It is not uncommon today to find faithful men and women who treasure their Catholic faith at odds with their adult children who have drifted away from the Church.
Not only does it make holiday family gatherings more stressful, but it creates conflicts when, as grandparents, they welcome new members of the family at birth.
As a pastor, I see these painful scenarios regularly played out. It would help grandparents if they understand some basic teachings of the Church about baptism of their grandchildren, because sometimes well-intentioned grandparents violate the Church’s teachings about baptism without even realizing it.
What joy to welcome the birth of a grandchild.
So many dreams are fulfilled, and each new baby brings great hope to the entire family. Yet what are grandparents to do when their son or daughter does not want to baptize his or her child?
Grandparents know that the parents are depriving the grandchild of the most necessary of graces, failing to direct the newborn to his or her supernatural end.
After conversations fail to bear immediate fruit, some grandparents are tempted to secretly baptize the grandchild without the consent of the parents. However, grandparents need to know that this practice is contrary to the law of the Church and sinful.
The Code of Canon Law states, "For an infant to be baptized lawfully, it is required that the parents, or at least one of them, or the person who lawfully holds their place, give their consent" (868).
In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas explains that parents are, by the natural law, responsible for their children, and "it would be contrary to natural justice if such children were baptized against their parents’ will" (III, q. 68, a. 10).
Under normal circumstances, no one, not even a grandparent, has the right to baptize a child contrary to the parents’ will.
Not only would the baptism by a grandparent be a violation of the natural law, but, as St. Thomas writes, "Under the circumstances, it would be dangerous to baptize the children of unbelievers; for they would be liable to lapse into unbelief by reason of their natural affection for their parents."
The danger here is failing to bring the grace of baptism to fruition. For this reason, the Code of Canon Law explains the requirement "that there be the well-founded hope that the child will be brought up in the Catholic religion. If such hope is truly lacking, the baptism is, in accordance with the provisions of particular law, to be deferred" (868).
The only exception to this law would be if the child is in danger of death. Canon law states, "An infant of Catholic parents, indeed even of non-Catholic parents, is lawfully baptized in danger of death, even if the parents are opposed to it."
If death is near, the salvation of the child’s soul then prevails over the rights of the parents.
There is also an issue of honesty here. Grandparents who secretly baptize their grandchildren without the consent of the parents are being deceptive, willfully deceiving the parents.
What will happen some years later if the grandchild finally comes for baptism, either through the parents’ consent or as an adult? The grandparents will need to explain that the baptism has already occurred some years before.
The parents will rightfully feel betrayed, only beginning another painful conflict in the family.
It should also be noted that, according to canon law, "The ordinary minister of baptism is a bishop, a priest or a deacon" (861) and that the pastor, by his office, has jurisdiction of all baptisms within his territory (530, 862).
A layperson who baptizes without the permission of the local pastor violates this law. Although the Code of Canon Law does make provision for cases "of necessity" for a layperson to baptize, a strong desire by grandparents is not one of them.
For all of these reasons (natural law, the proper formation in the faith, honesty, proper jurisdiction) the Church teaches that outside of the danger of death or a special permission granted for particular pastoral needs, it is sinful for a layperson (such as a grandparent) to baptize someone. St. Thomas Aquinas states, "If a layman were to baptize outside a case of urgency, he would sin" (III, q. 67, a. 3).
According to the Handbook of Moral Theology by Dominican Father Dominic Prummer, the administration of baptism without the permission of the parish priest or ordinary "is a grave violation of that person’s rights." Moral Theology by Franciscan Heribert Jone states, "Apart from the case of necessity, it is mortally sinful to baptize without at least the presumed permission of the pastor."
The deferral of baptism until a later time can be quite difficult for Catholic grandparents to accept, knowing the necessity of baptism for salvation. Nonetheless, the grandparents must pray and trust that, in due time, their prayers will be answered, taking St. Monica as their example.
As a priest, I have known a number of people who as adults were brought back to the Catholic faith through the good example and counsel of their grandparents, even after the grandparents have died.
The Lord sees all the great sacrifices that grandparents have made for the faith and will reward accordingly; for the Lord shows "steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments" (Exodus 20:6).
Father Greg Markey is
pastor of St. Mary Church
in Norwalk, Connecticut,
in the Diocese of Bridgeport.