Why infant baptism?
Question: Since infant baptism is becoming controversial, why doesn’t the Church abandon the practice or emphasize individualized confirmation for older teens?
—Robert Bonsignore, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Answer: I am unaware of any recent controversy about infant baptism in the Church. There have been Protestant groups opposed to infant baptism, but their views stretch back more than 200 years. Ironically today, it is the Baptists and their evangelical offshoots that are most opposed to the practice. But for the record, most “mainline” Protestant denominations do baptize infants, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists and other Reformed denominations, such as the Moravian Church. The Orthodox Churches also observe this ancient practice. In the Catholic Church we baptize infants because that is what we have always done. While Scripture doesn’t directly mention the practice, the reference to the baptism of “whole households” includes infants.
Further, St. Peter in Acts includes children when he requires baptism: “‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit. For the promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call'” (Acts 2:38-39).
St. Paul says: “In [Christ] you were circumcised with a circumcision not administered by hand, by stripping off the carnal body, with the circumcision of Christ. You were buried with him in baptism …” (Col 2:11-12). Calling baptism the “circumcision of Christ” links it to a practice performed on the eighth day after birth. The analogy seems far less meaningful or sensible if only adults were baptized.
And, of course, Jesus said, “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mk 10:14). But later he adds, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:5). So the little children belong to the kingdom but must enter in the water of baptism and the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, as to the practice of the early Church, infant baptism is clearly attested in numerous places. Hippolytus wrote in 215 A.D. about baptizing households or large groups: “Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them” (“The Apostolic Tradition” 21:16).
As for confirmation, there is a widespread practice today in the Latin rite of delaying it until the teenage years. But this practice is only in the last hundred years. When Pope St. Pius X moved the reception of first Communion to age 7, confirmation was not similarly adjusted. This created an unnatural alteration in the order of the sacraments. Yet, our ancient custom is that confirmation is to be received before First Communion. This order is preserved today in the baptism of adults. In some dioceses there has been a restoration of the ancient order of the sacraments. Thus confirmation is given just prior to first Communion. While there are debates about when to give confirmation and how to teach of it, it is inarguably true that we are currently out of sync with our own tradition in the Latin rite.
In the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church, confirmation and communion are given to infants on the day of baptism. Thus, an infant is fully initiated at baptism.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to email@example.com.