Monday, 27 February 2012

Is delayed baptism of adults justifiable?


Acts of the Apostles Chapter 8:

36And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?
 37And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
 38And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. 


Why do Catholic (Eastern and Western) Christian denominations, for whom baptism is regarded as a necessary sacrament for salvation - and who will 'pull-out-the-stops' rapidly to baptize a new born child in danger of dying - so often behave behave so casually about baptizing adult converts?

Why are adult converts made to wait weeks, months, a year before baptism or confirmation? 

Why does this delay in baptism sometimes prevent adult converts from receiving Holy Communion? - when (for a Catholic) the act of receiving Holy Communion is itself such a powerful help in the Christian life, and such a powerful help in understanding? 


(It is an excellent aspect of the Church of England guided by the Book of Common Prayer that a firm intent to be confirmed is sufficient to allow full participation in the Mass - I found the fact that I could take Holy Communion enormously helpful in my first months of Christian life - leading up to confirmation.)


Adults converts could die, be killed, become mentally incompetent - or fall away from faith - before becoming baptized if it is delayed and if the process of catechism (teaching the new convert) goes badly for any of a thousand contingent reasons (and with so much corruption and ignorance in the Churches and real Christian Priests sometimes being few and far between, this is highly likely to happen) the convert may be put off Baptism and/ or Confirmation by bad teaching and may fail to join the Church.


A priest meets a soul who is able to declare that Christ is Lord, to become a Christian - that is the moment ideally when he should be received into the Church - not delayed until after months of turgid, impersonal, bureaucratic 'instruction'.

Christianity is not meant to exclude those who have a low boredom threshold, or who lack  conscientiousness - yet it may be that membership requires the ability to tolerate months of impersonality, dullness and incorrect teaching.

The Church does not exclude innocent (and ignorant) new born babes from instant Church membership - why then should sinful adults - who need the Church so much more than the babes - then be effectively excluded by 'raising the bar' for admission so high?


It seems that there is nothing in principle to prevent a priest arranging a rapid, even instant, baptism or confirmation - as St Philip did with the Ethiopian Eunuch in the passage from Acts above and as has been normal in some times and places in the history of the Church - as soon as he is satisfied by direct and intense communication that the convert accepts Christ as Lord. 

Delaying baptism and confirmation are matters of expediency, of Church organization, and indeed of bureaucracy - and should not stand in the path of doing what is right for the soul of the convert, here and now, at the moment of choice.

This is not a matter of laxity; but would be to take baptism and conformation with real seriousness.


Note added: Another factor is that - as is the case for children - many adults in many parts of the world are cognitively incapable of understanding and remembering the abstract and detailed aspects of Christianity. This has, indeed, always been the case. (In legal terms, these people are 'unfit to plead' - cannot understand the nature of the legal process).

Yet such persons ought surely, to be admitted to the Church? Indeed, there is much in scripture to suggest that 'simple' people may make the best Christian - or at least that simple folk be the most assured of salvation.

This fact means that elaborate and specific catechism before baptism/ confirmation is something of a fraud since there cannot be any genuine comprehension or retention - a fraud not only due to its tendency to exclude those of short-termist and impulsive natures, but also because it renders baptism and confirmation inaccessible to those of low intelligence. 

H/T commenter StewartG - 

which reminded me to blog on this topic.



Christian said...

From what I have read, the Catholic Church believes that the conversion of an adult is serious matter and shouldn't be hurry since baptism is not sufficient for salvation anyway (unless you're a child).

The Church also believes in predestination - if you're among the elects, you will be baptized. (Note that the Catholic Church doesn't teach that people are predestinated to salvation or damnation. God knows those who will freely accept salvation and send them a priest or someone so they can enter the Church.)

These days, however, most Catholics believe in "baptism of desire", so there's no need to baptize the catechumens at all. In fact, many theologians will tell you that people don't have to become a convert to be saved.

As a Catholic I do believe you must be a member of the Catholic Church to be saved, but since Vatican II it seems that all sincere people are members of the Church somehow. This is probably false, but we'll have to wait for Vatican III to set the matter straight.

PatrickH said...

