When a new baby comes into the world, the entire family rejoices. It’s not just the mother and father that rejoices though, but the entire extended family. From grandmothers and grandfathers, to aunts and uncles, to cousins and in-laws. Everyone is excited to immerse the child into the traditions of the family, to initiate the little child into the love the family shares for one another.
The same thing happens when someone is reborn into the life of the Church. As Christians, we are all “born again” through baptism, and we have an even bigger family waiting for us with open arms, the Head of which is none other than our Lord Jesus himself. Jesus was very clear though that he did not come just for the Jews, but for all people.
Sadly, there are those that would exclude a certain group of people from enjoying the intimacy of this family. That group of people are children, and in particular infants. However, it’s clear from our Lord’s words that we should let the little children come to him. If we will admit children into our families through natural birth, why are so many hesitant to admit their own children into the Church’s family through spiritual rebirth?
For misguided reasons, there are many different sects of Christians that withhold baptism from their children. The root of this problem comes from a misunderstanding of the salvific nature of baptism. But not only do Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, and other Christian religions get looked at with suspicion for baptizing infants by their own Christian brethren, but they are also vehemently condemned by a secular culture that sees the baptism of infants as tantamount to forcing one’s religion on a child before the age of reason. It’s claimed that since the child has no faith (and this is claimed by both non-Christians and Christians that oppose infant baptism), they can’t possibly be baptized.
Such an analysis of the situation couldn’t be any further from the truth, as there is no such thing as an infant baptism without faith. How can that be the case? Let’s look into what the Church teaches, and has taught on the subject of infant baptism since apostolic times.
Instruction on Infant Baptism
The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “Instruction on Infant Baptism” (IIB) makes the following observations. These are observations that all Christians should be intimately familiar with:
“Both in the East and in the West the practice of baptizing infants is considered a rule of immemorial tradition. Origen, and later St. Augustine, considered it a ‘tradition received from the Apostles.’ See Origen, In Romanis, V, 9; PG 14, 1047; cf. St. Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram, X, 23, 39: PL 34, 426… In fact, three passages of the Acts of the Apostles (16:15, 16:33, 18:8) speak of the baptism of a whole household or family” (IIB 4).
We also see that baptism in and of itself has a real effect on the person receiving it in faith:
“It is beyond doubt that the preaching of the Apostles was normally directed to adults, and the first to be baptized were people converted to the Christian Faith… However, as was mentioned above, the practice of baptizing children rests on an immemorial tradition originating from the Apostles, the importance of which cannot be ignored; besides, Baptism is never administered without faith: in the case of infants, it is the faith of the Church.
“Furthermore, in accordance with the teaching of the Council of Trent on the sacraments, Baptism is not just a sign of faith but also a cause of faith. It produces in the baptized ‘interior enlightenment,’ and so the Byzantine liturgy is right to call it the sacrament of enlightenment, or simply enlightenment, meaning that the faith received pervades the soul and causes the veil of blindness to fall before the brightness of Christ” (IIB 18).
That last sentence is a paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 3:15-16, where St. Paul tell us that:
“Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed.”
Saved by Grace
If babies are also human, then there is nothing keeping that child from receiving the grace of God. We have to remember that baptism isn’t just some kind of “ordinance” in which we only get wet. Sacraments are an infusion of God’s grace into our life, and since God made created things, he deigns to use created matter (such as water and chrism) to transmit his grace upon us. This is why St. Peter can clearly say:
“Baptism, which corresponds to this [the episode of Noah], now saves you… (1 Peter 3:21).”
It’s not faith that saves the Christian; it’s grace! One might say that we are saved by grace alone, not faith alone. If we were saved by faith alone, then I could see why certain groups of Christians and secularists would be justified in thinking that baptizing infants is wrong. But as we can see from Scripture and Tradition, it is truly by God’s grace that we are saved. It is through our faith and works that we cooperate with that grace he gives us, and the first time we receive that infusion of grace, that “rebirth” is in the sacrament of baptism. How anyone could possibly deny such a wonderful gift to a child is heartbreaking. The misunderstanding stems from a deficient knowledge of how the Old Law relates to the New Law of Christ, and on a purely secular level, the misunderstanding also stems from a rejection of the metaphysical and the supernatural.
