(This is an article in a series. Be sure to enjoy the previous post on the nature of Baptism)
Choosing to baptize an infant is a profound, serious, exciting, and life-changing choice for any family and parish church. It is primarily understood as a gift, a grace, given by God to this child, but it is a testament that this child has parents who (1) have received this gift, (2) recognize that they have received this gift, (3) and try their best to live according to this grace to the best of their ability. Infant Baptism is usually only possible if a parent is a person of faith in Jesus Christ.
In fact, the Church’s laws require baptism to be delayed unless there is a founded hope that the child will be brought up according to the faith. “For an infant to be baptized licitly: there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion; if such hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be delayed according to the prescripts of particular law after the parents have been advised about the reason” (Can. 868 §1).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that the choice to baptize infants, present from the earliest decades of the Church, is due to Original Sin. The Compendium to the catechism says it quite succinctly. “The Church baptizes infants because they are born with original sin. They need to be freed from the power of the Evil One and brought into that realm of freedom which belongs to the children of God” (no. 258). The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers additional details. For the sake of freeing children from Original Sin, “parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth” (CCC 1250, emphasis added).
While it is possible to think of Baptism as something done in response to the negative (Original Sin), witnessed by the fact that we baptize and confirm infants (and adults) who are in danger of death, it is important to notice that the details thus far also express notions of gift. This is not mentioned in order to deny the reality of sin but rather to show that while the negative consequences of Original Sin are something that parents want to spare their child from, Baptism also includes the gift of becoming something or someone great, a child of God.
To develop this notion of gift further, let us turn to the Eastern Catholic tradition. Years ago I came upon a document on the Vatican’s website and it has had a lasting impact on me in ways that go beyond the scope of this article. It is from 1996 and from the Vatican Congregation for the Eastern Churches: Instructions for Applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. First, be aware that in the Eastern tradition infants receive Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. With this context in mind, here is what #51 says about the Eucharist:
“Finally, the administration of the Divine Eucharist to infant neophytes is not limited to only the moment of the celebration of Initiation. Eucharist is the Bread of life, and infants need to be nourished constantly, from then on, to grow spiritually. The method of their participation in the Eucharist corresponds to their capacity: they will initially be different from the adults, inevitably less aware and not very rational, but they will progressively develop, through the grade and pedagogy of the sacrament, to grow…The sacrament is always a gift which operates efficiently, in different ways just as every person is different.”
While as a Roman Catholic I am looking at just Baptism, the concept remains. The graces of Baptism, developed by growing up in the faith, are meant to be available for the child as they grow. Would we want them to have such graces as an adopted child of God as they go throughout their childhood or not? Both because of Original Sin and the desire for my child to become an adopted son or daughter of the Almighty with the graces there to accompany their development, I desire with every fiber of my being for my children to be baptized and to grow up in the faith.
Does any Christian parent not desire this? As the Church states, “Christian parents will recognize that this practice also accords with their role as nurturers of the life that God has entrusted to them” (CCC 1251).