Catholic Catechism: In case of necessity, any one can baptize with water and the Trinitarian formula. Martyrs achieve the baptism of blood, and the Baptism of desire is available to those who under the influence of grace seek God sincerely even if they've never heard the name of Jesus Christ. "Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity."

As for those like infants, who may die without any chance of baptism at all, they are entrusted to the mercy of God. As it says in the Catechism, "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments."

Kristor said...

I have heard that in the US at least, all nurses and doctors were trained to baptize in the Name, in case of emergency (no time to fetch a priest).

I have also heard that there are still nurses and doctors who baptize infants at death's door, even though they are strictly enjoined by their employers not to do so. They'll use any water - their own spit, if need be - to form the Tetragrammaton on the infant's forehead (that's how the Cross first entered the religion of Israel - as shorthand for the four letters of the Name), and say, simply, "I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." Thus is the rite completed.

It's a sad image, no? The nurse, huddled over the basinet, furtively saving an immortal soul.

Anonymous said...

Re: Kristor and emergency baptism in the delivery room:

It happens. When it does, it's magical, heaven reaching down to earth, right in front of your eyes.

I hope 5% dextrose in water is still acceptable matter.

PatrickH said...

Eventually, anyone caught performing baptism on anyone as those nurses do with dying infants (and it is a moving, powerful image), will be dismissed summarily, or fined, or even arrested and imprisoned.

I imagine lawsuits, dismissals, credit report downgrades, ostracism, reputation destruction, will be the primary vectors of assualt on the Church in the next decades. No more need for crudities like torture and execution. It will an interesting challenge.

Drew said...

The Ethiopian Eunuch was most likely a 'Godfearer', that is, one who (while not of Jewish ancestry) had attached himself in some way to Judaism. Acts 8 mentions that he had been to Jerusalem to worship (vs 27). From this we can infer that he was knowledgeable of the scriptures (he was reading Esaias the prophet, after all), that he was a man of prayer, and that he was living a life in moral conformity to God's law. Given all this, it makes sense that he was baptized immediately, once he had believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

With the increase of pagan converts to Christianity, who lacked even a rudimentary understanding of the scriptures and who had lived lives in disobedience to God's law (even, in some cases, of gross immorality) prior to coming to faith in Christ, it makes sense that baptism would've been delayed. A longer period of catechesis was needed to expunge pagan beliefs and fortify converts in the way of Christ's commandments.

The practice continues to this day, most likely for similar reasons. Incidentally, my catechetical period before entering the Orthodox Church lasted about a year and a half, and frankly, I wish in retrospect that it would've been longer. Even though I came from a Protestant background, and was fairly knowledgeable in the scriptures and historical theology, my will was barely, if at all, aligned with Christ's commandments. I was what St Paul would've called 'carnally minded'. The catechetical period is meant to root out this carnal-mindedness in preparation for the gravity of a formal and final renunciation of Satan, for entrance into the Church, for union with Christ, and for the reception of the awesome mysteries.

bgc said...

@Drew - those are good arguments, thank you.

Nonetheless, I remain deeply troubled by the assymetry between what is expected of those baptised into the Church from infancy and those who are received as adult converts.

I am familiar with teh argument that the assumption of the Church has been that infants will be brought up in the Church by their parents, therefore their knowledge is assumed - yet clearly this is not true now, even if it was true in the past.

And those who are already within the Church are only excommunicated rarely, by specific act and in extreme situations.

For all these reasons I feel that IF a priest was personally *satisfied* that a person was ready to make the committment to Christ, then in principle they ought to be ready to Baptise/ confirm a person on the same day.

Catherine said...

My priest (Orthodox) told me that the reason infants are baptized more quickly than adults is that infants have an implicit understanding that adults have to re-learn: children are more 'naturally' Christians than adults, particularly in the world of today.

This seems to have been done since the early Church. I remember some martyrs who were specifically recorded as not having been baptized or baptized properly (St Drosis for example), so I don't think baptism by desire is a recent belief.

However, I agree that the state of teaching of catechumens in the Catholic Church is almost universally terrible - I've heard some real horror stories.