Did Pope Francis baptize a baby whose parents aren’t married? 12 things to know and share

Pope Francis recently baptized a baby whose parents may not be married in the eyes of the Church. What should we make of this?
Pope Francis recently baptized a baby whose parents may not be married in the eyes of the Church. What should we make of this? (photo: Register Files)

Press reports are claiming that Pope Francis recently baptized the child whose parents were not married in the eyes of the Church.

Since many priests in America have refused to baptize such children, it raised some eyebrows.

What are the real facts in this case?

Here are 12 things to know and share . . .


1) What was the occasion of the baptism?

Every year the pope baptizes people on the commemoration of Christ’s baptism.

This takes place in the Sistine Chapel at St. Peter’s basilica.

This is an entirely normal practice.

For example, here’s a piece about Pope Benedict baptizing twenty babies on the Baptism of Our Lord in 2013.


2) What happened in this case?

According to Fr. Z’s translation of an Italian news story in La Stampa:

Among the baptized – according to the report in the daily “Il Tirreno” – there is also Giulia [i.e., Julia], caught of a couple married civilly but not in church. 

And this is certainly a novelty.  Not for Bergoglio, who as a priest, bishop and cardinal baptized babies of teen mothers or unmarried couples many times. 

Giulia’s parents, last 25 September, had made their request to the Pope directly at the end of the Wednesday general audience. 

“We were on the ‘sagrato’ (the ‘porch’ in front of the Basilica)”, Ivan Scardia recounted, the father of the baby, “when he passed by and we asked him if he could baptize our second child.  He told us to get in touch with his collaborators and then they contacted us.”

When the time came to send in the documents there was a glitch: “We were married at city hall.  But this problem was also overcome,” Giulia’s father said.


3) Why would this mean that the parents weren’t married in the Church’s eyes?

If someone is a Catholic then, apart from certain unusual circumstances, they are obliged to observe the Church’s form of marriage or get a dispensation from this form.

Otherwise, their marriages will not be valid.

Dispensations are sometimes granted, such as when a Catholic marries a non-Catholic and they wish to have a non-Catholic ceremony.

When two Catholics are marrying each other, however, such dispensations are not granted.

City halls, even in Italy, do not observe the Catholic form of marriage, and so for two Catholics to just head to city hall and attempt marriage would result in an invalid marriage from the Church’s perspective.


4) How reliable is this report?

It’s not as directly sourced as I’d like, since La Stampa is quoting another newspaper—Il Tirreno.

Also, it’s the Italian press, which is even more unreliable than the American press.

However, since it contains direct quotations from the father of the baby, I don’t have any special reason to doubt it.

My question is not whether the facts contained in the quotation are correct but whether they are being correctly interpreted.


5) How might they be misinterpreted?

Look at what the baby’s father told Il Tirreno about the status of their marriage:

“We were married at city hall.  But this problem was also overcome,” Giulia’s father said.

What does he mean when he says “But this problem was also overcome”?

One way it could be overcome would be through talking to the relevant Vatican officials, possibly with them consulting Pope Francis, and getting them to agree to go ahead with the baptism despite the parents’ invalid marriage.

But there is another possibility: They quickly got married for real.

I can easily imagine the Vatican officials pointing out that their marriage was not valid in the eyes of the Church and inviting them to quickly have a quiet, Catholic ceremony with an agreeable priest (perhaps one of the very Vatican officials they were talking to).

It would be sound pastoral practice, for a couple intent on remaining together, to make such an invitation at such a moment.

The account Fr. Z quotes doesn’t indicate the means by which the problem was “overcome,” and so I don’t know whether they got an agreement to go ahead despite the lack of a valid marriage or whether they quickly got married.

For the sake of their souls, I obviously hope the latter was the case.


6) If they didn’t get married for real, what would this tell us?

It might not tell us all that much, because we still wouldn’t know if the Vatican officials arranging the baptism consulted Pope Francis or not.

If they didn’t then the decision to go ahead wouldn’t tell us anything in particular about his views.

He might not have even known of the marital status of the parents.

But Pope Francis has already, apparently, made his views known on such matters.


7) What has he said?

