Should we ever refuse baptism?
The title of this post says it all: should we ever refuse to baptize someone? In particular, if parents present a child for baptism, are there ever grounds for refusing this request?
My initial response is no: we should never refuse such a request. But, as I was preparing my homily for this week, I was trying to make sense of why Jesus was baptized, and this led naturally to reflecting on what our own baptisms means. In my reading, I was struck in passing by the fact that Rahner, in his Theological Dictionary starts his article on infant baptism by talking about baptism not in terms of the forgiveness of sins, but rather in terms of incorporation into the Church. He closes the article by noting, “Except in danger of death, the Church does not allow a child to be baptized if there is no guarantee of his Christian upbringing.” Canon law states
For an infant to be baptized licitly…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. (868.1)
What is unclear is what does it mean to “be brought up in the Catholic religion”? On what grounds can you determine if a child will not be able to fulfill the incorporation into the Church that occurred in baptism? Presumably, this would be the case if the parents motivations were completely at odds with what the Church intends by baptism. But how do you sort out the good motives from the bad ones?
Is the sinful state of the parents sufficient grounds to deny baptism? Pope Francis has spoken out forcefully on this subject, emphatically telling a group of new ordained priests,
It is never necessary to refuse baptism to someone who asks for it!
On the other hand, Bishop Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, has moved in the opposite direction. Last year, he instructed all of his priests that when a gay couple presents a child for baptism, this matter must be referred to his office for a formal decision. Presumably, he wants to leave open the possibility that he will deny baptism in some cases. This case is important, but is clouded by the culture wars.
I don’t have any solid answers. Shooting from the hip: if we take a more Protestant view of baptism in terms of personal salvation, then it is not clear that there would ever be grounds for denying baptism. On the other hand, if we think of the sacrament also in terms of the community, then we should think about what this membership entails. And this, in turn, suggests there may be grounds for saying no. But for the life of me, I am stuck at this point.
Your thoughts are eagerly solicited.