This is the Reason Why Catholics Baptize Babies
Throughout the months of December and January, the Catholic Church celebrates several feasts commemorating certain events in the life of Christ. The first feast that springs to our minds is almost without a doubt Christmas, the Nativity of Our Lord, but there are several others which are truly worthy of remembrance and celebration, and can aid us in recognizing the many truths woven into the fabric of Catholicism. One of these feasts is the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, which occurs in early January, and commemorates the baptism of Christ by St. John the Baptist.
This feast causes us to ruminate on numerous things. First, it helps us pause and reflect on the meaning of the Incarnation and of Christ taking on the burden of humanity since Christ chose to be baptized not because He had sinned but rather because He had chosen to offer Himself up to repent for the sins of humanity. Second, this feast helps us consider the meaning of baptism itself in the Catholic Church, and the meaning of sacraments in general.
One of the questions that arise from this latter consideration is why Catholics baptize babies instead of waiting until children have reached the age of reason, as is common in many other Christian denominations.
One begins to wonder about the purpose of baptizing someone who cannot answer for himself or herself, especially since it is readily apparent that babies are incapable of choosing to act sinfully, and so do not need to be cleansed of sin in the same way that adults who have chosen to sin do. Many other Christian denominations think that it is odd that the Church would require baptism of babies, the most innocent of God’s creatures.
The answer to this question, however, involves more than a simple difference of tradition. The answer points towards several tenets of the Catholic faith, such as the existence of original sin, the fact that all mankind has been redeemed by the Incarnation and Christ’s subsequent death and resurrection, the meaning of a sacrament and the working of God’s grace in our lives on earth.
To fully elaborate on all of these truths would require thousands of pages, but let’s consider them one by one in brief here.
First, it is helpful to understand the unique nature of the Catholic understanding of the sacrament of baptism as opposed to the understanding of baptism by other Christian denominations. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back toward God” (CCC 407).
It also states that baptism is what incorporates mankind into the life of the Church, and so it is through baptism that mankind is able to attain salvation at all. This is greatly different from the understanding of the sacrament of baptism that is held by many other Christians, which simply put is that baptism does not actually confer any of the grace it symbolizes, but rather is a manifestation of a person’s acceptance of Christ as their Savior.
Following this understanding of baptism, it would make sense that Christian denominations, in general, would not baptize their babies. In their churches, baptism is ultimately just an outward sign of a choice that a person has made, namely that they have made the decision to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior and live according to His laws. It would thus not be fitting to hold a baptism for a baby since they are incapable of making this choice which is the reason for baptism in their understanding.
Turning to the Catholic understanding of baptism, however, we bear witness to several beautiful truths that are fundamental to the Catholic faith.
The first is the presence of God’s grace in our lives, for as Catholics, we believe that the sacrament of baptism does not merely symbolize the conferral of grace, but rather actually cleanses us of original sin and gives us the grace necessary to receive more of His grace for the rest of our lives. This is why the Church encourages baptism of even the smallest infants, for it is by being baptized into the Church that we are able to fully receive grace in the time afterward.
Baptism is thus the necessary precursor to all other sacraments. Since Catholics believe that all mankind has been stained with original sin through the sin of Adam and Eve, it is necessary to remove this original sin through the grace of baptism even in the case of those who have not been able to commit actual sin.
Considering that baptism washes away original sin (as well as actual sin in the case of older children or adult baptisms), we are led to ponder the meaning of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan as that feast approaches, since although Christ took on our humanity He remained sinless.
Why did Christ, then, place such great importance on His own baptism even though there was no sin to wash away?
The answer involves the foundation of Catholicism, namely the reason that Christ became man, died and then rose from the dead. The purpose of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection is to unite all things in Him and to redeem His people by taking on the burden of the sins of all mankind. Christ chose to be baptized not out of personal necessity, but rather because He thought it fitting to be baptized on behalf of the humanity whose sins He was choosing to take on.
The feast of Christ’s baptism, then, is one we should commemorate with a great deal of reverence and contemplation since it is in part through His baptism on behalf of humanity that we have been given the grace to be able to join our God in heaven.
Each time we witness the baptism of a child, we can remember the truth of Christ’s saving power. His baptism was a fulfillment of righteousness, but not of His own; in the baptism in the Jordan, Christ fulfilled the righteousness of everyone who would ever be born.
We can remember the importance of baptizing infants specifically by remembering the importance of the sacrament as we understand it: baptism is not a mere symbol of gaining a new life in Christ, but rather is the actual conferral of grace by which mankind is able to be a part of the Body of Christ.
As we witness the baptism of a baby, we are also led to think of the child’s beautiful innocence as well as the saving power of God. These two ideas are, in a sense, two sides of the same coin.
On the one side, the innocence of a newborn child shows to us the goodness that is still present in the world despite the fall of Adam and Eve.
On the other side, the sacrament itself shows to us the possibilities that come into existence when we unite ourselves to Christ and ready ourselves to accept His grace, even in spite of the fall.
Witnessing a baptism, then, reminds us both of the goodness that exists in the present world as well as the infinite goodness that awaits us in the next. This can lead us into reflecting on the theological virtues of faith, hope and love as well: in faith we recognize the immensity of the sacrament of baptism, in hope we await the fullness of God’s grace, and in love we are struck by both the innocence of the newborn child and the magnitude of the Redemption.
As the feast of Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist approaches, and as we think about the importance of baptizing each newborn child, we may reflect on the promises our parents and godparents made on our behalf and consider their importance in our present lives.
Let us mindfully renew those baptismal promises so that we may love God and our neighbor, be a faithful witness to Christ and prepare ourselves to share in the glory of His resurrection.