Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Sacraments -- Theory vs. Reality Pt. 1: Baptism

The following headline just crossed my desktop: La Iglesia excluirá del bautismo a niños con padres poco creyentes (“Church will exclude from baptism children of parents with little faith”). According to this news article, the Archdiocese of Santiago de Compostela has issued a bulletin in which it provides standard guidelines for baptism including the following canonically correct but seldomly applied caution:

Reflecting on the case of "padres poco creyentes o practicantes solamente ocasionales, o personas que viven en una situación canónica irregular, o que incluso se manifiestan o declaran no creyentes" (“parents of little faith or who are only occasionally practising, or persons who are living in ‘an irregular canonical situation’ [whatever that means] and even those who are obviously or declare themselves to be nonbelievers”), the bulletin argues that "la Iglesia debe tener esperanza fundada de que el niño va a ser educado en la religión católica; si falta por completo esa circunstancia, debe diferirse el bautismo, conforme a las disposiciones del derecho particular, haciéndoles saber la razón a los padres”, i.e. that the Church should have some reason to hope that the child will be educated in the Catholic faith and that, failing that, the baptism should be deferred while letting the parents know the reason for this deferral.

As we said, this reading IS canonically correct, but is it charitable? Let’s put it to the reality test. I bring my baby in to be baptized. The priest asks: “¿Ustedes los padres, están casados por la Iglesia?” “Pues, no, Padre. Es que no podemos casarnos porque mi esposo estaba casado anteriormente y no puede obtener un anulación.” Does the baby get baptized or not?

Then the priest says: “Well, I haven’t seen you at Mass every Sunday.” “Pues, Padre, no tengo un empleo regular. Trabajo en un restaurante y cuando me piden trabajar, tengo que ir y a veces me toca trabajar sábado y domingo.” (Anyway, how many times can I skip Mass before my baby is not eligible for baptism?)

“Well, you wrote a column where you supported women’s ordination. You are aware that this is against the teachings of the Catholic Church, are you not? And what do you think about the Immaculate Conception? Do you really believe in it or not? Do you and your husband use artificial contraception?, etc…” At this point, I suppose the priest is expected to quiz the parents about their knowledge of the Catholic faith and how much of it they REALLY believe and then based on some sort of self-formulated litmus test (hey, why don’t we just give polygraphs too?), determine if the poor baby can be baptized or not.

And then what happens if the priest tells me we’re going to defer the baptism because he doesn’t think my faith is strong enough? I know what I’d do. If Fr. Eugenio won’t baptize my kid because he’s very traditional and I’m too liberal, I’d go looking for Fr. Alex who I JUST KNOW will help me and not give me any problems. Because my faith is at least that strong.

But if Fr. Eugenio is correct and my faith is not really very strong, I most likely would say “forget about it” and go over to the evangelicos who will welcome me and my kid with open arms and give the kid a “Biblically correct” full immersion baptism. Or, as many Spanish youth have done, I will just drop out of the Catholic Church. According to the Juventud en España 2008 survey, only 1 in 9 Spaniards between ages 15 and 29 defines themselves as a practising Catholic, and that, by the way, includes a not especially rigorous self-definition of “practising” as someone who goes to Mass at least once a month. And these same youth do not subscribe to traditional Church teachings in a number of key areas such as gay marriage (76.5% in favor) and euthanasia (75% in favor). Is this the kind of climate in which you want to set a litmus test for a sacrament that even the least fervent Catholic regards as a fundamental right?

We have not even addressed the question of godparents – another “red herring” in Hispanic ministry where a gentle but firm catechism often needs to be conveyed about who qualifies to be a godparent. It may not be your compadre from work who has been your best friend since you were kids back in Chalatenango, who has always given you a little “apoyo” when you were hurting, but who, desgraciadamente, is not “casado por la Iglesia” with la comadre. Probably a really cool guy, but not a padrino. By the way, the best way to approach this is simply to be specific about the requirements, explain why the Church has them, encourage the parents that you really want the baptism to proceed, and listen to them work through some ideas of alternative godparents. Unlike the situation with the parents, there is not as much room for negotiation here, no going from Fr. Eugenio to Fr. Alex and thinking you will get a different answer.

Now some people will argue with this, saying that the Church has loosened the standards for baptism too much and it is high time they were tightened up because all we are doing right now, in the words of one Spanish priest I know, is creating a generation of “paganos bautizados” – splashed with a little holy water but utterly ignorant about their faith.

But if we shut people completely out of even the first sacrament of initiation, are we not running the risk of creating a “theologically pure” Church…but one on the verge of extinction?

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