Why Do We Baptize Babies?

Mary McAleese, Former President of Ireland, Thinks It's Wrong

Former Irish president Mary McAleese in the Drawing Room of the President’s Residence in Dublin, Ireland, May 23, 2011.
Former Irish president Mary McAleese in the Drawing Room of the President’s Residence in Dublin, Ireland, May 23, 2011. (photo: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland, believes that babies shouldn't be baptized. To baptize an infant, she said, “imposes lifelong obligations of obedience to the Church's Magisterium.”

In an interview with the Irish Times, McAleese expanded upon her objection, calling the children “infant conscripts.” There has to be a point, she said, 

“...at which our young people, as adults who have been baptized into the church and raised in the faith, have the chance to say, 'I validate this' or 'I repudiate this.'

We live now in times where we have the right to freedom of conscience, freedom of belief, freedom of opinion, freedom of religion and freedom to change religion. The Catholic Church has yet to fully embrace the thinking.”

McAleese is wrong, and Irish theologian Fr. Vincent Twomey stepped in quickly to correct her. Father Twomey, who is Professor Emeritus of moral theology at St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, said in an interview with The Tablet, “Mrs. McAleese is seriously mistaken if she thinks that baptism is about human rights rather than divine grace.”

Dr. McAleese, who wrote on the subject of baptism for her doctoral dissertation in canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, considers herself a Catholic. The oldest of nine children in an Irish Catholic family, she attended St. Dominic's High School and later spent some time with the Poor Clares. 

In fact, though, McAleese's view of baptism is more in align with that of Protestant denominations – many of which defer baptism until the individual is old enough to make a personal declaration of faith in Christ. 


The Protestant Perspective

Catholics may be puzzled by the teaching in the Baptist churches. Oddly, Baptists do not believe in Baptism – at least not in the sense that Catholics understand it, as a “sacrament” which confers grace. Rather, it's a personal profession of faith, an “ordinance” of God which symbolizes that the recipient has been buried and resurrected with Christ. It's a gateway to full participation in the local church community. So in most Baptist communities, and in many other Protestant denominations, an individual is not baptized until the age of reason, or until 11, 12 or even older.

John MacArthur, a nationally syndicated radio preacher, is pastor of Grace Community Church. Dr. MacArthur has offered a statement regarding the policy at his church:

“Here at Grace Community Church, our general practice is to wait until a professing child has reached the age of 12. Because baptism is seen as something clear and final, our primary concern is that when a younger child is baptized he tends to look to that experience as proof that he was saved. Therefore, in the case of an unregenerate child who is baptized – which is not uncommon in the church at large – baptism actually does him a disservice. It is better to wait until the reality to which baptism testifies can be more easily discerned.”

Lutherans, on the other hand, baptize infants because they believe that God mandates it through the instruction of Jesus Christ in Matthew 28:19, "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The Lutheran Church would say that Jesus does not set any age limit: The command is general. Martin Luther affirmed the necessity of baptism, writing in his Large Catechism 4:6,

"Baptism is no human plaything but is instituted by God himself. Moreover, it is solemnly and strictly commanded that we must be baptized or we shall not be saved. We are not to regard it as an indifferent matter, then, like putting on a new red coat. It is of the greatest importance that we regard baptism as excellent, glorious, and exalted." 


The Catholic Church's Clear Teaching About Infant Baptism

Catholics understand that Baptism is more than a symbol – instituted by Christ, it is a means by which God confers upon us his grace. In the Gospel of John (3:5), Jesus himself emphasizes the importance of Baptism:

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”

Parents have a responsibility to care for their children, and to provide every opportunity for good. That means that new moms take their growing infants to the pediatrician's office for immunizations and routine care. They worry about whether little Emma is warm enough, or whether little Isaiah is getting sufficient nutrition. Since the child is too young to answer those questions for himself, the parents step in and act in his place. 

The Church Fathers considered Baptism so integral to the faith that they included it in the Nicene Creed, dating from A.D. 381: “I believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 1265) teaches that Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte “a new creature,” an adopted son of God, who has become a “partaker of the divine nature,” member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit. What mother, wanting what is best for her child, would not step in to ensure that her newborn will enjoy the benefits of this God-given means of grace? 

The Catechism (paragraphs 1250-1252) explains Church teaching with regard to infant baptism:

1250 Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called. The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth.

1251 Christian parents will recognize that this practice also accords with their role as nurturers of the life that God has entrusted to them

1252 The practice of infant Baptism is an immemorial tradition of the Church. There is explicit testimony to this practice from the second century on, and it is quite possible that, from the beginning of the apostolic preaching, when whole "households" received baptism, infants may also have been baptized.

There are several examples to be found in the Scriptures, showing that from the time of the apostles, the Church practiced infant baptism. In Acts 16:15, for example, Paul baptized Lydia and her entire household (which would have included children):15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us. And in Acts 16:33, the Roman jailer, seeing that Paul returned after escaping, fell down before Paul and Silas. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. In 1 Corinthians 1:16, Paul reports that he had baptized the household of Stephanas – again, which presumably included children. Baptism of infants is not, as Mary McAleese seems to believe, a type of “branding” which prevents the baptized from ever escaping the Catholic faith. Rather, it's a “membership card” which entitles the holder to many privileges, especially the privilege of being a beloved brother of the Lord Jesus.