Editor's note: This article was updated on July 16.
MADISON, Wis. — In the 21st century, the Church is encountering requests for children’s baptism from parents in same-sex relationships. But few dioceses have actual policies in the area, which requires a great deal of pastoral attention and no one-size-fits-all answers.
In the Diocese of Madison, the vicar general, Msgr. James Bartylla, sent out a May 10 email to pastors asking them to “please seek consultation and coordination” with his office on requests for baptism of children to same-sex couples. The email stated that each case “must be evaluated individually,” because of difficulties in same-sex unions that “touch upon theology, canon law, pastoral approach, liturgical adaptation and sacramental recording.”
Msgr. Bartylla’s email was originally confidential to priests. It emerged after being leaked by a third party to the Wisconsin State Journal, which erroneously reported that the diocese was centralizing those decisions and seemed to indicate it was taking the call away from pastors.
“If priests read Msgr. Bartylla’s memo carefully, what he asked them to do was to consult and to coordinate with his office,” Madison Bishop Robert Morlino told the Register. “He never mentioned that they needed his permission.”
Bishop Morlino said the diocese had been wondering over the last few years about how many times certain pastoral situations arose, such as the baptism of a child raised in a same-sex household. He wanted to know whether the local Church was consistent in its pastoral care and to “better understand what is happening among our people.”
“So to consult and coordinate with him meant that our office would be aware of what the situation was concretely and what the pastor was planning to do; and if we had any further considerations with regard to a consistency of practice, then we might offer him those suggestions,” he said.
Few Written Policies
According to Siobhan Verbeek, director of canonical services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), “Very few dioceses have developed written policies explicitly governing this case.”
She said the few dioceses that have specific policies “focus particularly on the aspect of the recording of such baptisms in the baptismal register.”
Verbeek said the Church has universal norms that provide the guiding general principles for a whole range of pastoral scenarios. She pointed to the U.S. bishops’ 2006 statement "Ministry to Persons With a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care," which directly addressed baptism of children raised by same-sex couples as “a serious pastoral concern.”
“Nevertheless, the Church does not refuse the sacrament of baptism to these children, but there must be a well-founded hope that the children will be brought up in the Catholic religion,” it stated.
The USCCB document adds that where baptism is permitted, pastors “should exercise prudential judgment” when preparing for baptism and should make a distinction “between natural parents and adoptive parents” when preparing the baptismal record.
Verbeek emphasized that canon law requires “a founded hope that the children will be brought up in the Catholic religion.”
“[It] applies to any child, i.e., regardless of his or her family circumstance,” she said. But, traditionally, the concept of “founded hope,” she added, has been broadly interpreted on account of baptism being necessary for salvation.
“Founded hope, for example, may exist within a child’s extended family. Each case is examined individually,” she said. “Canon law stipulates further that only ‘if such hope is altogether lacking’ is a baptism to be delayed.”
Canon Law and Pastoral Care
Although overuse and abuse of the term “pastoral” has tainted its meaning for some Catholics, authentic pastoral care as intended by the Church means applying the laws and guidelines of the Church to a person’s concrete situation.
Canonist Kurt Martens, editor of The Catholic University of America’s canon-law journal The Jurist, explained that the facts and circumstances of each case are unique and different.
“There’s no real straightforward answer,” he said. “You have to look at local circumstances fully in every individual situation.”
Martens explained that canon law is like a toolbox. It provides some tools and some general instructions, but it remains up to the pastor to figure out how to put it all together for each individual situation.
“It doesn’t give you the answer for every conceivable and unconceivable situation,” he said. “You have to apply it and work with it in every situation.”
He said what the Church is looking for “revolves around whether there is a founded hope that they will be raised in the Catholic faith: Is there any hope that they will be raised in the faith, in every aspect of it?”
Other questions also come to mind, Martens said: What degree of hope must a pastor have? Can the child be excluded from baptism because of his parents’ or guardians’ lifestyles?
He added that a pastor has to ask these questions in every situation where the child is raised in circumstances that contradict Church teaching and could affect how the child is brought up in the faith. These issues apply with respect to a cohabitating heterosexual couple who refuses to get married as much as to a cohabitating same-sex couple whose union can never be sanctioned by the Church.
“The refusal of baptism means in fact that the Church is postponing baptism until there is a founded hope that the child would be raised in the faith,” Martens said.
“When it would occur that a pastor refuses, he should try to do all he can to remedy the problems so that baptism can proceed, and he should also appropriately consult with the diocese before a final decision is made.”
Commitment to Raise the Child in the Faith
Father Daniel Firmin, vicar general for the Diocese of Savannah, Ga., said that while the diocese does not have a policy on requests for baptisms from same-sex couples, it strongly encourages pastors to communicate with his office when they have irregular pastoral situations.
“Hopefully, the pastor would call us, and we could discuss it with him because it is a very delicate issue,” he said.
Father Firmin said that, at the outset, a same-sex union is “a public statement that is clearly against the teachings of the Church.” A same-sex couple cannot be godparents. While civilly married couples or unmarried cohabitating couples can have their situation remedied through convalidation or marriage, Father Firmin said the same-sex union “can never be remedied” unless the couple chooses to live separately.
The question the Church wants answered, he explained, is whether the commitments made to raise the child in the faith — without compromise — made at baptism will be realized.
“If they can’t — and we wouldn’t want them to lie either — then we’d say, ‘Don’t present your child for baptism, because we wouldn’t want to place a burden on you that you can’t fulfill.’”
Father Firmin said the Church’s pastors are still discerning how to best approach these situations, but he ruled out the idea of conferring baptism without securing those promises to raise the child in the entirety of the faith.
“We also have to be stewards of the sacraments,” he said. “We can’t just say, ‘We’ll do this and leave the rest up to the Lord to figure it all out.’”
Synod on Family
Bishop Morlino said he expects that the upcoming synods on marriage and the family called by Pope Francis will provide the Church’s pastors a set of helpful pastoral guidelines for dealing with these situations. But he said that the Church wants to find ways to fulfill the conditions necessary to baptize the child and transmit the faith, above all.
“If the gay couple were to come forward and present the child for baptism and somehow sincerely intend that the child be brought up Catholic, and if an arrangement could be made such that the child being brought up a Catholic was a reasonable hope, then we would strongly favor the baptism of the child,” he said.
If the same-sex couple could not provide that reasonable hope themselves, “then we would try to direct them to choose godparents who could intervene and bring the child up Catholic.”
“We’re not looking for a reason to exclude the child from baptism. We’re looking to create the conditions so that the child can validly and licitly be baptized,” he said.
“That is pastoral service.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.