Thursday, June 10, 2004

I’ll spare him the research

Since Fr. Hamilton is busy, presumably, with being the pastor of the largest parish, territorily speaking, in the Archdiocese, I thought I might pinch hit for him for a moment. In his post, “Communion with Christ,” a couple of people commented on having the baptism of the child delayed due to not having adequate godparents. Lydia asks this: I was very surprised (to put it mildly) that anyone would consider teaching on "parenting and Catholic faith" who waited almost a year before having her own child baptized. The CCC makes it clear that "The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless gift of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth." (CCC 1250) The Code of Canon Law puts it this way: "Parents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks..." (CIC 867). I may be wrong about this, but I think godparents are not an absolute necessity for baptism. On the other hand, Baptism is so important that Canon Law considers it licit in the case of an infant in danger of death, even if the parents are non-Catholic and even against their will. This led me to ask “are godparents mandatory for a baptism to take place?” Please permit me to dog my fingers for a moment for an answer.

First, we need to make a distinction between “delaying” and “denying.” For some reason, when people hear the words “not now,” they immediately understand them as “no, not ever.” (It must be our microwave-instant gratification culture at work.) This is not the case. While the Church recognizes the great gift of Baptism, the Church also understands that the sacrament is not magic. On the part of parents and godparents, preparation must be undertaken so that the sacrament’s graces may be realized in the child (cf. Canon 851, degree 2). In canon 868, paragraph 1, degree 2, we are advised that for a baptism to be lawful “there be a realistic hope that the child will be brought up in the Catholic religion. If such hope is truly lacking, the baptism is, in accordance with the provisions of particular law, to be deferred and the parents advised of the reason for this.” The Church understands that, all things being equal, every effort is to be made to insure that the celebration of Baptism is not merely functional, but leads to a true change in the daily life of the person requesting Baptism or the parents forming the children they have baptized.

Second, the comparison Lydia makes with normal situations and situations where the danger of death is present limps a little. The Church recognizes, with all due charity and common sense, that when death is imminent, all bets are off. Only the most serious matters cannot be overlooked; otherwise the person is to receive the sacraments, especially Baptism, for the good of their salvation. Therefore, to compare emergency situations with normal every day situations doesn’t really work.

Now to the specific matter. Are godparents strictly necessary for Baptism to take place? Canon 872 addresses this issue. It says: “In so far as possible, a person being baptized is to be assigned a sponsor. In the case of an adult baptism, the sponsor’s role is to assist the person in Christian initiation. In the case of an infant baptism, the role is together with the parents to present the child for baptism, and to help it to live a Christian life befitting the baptized and faithfully to fulfill the duties inherent in Baptism.” The Commentary on the Codex from the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland adds this salient point: “A person who is to be baptized is to be assigned a sponsor ‘in so far as possible.’ Under normal circumstances this will always be possible, but in danger of death or other similar difficult circumstances it may not be (CIC Commentary – GB/I pg. 481).” So under normal circumstances, a child is to have a godparent although it is not absolutely forbidden not to. Since the practice of having sponsors and godparents for the newly baptized extends back to the earliest days of the Church, it is a practice that should be respected more than avoided. This also suggests to me that when parents are selecting godparents, they ought to be looking for the best candidate available, and not merely dispensing it as though it was a nepotistic spoil.

One of our commentators mentioned that they couldn’t find a godparent because they were new in the area and most of their family were not Catholic. This is a situation envisioned by the Code as well. In Canon 874, paragraph 1, degree 1 notes that a godparent can be selected by the parish priest if the need arises. While it is not as intimate a connection, it can be a very good way to encourage a newly arrived couple to think of the parish as their new home. I would imagine this would be especially true for immigrants and people newly arrived in the U.S. This suggests that in normal circumstances, before a baptism takes place, every effort should be made to find a suitable sponsor for the one to be baptized.

So in the end, I think you have to say, that having a godparent is a good idea, and is strongly encouraged, but if a serious enough reason arose, then this absence of godparent is not a diriment impediment to administering the sacrament.

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