A reader named Tom asks a question that has also come up in conversation within my own family (yes, we do get into religious discussions).
Tom asks, “Despite 8 years of grammar school plus 4 years of Catholic education, my married daughter has consistently refused my requests to baptize her 14 month daughter. She cites not wanting to be a hypocrite since she and her husband do not go to church. Can I secretly baptize the baby using the proper form and rubrics?”
It is a tough question, with an even tougher answer. Not that the answer was particularly hard to find. I consulted a textbook I used in graduate school about the sacraments, which pointed me to the appropriate parts of the Code of Canon Law.
The simple answer is no, you should not secretly baptize your grandchildren.
However, in order to understand this short answer and why the Church holds this position, we need to look at infant Baptism, why the Church even allows infant Baptism, and why it is illicit to baptize a child against his parents’ wishes.
First, why do we baptize infants at all?
I had to include this. It’s one of my favorite baptism pictures. I got it here.
The first converts to the Faith were, of course, adults. We read about the adults coming to listen to and be baptized by Jesus’ Apostles (see especially the story of Pentecost in Acts 2). However, very early on we hear references to entire families being baptized (see Acts 10, the story of Cornelius’ conversion with his household, and Acts 16, where Paul’s jailer converts, along with his whole family). The entire household would include, of course, children, even infants. This seems to echo Christ’s request in Matthew 19 to “let the little children come to me.” Following this example, the Church has been baptizing anyone, whether infants, children, or adults, since the beginning.
How does that work? Isn’t Baptism about the assent of faith a person makes? How can anyone under the age of reason (which is usually around 7 years old), much less an infant, be properly baptized?
The Church has an explanation. In those above the age of reason, their free assent is essential for Baptism. However, for those under the age of reason, the faith of the child’s parents is sufficient for Baptism. We see parallels to this in secular society. School-aged children must turn in permission forms to participate in various activities. Parents of minors are often held legally responsible for crimes committed by their children.
At the beginning of the Baptism ritual, the parents of the child are asked, “What do you ask of God’s Church for [child’s name],” to which the parents respond, “Faith” or “Baptism.” The priest then says, “You have asked to have your child baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training him (her) in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring him (her) up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?” To which the parents respond, “We do.” Likewise, after the various professions of faith and litanies of saints have been said and right before the actual Baptism occurs, the priest asks one more time, “Is it your will that [Child] should be baptized in the faith of the Church, which we have all professed with you?” The parents respond, “It is.”
This isn’t mere ceremony. The dialogue above provides the required consent of the parents to baptize the child. They are making, in a sense, a spiritual down payment. They are saying, in effect, “We are speaking for our child now, and we will raise him so that he will share our profession of faith.” That assent is the assent needed for Baptism.
This, then, gets at the heart of Tom’s question. The only way the Church can baptize babies is with the consent of the parents. There must be a reasonable prospect of the child being raised in the Faith. In other words, the child may not be able to consent to Baptism now, since he is still so young, but he should be instructed in the Faith from the cradle so that he can embrace the Faith once he attains the age of reason. Parents have to be instructed in the Faith, particularly in Baptism, before the sacrament is conferred (CIC 851.2). The Catechism (CCC) puts it this way: “The faith required for Baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop” (1253) and “For all the baptized, children or adults, faith must grow after Baptism” (1254, emphasis in the original).
The Code of Canon Law (Codex Iuris Canonici in Latin, CIC for short) deals with the legal aspects of the Church, and as such has some important information to help answer Tom’s question. The CIC makes very clear that Tom’s secret baptism of his granddaughter under ordinary circumstances would be gravely illicit.
Let’s start with the minister. The ordinary minister of Baptism is a priest or deacon. However, in an emergency, anyone (even a non-believer) can baptize, as long as the person being baptized wants to be baptized and the person baptizing has the intention of at least doing what the Church intends. I want to stress that this whole course of action is only permissible in an emergency, when a proper minister is not available or cannot reach the person being baptized in time. It is not appropriate for just anyone to baptize without the approval of the local bishop (see CIC 862).
The second issue is the location of the baptism. Churches, oratories, and chapels are ordinary places for baptism. They have a designated space for the ritual. Homes are not places for baptism. In fact, the CIC uses very strong language on this point: “Apart from a case of necessity, baptism is not to be conferred in private houses, unless the local ordinary has permitted it for a grave cause” (CIC 860). The only reason one could have the baptism in a home or, say, a hospital, is if the person is likely to die before reaching the parish. If Tom was thinking of just doing the baptism in his home, he would be performing the sacrament illicitly, which is [or maybe??] a mortal sin.
The last issue is the most important. This is the issue of the faith of the parents. Canons 867 and 868 deal extensively with the legal aspects of infant Baptism, and they clearly reiterate the importance of the parents’ faith in getting the infant baptized. Canon 868 states,
§1. For an infant to be baptized licitly:
1/ the parents or at least one of them or the person who legitimately takes their place must consent;
2/ 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.
§2. An infant of Catholic parents or even of non-Catholic parents is baptized licitly in danger of death even against the will of the parents.
With the exception of §2 above, if an infant is baptized without parental permission, the baptism would be valid (actually take place) but illicit (in violation of Church law). Knowingly performing a sacrament illicitly is pretty serious, and has moral consequences for the one performing the illicit sacrament. For the sake of his own soul, Tom should not go through with the baptism.
However, there might be a solution. Tom notes that the reason his granddaughter isn’t being baptized is because the parents are worried about being hypocrites because they do not attend Mass. Perhaps the solution to this problem isn’t secretly baptizing the child. Perhaps it is in reeducating the parents. The real problem seems to be that the parents do not realize not only the importance of getting their children baptized but also the importance of going to Mass and Confession, as well as growing in the Faith as adults. There are a number of resources I’ve listed on this page (see the “online resources” and “print and video resources” tabs at the top of this page) that will help both of the parents in this regard.
If the parents still refuse to attend Mass, perhaps they would consent to Tom taking their daughter to Mass with him. This could be a weekly treat for Tom, parents, and child alike, and perhaps, in time, could lead to the parents allowing their daughter to be baptized.
And of course, there is prayer. We often underestimate the power of our prayers, especially when we don’t see the immediate results we want. However, God always hears us, like a father hears his children, but even better. Perhaps Tom could pray, if he hasn’t already, for the conversion (or reversion) of his daughter and her husband, or that they at least look into changing their own lives for the sake of their own daughter. Grown children are often resistant to advice or preaching from their parents, and we can never convert anyone. But with prayer and loving encouragement, we can be a witness of God’s love to our family, and trust that one day their hearts will be converted by the grace of the Holy Spirit.