A baby is baptized in the Sistine Chapel A baby is baptized in the Sistine Chapel  (ANSA) Editorial

The grace of baptism, tradition, and clerical tollhouses

Our Editorial Director reflects on the responses of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith to questions concerning the celebration of baptism and transsexual and homosexual persons.

By Andrea Tornielli

St Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage who was martyred in 258, participating in a synod of African bishops observed: “God's mercy and grace should not be refused to anyone born”. And St Augustine wrote: “When children are presented to be given spiritual grace, it is not so much those holding them in their arms who present them – although, if these people are good Christians, they are included among those who present the children – as the whole company of saints and faithful Christians … It is done by the whole Mother Church which is in the saints, since it is as a whole that she gives birth to each and every one of them”.

These are two statements by the Fathers of the Church that attest to the absolute gratuitousness of baptism, in some way even relativizing the role of parents and godparents (“if they are good believers”) who ask for the sacrament and present the child. These words, better than others, illuminate the recent response of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) to a Brazilian bishop’s questions about baptism.

The note, signed by Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandéz and approved by Pope Francis, shows a clear harmony with the recent papal magisterium. In fact, Pope Francis has repeatedly insisted that the door of the sacraments, and in particular that of baptism, must not remain closed, and that the Church should never turn into a tollhouse, but should instead welcome and accompany everyone on their bumpy paths in life.

The replies of the doctrinal dicastery, in the highly polarised context that characterizes the Church today, have provoked opposing reactions. Some fear that, by admitting the children of homosexual couples (whether they or adopted, or children of one of the two partners, even if generated by surrogate motherhood) to the sacrament of baptism would make both so-called “gay marriage” and the practice of surrogate motherhood (known as “womb renting” in Italian) morally licit. Such critics would do well to consider the relaxation of the prohibitions regarding who can serve as godparents at baptisms, which the Dicastery presents in the form of a question and answer.

It is interesting to note, first of all, a passage in the note that recalls that the newly published responses “re-propose, in substance, the fundamental contents of what has already been affirmed in the past by the Dicastery concerning these matters.” The reference is to previous pronouncements that have remained sub secreto, or reserved, (including one quoted in the footnote) that date back to earlier in this pontificate and its predecessors. Moreover, the initial quotations from the two Church Fathers proposed at the beginning of this article are contained, with many others, in a public document of the then Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed at the time by Croatian Cardinal Franjo Šeper and Dominican Archbishop Jérôme Hamer. This was the instruction Pastoralis actio, approved in October 1980 by Saint John Paul II, in which he responded to a series of objections against the celebration of infant baptism, reaffirming the importance of an “immemorial practice” of apostolic origin that should not be abandoned.

The 1980 document had in fact already indirectly responded to those who today would deny baptism to children of homosexual couples because by baptizing them the Church would make gay unions or the practice of uterus surrogacy morally licit, affirming that the practice of infant baptism “is truly evangelical, since it has the force of witness, manifesting God's initiative and the gratuitous character of the love with which He surrounds our lives: ‘not that we loved God but that He loved us... We love, because He first loved us’ (1 John 4:10, 19)”. And “even in the case of adults, the demands that the reception of Baptism involves should not make us forget that “He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:5)”.

The instruction approved by Pope John Paul II forty-three years ago obviously took into account the changed social context and secularisation: “It sometimes happens that pastors are approached by parents who have little faith and practice their religion only occasionally, or even by non-Christian parents who request Baptism for their children for reasons that deserve consideration”. How should one act in such cases? While noting that the criterion remains valid, that the baptism of children is to be celebrated if there is an assurance that the child “will be given the benefit of a Christian upbringing”, the 1980 document specified: “With regard to the assurances, any pledge giving a well-founded hope for the Christian upbringing of the children deserves to be considered as sufficient”. Current practice in parishes attests to the fact that, following the example of the Nazarene, tireless in His search for every lost sheep, it is enough for a relative to make the commitment before the Church, in order not to close the door.

Today, is there not a greater need to believe more in the action of grace working through the sacraments, which are not a reward for the perfect but medicine for sinners? Should we not look more at the pages of the Gospel, where Jesus emerges as the One Who loves first, forgives first, embraces with mercy first, and where we see that it is within this embrace that people’s hearts are moved towards conversion?

And again, what fault do children have? However they came into the world, they are always God’s beloved and cherished creatures. Would it not be better, then, to focus more on the positive, namely the fact that people ask for baptism in a post-Christianity context, where it is increasingly rare for it to happen out of mere custom?

It is comforting to reread the words that a great 20th-century bishop had spoken in an interview in July 1978 about Luise Brown, the first “test-tube baby”. He denounced the risk that “baby factories”, separated from family contexts, might arise and explained that he shared “only partially” the enthusiasm for the experiment. But in the end, he offered his “best wishes to the child” and an affectionate thought to the parents, saying: “I have no right to condemn them: subjectively, if they have acted with the right intention and in good faith, they may even have great merit before God for what they have decided and asked the doctors to carry out”. That bishop was Albino Luciani, at the time the Patriarch of Venice, who a month later would become John Paul I and today he is recognized as Blessed.

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11 November 2023, 09:47