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Mother Church Says, "Yes, You May."

01/14/2014 Comments (20)

Does your school have a zero tolerance policy for certain types of infractions?  According to the New York Times, many schools are backing away from draconian, one-size-fits all policies when it comes to discipline, because they cause more harm than good.  The article says that when students are simply thrust out of school for breaking certain rules, these kids become even worse offenders.  Who'da thunk it?  Turns out if a kid is making trouble, he's not going to suddenly become a model citizen if he finds himself on the street, away from teachers, with an incomplete education and an arrest record.  

Zero tolerance policies -- the ones that leave no room for judgment on the part of the authority figure, but impose rigid, one-size-fits-all standards no matter what the situation -- are bad for the people being punished, and also for the ones who must mete out the punishment. It does terrible things to our souls to be told that, in order to be good leaders, we must shut down everything we know about human nature and simply behave as machines.  Nobody wants to be told that their judgment is irrelevant; and it's especially dreadful to say that to people who are in the business of nurturing other human beings.

Teachers ought to be allowed some latitude.  They ought to be able to make the judgment about what a non-compliant student really needs:  more attention?  An intervention at home?  Comeuppance?  A second chance?  Banishment?  Or what?  Depends on the situation, and depends what you are trying to achieve.  If there is some hope that the person in question can be redeemed, then "Get the hell out" is probably not the best policy.

If teachers need latitude when dealing out discipline, how much more so is that true for priests, especially pastors -- who are in the business of nurturing human souls?  This need for discretion based on individual situations is, I believe, what Pope Francis was modeling when he recently baptized the child of a couple who are or were not married in the Church. 

As Jimmy Akin notes in his irrefutably levelheaded way, we actually don't know any specifics of the situation of the couple in question.  Are they engaged (for real, with a wedding date)?  Are they in RCIA?  Are they working on getting an annulment?  Did they get married in the Church before the baptism date, after speaking with a priest?  We don't know.   We can comfortably assume that the Pope made sure someone understood the situation and made the right call, based on the circumstances.

We do know that Canon law states that, for a baby to be baptized in a non-emergency situation,

2/ there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion; if such hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be delayed according to the prescripts of particular law after the parents have been advised about the reason [Can.  868 §1].

It doesn't say, "The priest must be 100% sure that the child will never miss a CCD class."  It doesn't say, "The parish secretary has visited the parents' home, and is satisfied, based on the number of rosaries lying around, that the home is sufficiently Catholic."  It doesn't say, "These parents deserve to have their baby baptized" (as if anybody deserves salvation!).  It acknowledges that baptism is something real, something profound, an opening of a door that had been closed by original sin. Baptism is supposed to be the start of something:  the start of a life that moves toward Christ, with the guidance of Mother Church.   All she asks is that hope of such a life may not be "altogether lacking."  An astonishingly low bar!

Baptism is not a sign that all is well:  it's a sign that we are looking for something, that we are requesting help.  It is a beginning.  As so many of us can attest, that beginning point takes many different forms.  Some people are pulverized with a desire to know Christ. Some people are snuck up upon (wouldn't you kill to see an icon of Christ the Sneaker Upper?).  Some people wend their way through their Catholic lives like a giant game of Mother May I:  one baby step forward, ten giant steps backward.

But Mother Church is very good at pretending not to see us when we waver or stagger.  Never does she say, "I saw you trip!  You're out for good!  And your awful little heathen baby is out, too!" 

Sometimes a baby simply shouldn't be baptized yet.  The sacrament must not be taken lightly, nor used as a photo op, or a way to appease pushy in-laws.  In a sense, it would place an undue burden on a child to be baptized, if there is no likelihood of any formation in the Faith.  But it is because it is so important that the Church is so generous as she pours out sanctifying grace.  When we ask, "Mother Church, may I?" she almost always says, "Yes, you may."

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About Simcha Fisher

Simcha Fisher
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Simcha Fisher, author of The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning writes for several publications and blogs at I Have to Sit Down. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and nine children. Without supernatural aid, she would hardly be a human being.