Conditional Baptism

If you are not a reader of Darryl Hart’s blog, you owe it to yourself to read his series on David I. Kertzer’s book The Kidnaping of Edgardo Mortara, which treats the tragic case of the Roman Catholic church forcibly adopting a six-year-old Jewish boy because, as a baby near death, a household servant had secretly had him baptized. This particular case highlighted, and probably put one of the final nails in the coffin of, Rome’s crumbling hold of political power in the mid 1800s.

In yesterday’s final post in the series, DGH links to an RC discussion of children baptized against their parents’ will, which explains a thing called “conditional baptism”, which put me in mind of the Hoagies & Stogies we had a few years back on The Validity of Roman Catholic Baptism (see here for audio, and the following two posts for discussion). I embolden some parts that I found relevant:

One of the reasons the Church ordinarily restricts the administration of baptism to priests and deacons (while allowing for laity and others to do so when someone is at the point of death and a priest or deacon is unavailable) is to prevent precisely the kind of confusion your mother-in-law has created by taking it upon herself to baptize her granddaughter without the parents’ permission.

1. There is such a thing as conditional baptism, but it is a baptism given when the validity of the original baptism is in question or when there is doubt as to whether a baptism occurred. In this case, the baptism your mother-in-law performed — assuming she did it correctly — would be the original baptism. Should her granddaughter’s parents choose to return to their Catholic faith and raise their daughter as a Catholic, a priest or deacon would perform a conditional baptism both to make sure it is done correctly and to start a sacramental record.

2. Since her granddaughter presumably was not at the point of death when your mother-in-law baptized her, the baptism she performed is presumably valid but illicit. That means that your mother-in-law should go to confession to confess having performed an illicit baptism.

3. I can only recommend that your mother-in-law admit to the child’s parents what she has done. They need to know so that they will know that the child needs conditional baptism, not unconditional baptism, should they decide to raise her Catholic or should the child eventually decide to become Catholic herself. Even were the child baptized when she was in extremis, the parents would still need to know about the baptism once it was clear she would survive. The only difference is that your mother-in-law should apologize for an illicit baptism. If the child was baptized while in extremis, an apology is not necessary. If such an admission is not made, and the parents or the child decide eventually for baptism, then the child may receive an unconditional baptism — which would be objective sacrilege since baptism cannot be unconditionally repeated.

In the H&S (and in the broader RC baptism debate) there is much use of the phrase “valid but irregular” to describe the prevailing Reformed view of RC baptisms, which seems largely the same as the phrase here “valid but illicit”. I wonder if the Reformed could make space in their sacramental theology for something like a “conditional baptism” to cover questionable cases.

Maybe the difference comes down to this. In a sacerdotalist, superstitious, ex opere system like Rome’s, there is need for “just in case” baptism. But in a Reformed system that understands the distinction between signs and things signified, and in which “grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto [baptism], as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it”, in a questionable case we’d rather not risk the “objective sacrelige” of repeating “unconditional baptism”.

Also, this would explain why the RC system “allow[s] for laity and others to do so” “in extremis“, while for the Reformed, “neither [sacrament] may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained.”

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3 Responses

  1. Heh. With our in-house debates about whether to rebaptize, “lawfully ordained” and “conditional baptism” really make me lean toward rebaptism. Though I appreciate and embrace not “opening that can of worms” in the membership system.

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