In 2009, when still a Cardinal, he apparently told the Italian magazine 30 Giorni:

The child has absolutely no responsibility for the state of his parents' marriage. And often a baptism can be a new start for the parents as well.

Given this, with or without the Vatican officials consulting Pope Francis about this case, I can easily envision a situation where it was decided to baptize the child even if the parents didn’t marry in the Church.

And I can imagine a situation in which the parents were invited to get married for real (the “new start for the parents as well”) and they did so.

We thus have apparent precedent for Pope Francis supporting the baptism of children in situations in which the parents had some kind of marriage problem.

And this isn’t the only case in which he expressed himself on the matter.


8) When else did he do so?

La Stampa claims that he baptized the babies of unwed mothers on numerous occasions, though I don’t have verification of that.

There are, however, many sources that attribute to him the following statement, also when he was still Cardinal Bergoglio:

In our ecclesiastical region, there are priests who don't baptize the children of single mothers because they weren't conceived in the sanctity of marriage.

These are today's hypocrites. Those who clericalize the church. Those who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it's baptized.

This would, again, indicate that he thinks that babies coming from problematic family situations should be baptized.


9) Why would anyone think that such babies shouldn’t be baptized?

The Code of Canon Law states:

For an infant to be baptized licitly:

1/ the parents or at least one of them or the person who legitimately takes their place must consent;

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].

Thus for a baby to be baptized licitly (lawfully), there must be “a founded hope” that the child will be “brought up in the Catholic religion.”

That raises the question: If the child’s parents aren’t validly married and are thus prevented from leading a full Catholic life (e.g., participating in the sacraments), will the child actually be “brought up in the Catholic religion”?

The answer to the question depends on what is mean by “a founded hope” and what is meant by “brought up in the Catholic religion”?

More from canonist Edward Peters.


10) What is meant by “a founded hope”?

This is not clear from the text of the law itself.

It must be a hope that is supported by some evidence—otherwise the word “founded” would not be included.

On the other hand, it does not mean “supported by a great deal of evidence,” because the canon only says that the baptism should be delayed if “such hope is altogether lacking.”

Precisely how much evidence is needed for there to be “a founded hope” thus seems to indicate a modest but significant amount.


11) What does “brought up in the Catholic religion” mean?

This is ambiguous, also.

Taking the term in a minimal sense, it could mean the mere maintenance of a Catholic identity, such that if you asked the child, “What religion are you?” he would say, “I’m a Catholic”—even though he had very little knowledge of what this means and did not attend church on any kind of regular basis.

At the other end of the spectrum would be a full-orbed Catholic formation, with weekly Mass attendance and a thorough formation in Catholic teaching.

The fact that the Church’s own documents foresee the baptism of children born to Gypsy parents, who participate in the sacraments only infrequently and who are not well catechized, suggest an interpretation of “brought up in the Catholic religion” that is lower rather than higher.

This is also suggested by Pope Francis’s statement in his first audience that, as Catholics:

We [Catholics] are often satisfied with a few prayers, with a distracted and sporadic participation in Sunday Mass, with a few charitable acts; but we do not have the courage “to come out” to bring Christ to others [source].

These would seem to recognize the Catholic identity of people who attend Mass only sporadically (or even less frequently, as in the case of Gypsies).


12) What is the overall lesson to be learned here?

It is difficult to draw specific conclusions from the baptism of Baby Gulia because of the present reporting on the situation. We do not even know whether her parents got married for real to prepare for her baptism.

However, given what else is known, there seems to be reason for a more-generous rather than less-generous application of baptism.

This is true not just because of Pope Francis’s statement but also because of previous statements (e.g., regarding the baptism of Gypsy children).

Pastors who would deny baptism by insisting on the parents having regular marriages and solid Catholic religious practice would seem to be on unsafe ground.

It could be argued that in historically Catholic cultures—like those found in the Pope’s native Argentina or in Italy—the general cultural ambiance could help provide a “founded hope” that the child will be “brought up in the Catholic religion.”

However, it still seems that the statements of previous Vatican documents—and the statements made by Pope Francis before he was elected pontiff—support a more-generous rather than less-generous administration of baptism.


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