The Urgency of Infant Baptism

Taken from Crisis Magazine
by Dr. R. Jared Staudt

The Urgency of Infant Baptism

I recently wrote of one of my newborn son’s namesakes, Bl. Columba Marmion. My son, Colum, was baptized five days after birth (it would have been three except for the priest’s sickness), which is fast these days. In the old days it would have happened sooner. Pope Benedict XVI, for instance, was baptized on the day of his birth! All of our five children have been baptized quickly after birth. What surprises me is the reaction we receive, many times negative or resentful, from family, friends, and acquaintances.

A Change in Practice

Why would a speedy baptism after birth bring about criticism? My guess is that deliberately bucking what has become the new norm makes people uncomfortable. Delaying baptism for a few months should be of great concern. It signals a very recent and drastic shift in Catholic practice and culture. The question at the heart of this delay comes down to “how necessary is baptism after all?”

Here are three anecdotal occurrences that typify this change in attitude and practice. First, a theologian friend asked me why we were baptizing our son so quickly, since a baptism of desire would suffice in the meantime. Second, a bishop advised a friend of mine that there was no rush in setting up the time for her child’s baptism; a few months would be fine. Third, I also heard that a deacon in a local parish’s baptism class taught that the Church had changed its teaching on the urgency of baptism.

Latent within these anecdotes, and many others which could be presented, it seems to me, are three presuppositions. First, the Church’s teaching on the sacramental power of baptism and original sin is not taken seriously enough (not that these realities are denied). Second, because recently it has been presented that it is valid to hope for the salvation for an unbaptized baby, it is now accepted as normative that an unbaptized baby will be saved. Although I accept the Church’s teaching on hope, this position conflates hope and certainty. Third, the decline in infant mortality has removed the threat of death from our minds (which of course still exists, even if to a lesser degree).

Although it is true that infant mortality has declined drastically, I don’t think it’s sufficient to say the change in practice is merely practical. If we really take the Church’s teaching seriously, why would we not want to baptize our children immediately just for the sake of giving them the most important gift imaginable?

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