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Good stories tell the whole story

No canon of the 1983 Code bans parents from sacramental celebrations involving their children and no canon authorizes priests to exclude parents from such sacred events.

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

Pope Francis is a story teller who uses stories to make his points. A time-honored method of teaching, of course, but it comes with a risk: omitting parts of a story can leave listeners with a distorted sense of the reality behind the story.

Complaining yesterday for the umpteenth time about Pharisees in the Church—apparently Francis has discounted complaints from Jews that his unrelenting portrayal of Pharisees-qua-boogeymen is lending comfort to anti-Semites—the pope told a story about a pastoral travesty committed in regard to baptism. And it was a travesty.

Per Francis: Three months ago, in a country, in a city, a mother wanted to baptize her newly born son, but she was married civilly with a divorced man. The priest said, ‘Yes, yes. Baptize the baby. But your husband is divorced. So he cannot be present at the ceremony.’ This is happening today. The Pharisees, doctors of the law are not people of the past, even today, there are many of them.

I winced when I read the story not because I assumed, as would any non-lawyer in the wake of those words, that canon law is so heartless as to exclude a father from his son’s baptism, but rather because I know, precisely as a lawyer, how much pastoral wisdom is packed into the Johanno-Pauline Code and how little of that wisdom was brought to bear by the priest’s actions as narrated in the pope’s story

First, let’s us be clear: No canon of the 1983 Code bans parents from sacramental celebrations involving their children and no canon authorizes priests to exclude parents from such sacred events.

In fact quite the opposite approach is taken by canon law: e.g., Canon 226 upholds parental primacy over the raising of their children, Canon 835 § 4 defends this right and duty in the midst of the sacramental-liturgical life of the Church, Canons 867-868 impose parental obligations to seek baptism for children promptly, and Canon 1136recognizes that parents have “the most grave duty and the primary right to take care as best they can for the physical, social, cultural, moral, and religious education of their offspring.”

So, here, a priest illegally bans a parent from his child’s baptism and yet canon law gets blamed for it. See what happens when key aspects of a story are left out?

But here’s another part of the story, one that the priest who attracted the pope’s ire might have been stumbling toward but which, perhaps being the product of the shabby canonical training that so many seminarians “in a country, in a city” seemed to have received over the last fifty years, he did not understand correctly: canon law (reflecting doctrinal mandates and centuries of disciplinary wisdom) requires for the licit baptism of a child “a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion” per Canon 868 § 1 n. 1.

Ahhh. A “founded hope” of being raised Catholic. Might some vague awareness of that requirement have been behind the priest’s hesitation to treat this baptismal request the same as he would treat a baptismal request from a couple married in the Church and active in the practice of their faith? Or, are all baptismal requests owed an automatic “Sure!” from pastors now?

However illegal was the priest’s decision to ban a father from his son’s baptism (and it was illegal), might the priest’s common sense intuited that Catholic parents who live in contradiction to the teachings of Christ and his Church on marriage diminish the chances that their children will be brought up in an environment conducive to learning and living the requirements of the Catholic faith?  If so, he might have been recognizing exactly what countless of his brothers have recognized in the course of their ministry and, if advised and not ridiculed, he might have been led to spot signs of a “founded hope” for a Catholic upbringing that he overlooked before or, if that were not possible, he might have (as many priests I know have done) used the good desire of the parents to see their child baptized as an occasion to invite those parents into regularizing their own status in the Church both for their good and their child’s.

Either way, though, what the priest would not have done, one hopes, is exactly what canon law seeks to prevent: imposing the burdens of Catholic life on a child unable, through no fault of his own, to fulfill those burdens—perhaps with the pious hope that baptism will somehow just make everything turn out alright.

In any case, none of these, I suggest, highly relevant concerns comes across in the pope’s story. Instead, canon law once again gets blamed for supporting something (here, the banning of a parent from a baptism) that in fact it repudiates, and the possibility that a canonical norm meant to protect children (the “founded hope” requirement) might also have been at issue, is ignored.

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PostscriptLast fall I commented on Francis’ modification of Canon 868 in regard to the baptism of the children of non-Catholics. The questions I asked then are, to my knowledge, still unresolved.

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About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.


