The purpose of the sacraments of initiation are to mark the beginning of a conversion to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. They strengthen the believer on the path that they are committing to embark on for the rest of their lives. The most famous story of the Old Testament is the story of Moses and the Exodus. The crossing of the Red Sea marks the beginning of a long and arduous journey through the desert towards the Promised Land. That miraculous event gave strength to the Israelites and took place as a type of Baptism for the chosen people. They made a choice to turn away from literal slavery which, for us, represents the slavery of sin. The decision to turn away from sin and towards the Promised Land is an interior decision which is marked with an exterior event. In other words a spiritual event (conversion) is marked by a physical event (baptism). This physical and spiritual intermingling is the ritualizing of a conversion experience.
In scripture we see the point of the sacraments of initiation clearly. In baptism specifically, we see repentance of sin as an important element of what that sacrament symbolizes. In Acts 2:38, Matthew 3:5-6, Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3 the confession or remission of sins is mentioned with Baptism. This suggests that baptism is usually identified as a choice, a desire to live a new life in Christ, meaning it is a physical expression of a spiritual conversion. I would argue that our sacraments of initiation need a reformation back to being expressions of this conversion experience. Baptism should not be performed on infants who do not have the mental capacity to make the conscious choice to be a disciple of Christ. It should be open to anyone who feels they are ready for a conversion to Christ at whatever time they feel they are ready. This would allow people who are in the midst of a conversion to use the ritual as an expression of that conversion.
The Urgency of Baptism
Baptism starts to be practiced sometime in the 4th and 5th centuries because of a fear of Hell rather than as a conversion to Christ. Augustine seems to initiate this thinking when he says,
“Likewise, whosoever says that those children who depart out of this life without partaking of that sacrament shall be made alive in Christ, certainly contradicts the apostolic declaration, and condemns the universal Church, in which it is the practice to lose no time and run in haste to administer baptism to infant children, because it is believed, as an indubitable truth, that otherwise they cannot be made alive in Christ.” (Augustine, 53)
However the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that,
“As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism.” (CCC 1261)
Baptism cannot be a sacrament that is done out of fear. If we are doing any religious action because of a fear of Hell then, we are missing the point of why Christ came to us entirely. Baptism is a sacrament of love, but only if we make baptism a ritualization of our conversion to Christ. Christ came, so that we may be able to choose to follow him.
Christ seems to focus on the spiritual significance rather than the physical ritual as it is often portrayed in the scriptures. Jesus says, “…there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7:15 NRSV). It seems that most of his interactions with the Pharisees involve some sort of teaching about the importance of the spiritual aspects of the faith over the ritualistic aspects of the faith. This is not to say that Jesus did not see the significance of ritual and our human need to express things in a physical way. Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. ” (Matthew 5:17). Modern Catholicism has put so much importance on the ritual of baptism that we have forgotten the spiritual conversion, including the most obvious evidence of a conversion: a repentance of sins and a commitment to Christ.
Free Will and the Imposition of Grace
Faith and the reception of grace is never forced or imposed on a person against their will. God does not coerce anyone into faith,
“ It is one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free: no one therefore is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will. ” (Paul VI, n.10)
The Code of Canon Law states that for adults not only must they have an intention to receive baptism, but there is a set of obligations they need to be conscious of, “For an adult to be baptized, the person must have manifested the intention to receive baptism… ” (Can. 865 §1).
Aquinas goes so far as to say that a person who is baptized without intention must be “rebaptized”,
“…so must he, of his own will, intend to lead a new life, the beginning of which is precisely the receiving of the sacrament. Therefore on the part of the one baptized, it is necessary for him to have the will or intention of receiving the sacrament….If an adult lack the intention of receiving the sacrament, he must be rebaptized.” (Aquinas, Article 7)
After looking at the importance of intention in baptism described by the magisterium and our greatest theologians, we should not baptize infants against their free-will. To be clear, it is not to be taken that infants receive no grace when they are baptized, only that the graces they receive lay dormant until it is accepted by the baptized. Augustine said that one,
“who lacks charity, whether he be carried away outside the Church at once by some blast of temptation… if they have once been born in baptism, need not be born again”. (Augustine, 22).