First, we would do well to look at St. Paul’s account of baptism in his Letter to the Colossians. St. Paul calls baptism the “circumcision of Christ”, and also “the circumcision made without hands”. As with all biblical types, the Old Testament type of baptism is fulfilled by something greater in the New Testament. Circumcision in the Jewish religious tradition was a type of water baptism that we see instituted by Christ in the Gospels. When did babies get circumcised? Once they were eight days old, and at that point, they had the “sign of the covenant” upon them. They had entered into the covenant that God had made with Abraham.
God’s Grace or the Age of Reason?
Of course, Jesus sacrificed himself on the Cross for all of us, therefore making the new covenant in his blood. How are we today able to take part in this covenant? Baptism. We do not enter the new covenant through a statement of faith or by verbally declaring that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. We are saved through baptism. If we admit to ourselves that Jewish children could become part of the Old Covenant through circumcision, how can we not admit that children become part of the New Covenant through “the circumcision made without hands”? If we don’t admit these young children and infants, then we have effectively made the Old Covenant less restrictive and more inclusive than the New Covenant, something which is absurd as it is the new covenant that brings the Old Covenant to fruition. Jesus desires that all men be saved, not just those that have reached the age of reason.
Second, many people (including Christians across the denominational spectrum) are essentially materialists. That is, only what can be seen in front of us should be considered reality. But just because there are some things out there that cannot be perceived by our five senses, that does not mean such a thing (i.e., grace, heaven, God, etc.) do not exist. This is why infant baptism is so at odds with the opinion of the world. If some parent tries to raise their child in their faith, the parent is oftentimes seen as “brainwashing” the child. That language, though, is loaded. If we’re going to say that a child is “forced” by their parent to practice a certain religion, then we also have to admit that parents are forcing children to do a whole slew of other things. Probably the most inane thing I hear from many parents of my generation is that they will not raise their children in any religion, and let them decide. Substitute “religion” for basically any other word, and then tell me if that person is a responsible parent.
I tell my children what to eat and what to wear because I know what is objectively good for them. If I let them decide to wear swimwear and flip-flops on a winter day, or if I allow my children to eat ice cream for every meal because this is what they desire, then I’m not providing them with good living practices for later in life. Perhaps when my child is thirty he may desire to eat ice cream for every meal, and I won’t be able to stop him. But we guide them in childhood because we know better and we know what such unhealthy practices will lead to.
Believing in the Life to Come
Similarly, we know what is good for our children spiritually. Since spiritual realities are just as true as physical realties, parents have to be prepared to guide their children into the Truth, the Way, and the Life. The first step in doing so? Baptism. As I asked before, how could I possibly deny my children the gift of salvation, especially if I knew the truth of the matter: baptism saves. To consciously withhold that grace from my child, when I know it will remove original sin and incorporate my child into the Church, making him or her a son or daughter of God, would be to betray the very duties a parent has to the wellbeing of their child.
Sometimes we forget that there is a world to come. And sometimes we forget that Jesus Christ gave very specific commands on how we can enter into that world. “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit (John 3:5).” Many of our non-Catholic friends won’t understand this for the various reasons given above. But we must stand firm in our witness to the faith that has been handed down to us from Jesus and the apostles. The baptizing of infants is a wonderful testament to our belief in spiritual realties. Since we believe in that supernatural grace given to us by God in the sacraments, we certainly want our children to take part in these graces as well. That’s the answer we must give our non-Catholic friends. We believe whole-heartedly in the life to come, and because we do, we want to ensure that our children will be there with us when that day comes.
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About Nicholas LaBanca
Nicholas is a 20-something cradle Catholic who wears many hats, (husband, father, tradesman, religious education catechist, liberal arts college graduate, et al.) and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney and St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He currently writes for the Diocese of Joliet’s monthly magazine, “Christ Is Our Hope”.