  1. You’re a persecuted entity and likely will continue to be so. Perhaps along with all poor murmuring Pharisees rendered irrelevant in the new Church paradigm affecting right reason and logical consequence. It’s the transcendence of the Sadducees. Pharisees need to emulate Judas Maccabeus

    • In a perfect world with perfect parents, your interpretation of Canon Law makes sense. Your interpretation implies the child should not even be Baptized because the parents are not living perfectly. I know plenty of parents who were imperfect and Baptized their children who THEN grew up to be PRACTICING CATHOLICS. “Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation.” Catechism of the Catholic Church 1272 I think the Holy Spirit received in Baptism is more powerful than imperfect parents because the Baptized baby belongs to Christ. I am not a Canon Lawyer, but have seen the power of the Holy Spirit work in people’s lives and surpass all human expectations and imperfections.

  2. It always strikes me how much good Pope Francis could do, if he was willing to stay within church teaching, not try to change it, but just tell us that certain things should remain uppermost in our minds. Mercy of course is one of those things, as are many other one word values that are inherent in Catholicism. But the Pope always struggles to stay within the bounds of church teaching. Rather than teach us to be merciful within church teaching, he constantly argues ignoring church teaching, or at least avoiding it and putting whatever feels good first.

    He could have done a large amount of good. But he has chosen to lead everyone down a terrible path. His message, unforunately, has been reduced to “Do what you think is right”. Unfortunatly there are a lot of people who think the right thing is the wrong thing.

  3. Pope Francis and his continued scorched earth ministry to destroy Pharisees, mostly imagined. A pope luxuriating in the praise of man and a self-made pride born of his rebel without a cause self-identification.

  4. “Impose the burdens of the Catholic faith on a child”…..???? The child will not be held accountable if he is unable to “complete his duties imposed by the Catholic faith” through no fault of his own. But at least he is claimed for Christ and Jesus said: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Mt. 11:28-30) .

    • Patricia, the child may not be held accountable, but his parents would be, and Dr. Peters is pointing out that the priest most definitely would be. He is instructed to consider whether the child will be raised in the Faith. One instance where it makes a difference if a child is baptized into the Faith by his parents is when that child becomes an adult and wants to get married, something you might want to look into. The fact that he has been baptized matters, even if his parents failed in their duty to raise him Catholic. Certainly the best thing for the priest to do would be what Dr. Peters suggests, that he use the opportunity to invite the parents to correct their own situation. The Holy Father should speak out against priests who don’t follow that course, because those priests are failing to give that family a great gift. But the opposite seems to be the attitude that so many people have: What difference does it make that the child is unlikely to be raised in the faith? What difference does it make that one or both parents is actually married to another person? Let’s just baptize the baby and tell the parents that since it’s such a special day, how about if everyone receives Communion? Because really, what difference does it make? And the fact that everyone thinks it shouldn’t make any difference isn’t addressed by the Holy Father, because all he wants to do is portray people who care about the sacraments of Matrimony and Baptism as Pharisees.

      • We act as though people become adults in the Faith at Confirmation, but let’s be honest – in most cases, it’s not until young people marry and start to put down roots (e.g., have screaming kids in the pews who grow into the parish school) that they truly accept our Faith. Perhaps it’s those decisions surrounding the use of birth control vs.openness to children, and how those children will be raised, which force us to confront the Truths which have been handed down.

  5. I’m not sure that the Pope even intended his story to be taken literally, as opposed to a parable from his own imagination meant to illustrate an attitude. If Benedict had told the story, I would have taken it to mean precisely what he said, but Francis has nothing of German literalism.

  6. ¨So, here, a priest illegally bans a parent from his child’s baptism and yet canon law gets blamed for it.¨

    Er – am I missing something? I don´t see blame being laid at the door of *canon law* – for the Pope is reported to have said: ¨…The Pharisees, doctors of the law are not people of the past, even today, there are many of them….¨

    Hence, it looks like he is giving the thumbs-down in this case not to canon law per se but to the ¨Pharisees¨ (i.e., those who presumably don´t appreciate the spirit of the law so as to fulfill its ultimate purpose.)

  7. With all due respect, I have read this twice and don’t understand what the point of it is. Is the pope being paraphrased, who isn’t telling what entire story or who was questioning Canon Law? On the second reading, I kept reading back to understand who or what was in context with something that is missing. I never could figure out the point of the article.

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