This suggests that the fruits of baptism do not emerge until it is accepted through the will of the recipient. The Catechism reinforces this when it says, “No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation. Given once for all, Baptism cannot be repeated.” (CCC 1272) If this is the case, then we ought to wait, allowing a child to mature and make the decision for themselves to be initiated into the Catholic faith. All three sacraments of initiation should be done at once, with a repentance of sins and a conscious devotion to living a Christian life as a disciple of Jesus Christ. This would also solve the problem of separation of the sacraments of initiation.
Counter Arguments and Refutations
Baptism as a type of circumcision
It is argued that since baptism is the New Testament equivalent of circumcision, and since circumcision was done at infancy, then baptism too should be done at infancy. The problem is that although this is true, circumcision (and much of the Old Testament thought) was focused on being included into the “people of God”. The New Testament focus was to open up that inclusion to everyone. Paul is suggesting that the meaning of circumcision needs to change to that of conversion in Romans 2:28-29 when he says, “a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal”. Circumcision was supposed to be about a spiritual turning towards Christ and in 1 Corinthians 7:19 he says,
“Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything.”
In baptism, the spiritual conversion and desire to live according to the Christian life should be our focus. Infant baptism separates, with time, the physical expression of conversion and the spiritual conversion. If a conversion to Christ happens for a Catholic, it happens long after their baptism.
Grace as early as possible
As stated earlier, grace is useless without the cooperation of a person’s will. There is no urgency in getting the graces of baptism to a child if those graces cannot bear fruit until the person has accepted it. We do not need to fear that a child will go into limbo or Hell if they are not baptized (CCC, 1261). As stated earlier, we can trust that God’s mercy and justice will not be hindered by the physical act of baptism. Although the sacrament of Baptism is said to be necessary for salvation Augustine says that there is a “Baptism of Desire”, “which, with God, counts for the deed.” (Aquinas, Article 2) Therefore there is no urgency in being baptized because we can believe baptism will occur without the physical act if the desire is there. Tertullian even encourages waiting to baptize children when he says, “And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children.” (Tertullian, III: 678)
Scripture suggests households were baptized
The argument is that in 1 Corinthians 1:16 Paul says, “I did baptize also the household of Stephanas…” and the word “household” would include children of all ages. This is a valid argument although it is not a strong enough argument to stand on its own. Let us assume that baptism was presumed in the scripture to only be for adults. If this is true the word “household” probably would have been used to mean “all those in the house eligible for baptism.” They would make the assumption that people would know who is to be baptized in the household. There is enough reasonable doubt in this argument that we should not base our theology of baptism solely on it.
When should the mentally delayed be baptized?
The argument is, if choosing to be a follower of Christ is the key to being baptized, then someone with a severe mental handicap would not be able to choose. I would say that most people who suffer with a mental handicap are able to make some gesture of acceptance of the sacraments, even if it is non-verbal. For those who cannot, since no choice can ever be expressed to another person, (although the choice could possibly still be made internally, just not expressed) then baptism would be done as it is with infants where the parents choose on behalf of the mentally delayed person. In this particular case, a physical baptism would always be contingent on a “baptism of desire” (mentioned earlier) and the child’s desire to be baptized would take precedence.
Baptism in the scriptures in all its manifestations and symbolism was always primarily about a turning away from sin and towards Christ. Baptism has always been seen as a beginning to a new life or
“being born again of water and spirit” (John 3:5).
Although over the years the preparation has changed, it has always focused on fostering that conversion experience. Slowly the importance of the rituals seems to overtake the importance of the spiritual conversion, but above all Christ wanted to create disciples of all nations and the beginning of that was baptism (Matt. 28:19). The Catholic Church seems to have many members but few disciples, because discipleship requires a decision to turn away from sin and selfishness towards Jesus Christ. Baptism was always meant to mark the beginning of that journey, just as it did for the Israelites when they crossed the Red Sea.