The Question of Infant Baptism

Episcopal Cafe links to Fr. Arnold’s speculation about the uses of infant baptism.  Fr Arnold notes that the current discussions of open communion have the unintended consequence of diminishing the necessity to baptize children.  They would be able, he muses, to take communion whether baptized or not, and thus could delay being sprinkled by the pastor until they wanted to make the decision.

It’s a useful point, one that should help frame the discussion of open communion.  Would one, for example, be able to take communion and make a deliberate decision not to be baptized?  What is being said about baptism in such a case?  Is the understanding of baptism, in such an example, accurate?

Because it seems to me that most parents who want their child to make an adult decision will do just that.  They won’t baptize them.  This was my own case:  I chose to be baptized when I was 13.  My parents believed that religion was choice someone had to make with some deliberation and thought.   So is the question about the church just not doing infant baptisms at all, in any circumstance?   I can’t imagine there being such a rule inhibiting the church from doing so and remaining in the Catholic tradition.  Of course, even in free protestant churches they have ceremonies that have some elements of a baptismal rite for babies.

It will certainly, however, become custom that we baptize more adults.  This will naturally happen as our culture becomes dechristianized.  It does not, however, require any change in church teaching.

Is there an instinctive preference of the church body?   I’m not sure why there should be one.  We should baptize children and adults. What makes us catholic, I argue, is that we have a universal sense – we can do both without shame.  It’s not a zero sum game.

There’s another question that infant baptism and open communion skirt around: is there anything peculiar or distinctive about being a Christian?  Does being a Christian mean anything different than being a buddhist, Jew or Unitarian?  Or are we all the same religion deep down?  The problem is that usually when we say such a thing, we imply that everyone’s a secret Christian.

In my own practice I do spend a fair amount of time asking parents about why they want their child baptized.   I seek to have parents who can be informed as their child ask questions about their faith, who can say the baptismal covenant with some integrity.   I think, also, people may decide to reject Christ, but they can do this even after being baptized.

And this is the work of a pastor – to help others in their discernment. My ambivalence is grounded in the unwillingness of priests to share what the church traditionally teaches while breaking reasonable rules the church has ordered.   We’ve found lots of excuses for not sharing what a critical faith looks like; opportunities for parishioners to deepen their spirituality, or invigorate their sense of commitment.  We’ve become scared of asking people to sacrifice anything.

Are there any parents who are testing bringing children to communion before baptism?  Or is it an invented problem arising from our frustration that, in spite of our outward progressivism, our churches are not growing?   As I see it, an inclusive liturgical practice does not make up for parishes that don’t know how to care effectively even for the Christians already in their communities.   My suspicion is that our “inclusive” practices divert us from the practices that will truly make our institutions welcoming.

Nobody is really asking the church to give up infant baptism.  Certainly, however, we’ll have to baptize more adults as families decide to forgo the ceremony.  What do we offer someone who has decided to become baptized?  Do we offer them new life?  Of if we do not, or if we don’t think such a thing exists, than yes, baptism is irrelevant, and we not need it to orient our common life.

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