Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
Taylor Marshall recently wrote a post on the topic of infant baptism that made my blood pressure skyrocket. What bothered me wasn’t any problem with what he said; in fact, I was troubled because I agreed with him. Quoting Blessed Pope John Paul II, other popes, The Council of Trent and various Church documents, Marshall hit home the importance of not delaying baptism for our children. In addition to all the material Marshall cites in his post, Canon 867 specifically states that “parents are obliged to see that their infants are baptized within the first few weeks.” There’s no question where the Church stands on this subject.
So what, then, should parents do who aren’t able to secure a traditional baptism for their children “within the first few weeks” of life?
There are many blessings that come with living in a booming diocese, but one of the disadvantages is that it often takes a while for the vocations to catch up with the number of practicing Catholics. (In my own parish, for example, we have two priests for almost 4, 000 families.) No matter how hard the priests and deacons work, there are still long lines at the confessional, crowded sanctuaries at the Mass, and logjam at the baptismal font. As someone who is going to have a baby in about four weeks, it’s that last one that concerns me the most.
In many parishes across the country, the earliest you could possibly have your child baptized by your parish priest or deacon is between four and six months after the child’s birth. Based on emails from readers and my own experience, a standard setup is this: The parents have to have their child’s birth certificate in hand before they can even begin the process of classes and paperwork (and, considering that it often takes up to six weeks to receive the birth certificate from the state, that policy alone rules out baptizing your child within the first few weeks of life). Once they have the birth certificate, only then can the parents and the godparents register for the required class that explains the sacrament of baptism. It may take another few weeks to get into a class, and they can’t move on to the next step until all four people have documentation proving that it’s been completed. Then the godparents need to collect paperwork showing that they are Catholics in good standing, including Church marriage certificates if they’re married. Only once that paperwork is finalized can the parents request to be scheduled on the baptism calendar—and, depending on the size of their parish, it could be weeks or even months before there’s an open slot.
Meanwhile, all of this takes place during a risky time for babies. Though we’re fortunate to have low infant mortality rates here in the developed world, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), car wrecks, household accidents and medical disorders still claim young babies’ lives more often than we might like to image. Canon 867 states that lay baptisms are licit if an infant is in danger of death, but many of these modern causes of babies’ deaths are sudden (e.g. SIDS, accidental suffocation, etc.), so that parents wouldn’t have the opportunity to perform a last-minute baptism. Though the odds are low that any one American child would die in the first four to six months of life, statistics aren’t very reassuring when you’re the parent of an infant that has not been able to receive this sacrament. A lot of people simply go around the bureaucracy by having priest or deacon friends and family members perform private ceremonies, but that’s not an option for everyone, especially converts who may not have any consecrated religious in their personal networks.
So here’s my question:
We know that it is licit for lay people to perform baptisms in emergency situations. We know that, outside of extraordinary circumstances, baptism must be done by a priest or a deacon. And we also know that the Church strongly emphasizes the importance of a speedy baptism for new babies. In a situation where you cannot have your child baptized by a priest or deacon within the first couple of months of life, would it ever make sense to baptize your child yourself? Could there reach a point where the delays get serious enough that it would make a lay baptism licit?
I’m assuming that the answer is that it’s best for parishioners to go through their parish process, even if it means months of delays. But I wanted to bring up the subject since I know that a lot of parents of newborns across the country lose sleep over this issue, and as the weeks roll by and the baptism still hasn’t happened, they sometimes wonder if they should just do it themselves.