Pope Francis, baptism, and civil marriage

Pope Francis baptizes infant in Sistine Chapel at Vatican in January 2014 (CNS)

Yesterday, on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Pope Francis baptized 32 children during Mass held in the Sistine Chapel (celebrated ad orientem at the chapel’s high altar, incidentally).

One of the newly baptized babies caused a stir in some circles after it was reported by La Stampa that her parents were married civilly; it is unclear whether the marriage was regularized in the Church prior to the baby’s being baptized by Pope Francis. Father Z has a translation of the La Stampa report:

Among the baptized – according to the report in the daily “Il Tirreno” – there is also Giulia, caught of a couple married civilly but not in church.  And this is certainly a novelty.  Not for Bergoglio, who as a priest, bishop and cardinal baptized babies of teen mothers or unmarried couples many times.  Giulia’s parents, last 25 September, had made their request to the Pope directly at the end of the Wednesday general audience.  ”We were on the ‘sagrato’ (the ‘porch’ in front of the Basilica)”, Ivan Scardia recounted, the father of the baby, “when he passed by and we asked him if he could baptize our second child.  He told us to get in touch with his collaborators and then they contacted us.” When the time came to send in the documents there was a glitch: “We were married at city hall.  But this problem was also overcome,” Giulia’s father said.

Canon lawyer Edward Peters has some thoughts on this report:

First, unlike the foot-washing episode last Holy Week (here and here), the pope’s actions today occasion no reason to think that canon or liturgical law has been—what’s the right word?—disregarded, for no canon or liturgical law forbids baptizing the babies of unmarried couples, etc. Indeed, Church law generally favors the administration of sacraments and, in the case of baptism, it requires only that there be “a founded hope” that the child will be raised Catholic (1983 CIC 868 § 1, 2º). A minister could certainly discern ‘founded hope’ for a Catholic upbringing under these circumstances and outsiders should not second-guess his decision.

But here’s the rub: a minister could also arrive at precisely the opposite conclusion on these facts and, equally in accord with the very same Church law, he could delay the baptism. I know of many pastors who have reached this conclusion and who used the occasion of a request for a baby’s baptism to assist the parents toward undertaking their duties in a more responsible manner, including helping them to regularize their marriage status in the Church, resume attendance at Sunday Mass, participate fully in the sacraments, and so on.

Now, if the pope’s action today was as reported (again, we don’t know that yet), pastors who delay a baby’s baptism in order to help reactivate the Faith in the baby’s parents are going to have a harder time doing that as word gets out about the pope’s (apparently) different approach to the rite. Whether that was the message Francis intended to send is irrelevant to whether that is the message that he seems to have sent.

Read the whole post on Dr. Peters’ blog; he has some interesting reflections on the canonical form of Catholic marriage and the upcoming Synod on the Family and Evangelization.

Elsewhere, Jimmy Akin points out exactly how little we really know about the situation; it is entirely possible that the way in which the “problem” of the couple’s civil marriage was “overcome” was by the convalidation of their marriage by the Church before their child’s baptism.

Lest it get lost amid the controversy, Pope Francis had some strong words for the parents of the children he baptized during the Mass; from Catholic News Agency:

“Today, carry this thought home with you. We must be transmitters of the faith. Think of this, think always of how to hand on the faith to (your) children,” he told the families who were gathered for Mass in the Sistine Chapel.

“These children are links in a chain,” he said of the 32 infants brought for baptism. “You parents have a baby son or daughter to be baptized, but in several years, it will be they that have a baby to baptize, or a grandchild and so, the chain of faith!” …

This chain of faith began with Christ, whose baptism the Church celebrates today. Although “Jesus did not need to be baptized,” because he was without sin, “with his body, with his divinity, he blessed all waters,” explained the Pope.

“And then, before going up to heaven, Jesus told us to go out to all the world and baptize. And from that day until today, this is an uninterrupted chain: they were baptizing children, and then the children (baptized) their children, and their children and today this chain carries on.” …

“Above all, I want to tell you this: you are the persons who hand on the faith, the transmitters; you have the duty to pass on the faith to these babies. It is the most beautiful inheritance that you can give them: the faith!” he exclaimed.

 


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About Catherine Harmon 574 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.