About infant baptism...

Other Christian churches wait until a person is old enough to understand what is happening at baptism and to make her own choice. Why does the Roman Catholic Church baptize babies?

Dear Inquirer,

SpacerGood Baptismquestion!

SpacerIn the first century of the church, adult baptism was the norm, and it was done through immersion into living (a stream) water. One symbolically was plunged into the death and resurrection of Jesus and came forth as "new"--a Christian. The newly baptized was then clothed in white, anointed (Confirmation) and brought into the community where the Eucharist was celebrated. Thus, the three sacraments of initiation into the Christian life were celebrated: Baptism, Conformation and Eucharist. A period of preparation took place before receiving these sacraments. It was called the Catechumenate--a time (one year or so) of study, prayer and being exorcised of bad and sinful habits.

SpacerIn the second century, as the Church developed and numbers increased, more infants were born to christian families, and soon the adult ceremony was simplified for infants. The sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist were delayed until later in life when a person was maturer and could understand the meaning of Holy Communion. Over the centuries infant baptism became the norm and much of the ancient symbolism was modified.

SpacerThe Second Vatican Council instituted liturgical reforms that restored some of the ancient symbolism where appropriate: immersion into flowing water, immediate Confirmation and Communion for adult converts and preparation of adults for Baptism by means of the Catechumenate.

SpacerSome final points in this too brief history:

  1. The Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches always preserved the three sacraments together, even for infants: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.
  2. Development of the sacraments did not happen at once; it took time for change to take place. Parts of the church did not follow the same liturgy as Rome, for example; some places quite frankly just did what they thought was right and others that were so remote that it took years for communication to take place.
  3. The question of the necessity of Baptism for salvation disturbed many in the church. There was great uncertainty in the church for a long time about unbaptized infants. St. Augustine, for one, felt this problem keenly as seen in his letter to St. Jerome around 400 AD: "When the question of the punishment of children is raised, it troubles me sorely, I assure you, and I am at a loss what to answer."

SpacerPerhaps, early theologians considered the necessity of baptism of water too exclusively without remembering that God wills that all attain eternal blessedness and that Christ was born and died for all. Certainly, official church teaching now embraces the possibility of salvation for all.

Thomas Keevey contributed this "Ask a Catholic!" response.

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