For all our talk about baptism previously, infant baptism remains, for some, a controversial practice. Why do Catholics and some other denominations baptize babies? Why not wait for the child to choose baptism for him or herself? Here is what the tradition of the Church teaches us.
First, in the New Testament, there are references to entire “households” receiving baptism. When Lydia was baptized, for instance, Luke says “her household” was baptized too (Acts 16:15). Or, in Corinth, Paul said he baptized the “household of Stephanas” (1 Cor 1:16). This was thought, by many in the early Church, to include all people — those enslaved, children, parents. Now that, by no means, clinches the argument, nor was it the most important argument for the practice in the early Church. But it is significant.
In many parts of the early Church, adult baptism was clearly the norm, a practice also typically associated with intense moral rigor. Only after achieving a level of moral perfection would a person dare to receive baptism, which is why so many put it off until old age or just before death. Early Church Father Tertullian — a thoroughly rigorist Christian — represents this thinking: “If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay” (“On Baptism,” No.18).
Yet it’s clear that in many parts of the Christian world, the practice of infant baptism was accepted and even, in some places, the norm. “The Apostolic Tradition,” a manual of Church worship and practice like the Didache, but from the third century, lists both adults and children as candidates for baptism. “The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family,” it says (“The Apostolic Tradition,” No. 21.2-4). The growth of the practice of infant baptism likely had some connection to the idea that baptism was necessary for salvation — a theological claim that, whatever we may think of it now, would have been taken seriously in earlier eras of serious faith and high infant mortality.
But aside from evidence found in the tradition, what theological defense is there? Enter here, St. Augustine. He offers a theological defense for infant baptism, saying basically that a child becomes a believer through the sacrament. “Therefore an infant, although he is not yet a believer in the sense of having faith which includes the consenting will of those who exercise it, nevertheless becomes a believer through the sacrament of that faith. For as it is answered that he believes, so also he is called a believer, not because he assents to the truth by an act of his own judgment, but because he receives the sacrament of that truth” (Epistle, No. 98.10). Now what does this mean?
Let’s use an analogy. Think of parents determined to give their children the best education possible. And understandably, they decide that the best school for, say, their teenage daughter, is the Catholic high school down the road. Thus, they make their daughter apply; they pay; they make her go to the Catholic school. Now, their daughter may not understand the value of the gift of such an education. She may not understand the good things her parents have done for her. She may even hate the school at first. But in time, she will have the opportunity to grow into the school and into all the benefits that the school offers. Of course, it’s up to her whether she succeeds or fails, but it was up to her parents to give her the opportunity. And why did they give her the opportunity? Because they knew it was the best thing for their daughter well before their daughter did. If they had waited for her to choose on her own, she may have not made a choice at all, or she may have made a bad choice.
This same sort of thinking is what’s behind the practice of infant baptism. That’s what St. Augustine meant, saying the infant becomes a believer through the sacrament of his or her parents’ faith. It doesn’t at all take away the freedom of the child to live his or her life any more than the parents sending their child to the school they know is best takes away their child’s freedom either to succeed or fail as a student. But that’s why parents have their infant children baptized because, by faith, they know the gift of the sacrament is what’s best for them.
Now we should be clear this is not uniquely Catholic thinking. John Calvin, for example, advocated infant baptism. His argument was in fact quite biblical. He pointed to Noah and to the covenant he made with God on behalf of the whole of creation. Calvin’s reasoning was that if Noah could enter all the dumb animals of creation into a covenant with God, then surely parents could enter their children into a covenant with God. “From this the ignorance of the Anabaptists may be refuted,” Calvin confidently asserted (“Commentary on Genesis,” No. 9:10). Only some Protestant groups reject infant baptism, we should remember, so this isn’t exclusively Catholic belief and practice.
There is, of course, much more that can be said or argued about infant baptism, but this brief look into the tradition is a start. What we believe about baptism — that it’s a sacrament of God’s desire for us — is clear; thus, why wouldn’t we baptize infants? For Christ bids the little ones come to him, too (Mk 10:13-16).
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books. Read more from the series here.