they lived out that understanding not only by being themselves baptized, but also by baptizing their children, including infants. They understood that the sacrament of baptism is the doorway of salvation. As St. Peter declared in 1 Peter 3:18-21, “Baptism now saves you.”
The Catechism explains these effects of baptism:
“The different effects of baptism are signified by the perceptible elements of the sacramental rite. Immersion in water symbolizes not only death and purification, but also regeneration and renewal. Thus the two principal effects are purification from sins and new birth in the Holy Spirit... . Bybaptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin . . .
“Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte ‘a new creature,’ an adopted son of God, who has become a ‘partaker of the divine nature,’ member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit. The Most Holy Trinity gives the baptized sanctifying grace, the grace of justification: . . .
“Baptism makes us members of the Body of Christ: ‘Therefore ... we are members one of another.’ Baptism incorporates us into the Church. (CCC 1262-1267).
On the day of Pentecost, the people in Jerusalem who had heard St. Peter preach called out to him, “What shall we do?” St. Peter responded: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:38-42).
Let’s consider two important elements of this passage. First, since St. Peter was preaching to adults, he told them first to repent, which is necessary for any adult to do before he or she can receive baptism. And second, he adds that this promise of “forgiveness of sins” and reception “of the Holy Spirit,” is made to all people of all ages, “to you and to your children.” The earliest Christians, indeed those original Christians, understood plainly that this command to be baptized extended even to the smallest of children, those who could not repent or choose baptism for themselves. Their parents brought them to be baptized, just as parents today do so.
Some people will argue that the command to “repent” in Acts 2 means that repentance, something only someone above the age of reason can do (i.e. not an infant), is a prerequisite for baptism. So, since infants lack the capacity to repent, they can’t be baptized. This is a bogus argument, though. Let’s apply that same illogic to 2 Thessalonians 3:10 where St. Paul says that if someone does not work, he shouldn’t be allowed to eat. Of course, infants cannot work. So does it follow therefore that infants should not eat? Of course not. And that insight can help us see the deeper meaning of St. Peter’s words in Acts 2. His command to “repent” can only be binding on people who have the capacity to repent. But it is not binding on those, such as the mentally retarded or infants, who lack that ability.
In the Old Testament, the outward sign of a child being brought into the Covenant between God and his people was the ordinance of circumcision. This ordinance was performed on eight-day old boys who were brought to the temple (or synagogue) by his parents. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that eight-day olds don’t have the capacity to understand what circumcision is and what it means, much less so would a little tyke ask for it even if he did! The fact is, the infant boy’s parents covenanted with God on his behalf, and God accepted the child into the Covenant as a result of what the parents did for the baby.
This is a perfect parallel with baptism because, after all, baptism replaced circumcision (cf. Colossians 2:11-12). When Christian parents bring their babies to be baptized, the same thing happens, though on a higher, perfected level of sacramental grace. I once wrote that, “In the same way that a child is born into the world from the womb of his mother and has no capacity to comprehend (much less choose) what is happening to him, so too a child can be re-born into the life of Christ through grace and not be able to comprehend the gift of grace being bestowed on him.”
Mark 2:1-12 recounts the episode where Christ healed a paralyzed man. Notice that, because of his illness, he could not approach Christ on his own. So, the man’s friends, who wanted to see him healed, lowered the man down through a hole in the roof on to the floor before Christ. The passage relates that “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Child, your sins are forgiven.’” This is another excellent parallel to infant baptism. God is pleased by the faith of the parents and their desire to have their child baptized and receive the graces of the sacrament.
And finally, let’s not forget what happened in Luke 18:15-17 when some disciples tried to prevent parents from bringing their children to Jesus:
“Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’”
This passage leaves little room for doubt that Christ intends for parents to “bring even infants” to him in the sacrament of baptism.
Additional passages: Genesis 17:11, 18:16-33; Exodus 13:13-14; Leviticus 12:2-3; Matt. 8:5-13; 15:21-28; 19:13-15; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 1:59, 7:1-20; John 3:3-5, 22; Acts 16:30-33, 22:16; Romans 6:2-4; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Colossians 2:11-14; Titus 3:3-7; and Hebrews 10:21-22. Related Sections in the Catechism: CCC 535-537, 1226-1284
Patrick Madrid is an author, public speaker and the publisher of Envoy Magazine. Visit his web site at www.surprisedbytruth.com