Q: Why does the Catholic Church baptize infants?
A friend of mine who is a member of another church told me that in his church, they only baptize older youth and adults who can consciously decide for themselves if they want to be baptized and accept faith in Jesus. Doesn’t baptizing infants “force” our faith upon them and take away their right to choose?
A: In our North American culture, personal choice and autonomy are important values. Anything that might lessen our personal freedoms and choices can be viewed in a negative light. Choosing our career path, what college we will attend, where we will live and raise a family, etc., are all important choices that we are largely free to make. This sense of personal autonomy and choice can influence how we view and practice our Catholic faith, so that, for instance, infant baptism is seen as something that diminishes personal autonomy and is therefore negative. As we’ll see, this certainly is not the case.
To begin with, many non-Catholic Christians have quite a different idea of what baptism accomplishes and signifies. For many of these Christians, what is essential for salvation is accepting Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior, something only an individual who has attained the age of reason can do. Baptism is seen as an external sign of this faith commitment but not something essential for salvation in and of itself.
For Catholics, the moment that someone becomes a Christian is not when a personal assent is made, but rather at the moment of baptism. Baptism within the Catholic tradition is not an exterior sign reflecting the faith in Jesus that a believer has assented to earlier, but rather the moment when faith in Christ begins and when someone actually becomes a Christian, a disciple of Jesus. Baptism is an essential component of salvation, and it is important for us that everyone, including babies, is given this tremendous gift.
There are two very important reasons why the Catholic Church baptizes infants. The first is because we always have! Two key biblical texts can help us here. Acts of the Apostles tells us about the baptism of Lydia and her entire household: “After she and her household had been baptized, she offered us an invitation.” (Acts 16:15) Other passages in Acts and in St. Paul’s epistles also reference whole households being baptized. This most certainly would have meant infants if they were present.
Catholic tradition has a lot to say about infant baptism as well. The great St. Augustine, for instance, wrote: “The custom of Mother Church in baptizing infants is certainly not to be scorned, nor is it to be regarded in any way as superfluous, nor is it to be believed that its tradition is anything except apostolic.”
The second reason we baptize infants is for their own holistic development. A human person is a composite of body, mind and spirit; all three must be properly cared for and nurtured. The gift of baptism is the most important way that an infant receives the proper spiritual nourishment in order to get them started on the right foot. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear on this point: “Christian parents will recognize that this practice [of infant baptism] also accords with their role as nurturers of the life that God has entrusted to them.” (CCC 1251)
Baptism removes original sin, makes the baptized a child of God and a member of the family of the church, and gets their life started as a Christian. These are all spiritual goods that a child needs right from the start, like food, water and love, in order to become the person that God created them to be.
May God’s blessings be with you today and always!
Northwest Catholic - July/August 2016