Why do Catholics baptize babies, when babies can’t even speak for themselves? The Catholic Church teaches, “Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life” (Catechism 1996). The Baptism of a child, who is incapable even of asking to be saved, therefore, demonstrates perfectly the soul’s total dependence upon God’s grace.
While we find evidence infants were baptized in the early centuries of Christianity, we do not find the practice contested until the Anabaptists did so in the sixteenth century.1 Christians who reject baptizing infants often insist there is no clear Scriptural provision for it. Yet, by the same token, there is not an explicit prohibition against it either. In fact, that the Bible shows Saint John the Baptist receiving the Holy Spirit while still inside his mother’s womb makes the sanctification of infants a Biblical concept (Luke 1:15, 41; cf. Judg. 16:17; Ps. 22:10; Jer. 1:5). There is additional evidence in the Bible as well that children ought to be baptized. In the Gospels, for instance, we see mothers bringing their small children, and “even infants,” as Saint Luke specifies, to the Lord for Him to lay His hands upon them. When the disciples intervene, Jesus rebukes them, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Luke 18:15-17, et al.). Instructing the crowd at Pentecost to be baptized, Peter declares, “For the promise is to you and to your children … everyone whom the Lord calls to him” (Acts 2:39; emphasis added). Paul identifies Baptism as the fulfillment of circumcision, a rite performed on infants (Col. 2:11-12). Finally, there are instances in Scripture in which entire households, likely including small children and infants, are baptized (see Acts 16:15, 32-33, et al.).
That infants are unable to request Baptism for themselves is not an argument against their being baptized. After all, no one can come to God on his own initiative, but only by God’s grace. Infants are upheld in Baptism, not by their own faith, but by the vicarious faith of the Church, similar to Jairus’ daughter who was brought back from the dead by the faith of her parents (Matt. 9:25; cf. John 11:44; Acts 9:40). If the gift of natural life may be restored in this way, why not the gift of supernatural life? The babe carried to the baptismal font resembles the paralytic of Matthew 9:2, carried by others into the presence of the Lord. In fact, nothing so perfectly illustrates the individual’s total dependence upon the grace of God in obtaining salvation as Infant Baptism, the child being utterly incapable of requesting the Sacrament by his own volition (cf. Catechism 1250). As the baptized comes to maturity and his ability to serve God increases, he is required to personally profess his belief in Christ in the sacrament of Confirmation.
To say that infants and young children have no need for Baptism is in effect to say they have no need to be saved—no need, that is, of a Savior! While children below the age of reason are incapable of committing actual sins, they are born with the guilt of Original Sin on their soul (cf. Ps. 51:7; Rom. 5:18-19), which must be washed away in Baptism. The Church’s teaching on Original Sin has led her critics to assume she teaches infants who die without Baptism are condemned to Hell. It is true that some of the Fathers reluctantly maintained this view, but statements by one or more of the Fathers do not necessarily constitute official Church teaching. Only the unanimous testimony of the Fathers on a matter of faith and morals is held to be doctrinally infallible. The fact is, the Church has not dogmatically defined the fate of children who die without Baptism. The Catechism states, “Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children … allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism” (1261). 2
The historical evidence for Infant Baptism exists universally from an early date. That the Didache, a Church manual dating to the first century, allows for Baptism either by immersion or by pouring, depending upon the circumstances, indicates the primitive Christians baptized their infants.3 In about the year 156, Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, a disciple of the Apostle John, proclaimed shortly before his martyrdom that he had served Christ for eighty-six years, that is, from infancy (see The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp 9:3). Around 185, Polycarp’s student, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, declared, “[Jesus] came to save all through Himself,—all, I say, who through Him are reborn in God—infants, and children, and youths, and old men. Therefore He passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, sanctifying infants; a child for children, sanctifying those who are of that age” (Against Heresies 2:22:4). “Also baptize your infants …,” wrote Saint Clement of Alexandria around the year 200. “For says He: ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not’ (Matt. 19:14)” (The Apostolical Constitutions 6:15). At the same time, Saint Hippolytus delivered the following instructions to the faithful, “Baptize first the children; and if they can speak for themselves, let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them” (The Apostolic Tradition 21).
- Although Tertullian, around A.D. 200, recommended against Infant Baptism, he did not question its efficacy, but merely its prudence (see Baptism 18:4-6). Similarly, the idea that Baptism ought to be delayed until eight days after birth was debated and subsequently rejected by the Council of Carthage in 252. The validity of Infant Baptism was not an issue in this case either. ↩
- Regarding the Church’s view on the salvation of unbaptized infants, there has been some confusion on the concept of Limbo, a theoretical attempt to reconcile the necessity of Baptism for salvation with the reality that some children die without it. Contrary to a popular misconception, the theory properly understood holds that Limbo is not a place of torment but of tranquility. Those who enter into Limbo live in a realm of perfect, natural beauty and peace. Nevertheless, because Limbo was never raised to the level of a dogma, Catholics are free to reject the idea; and this has always been the case.
It has also been proposed that unbaptized children who perish are saved by a Baptism of Desire, that is, by the Church’s vicarious desire that all are baptized. “The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude,” reads the Catechism; “this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are ‘reborn of water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5). God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments” (1257).
Drawing upon the Church’s fervent expectation that children who die without Baptism are indeed saved, Pope John Paul assured women who had repented after having an abortion, “You will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord” (Evangelium Vitae 99; Father William P. Saunders, “Straight Answers: Do Aborted Children Go to Heaven?”, Arlington Catholic Herald, October 8, 1998). ↩
- As Bertrand L. Conway pointed out, there is extensive archeological evidence proving the practice of Baptism by effusion in the early Church. Ancient Christian art, such as in the Catacombs and early bapistries, commonly show the baptized standing in a shallow pool with water being poured over his head. Conway also argued that the three thousand converts at Pentecost (Acts 2:41) could not have been baptized through immersion due to their numbers and the lack of a large body of water in Jerusalem. Immersion, he noted, would have been impractical as well in the home of Cornelius (Acts 10:47-48) and in the prison at Philippi (Acts 16:33). Finally, he reasoned that the necessity of Baptism for salvation means forms other than immersion must be permissible, otherwise how could the imprisoned, the infirm, small children, and those living in extreme regions such as the Arctic Circle or a desert receive Baptism? (The Question Box, New York , 1929, pp. 240-241). ↩