Mary McAleese recently denounced infant baptism as a form of conscription into the Catholic Church. Her remarks have caused an uproar and generated a lot of discussion. Always in such discussions there are many and varied viewpoints, but two particular themes have emerged in the voices of those who would endorse Mrs McAleese’s position or something like it. The first is that infant baptism is wrong because it inaugurates a child into a particular religion before he or she can make any choice in the matter; the second is that infant baptism is not a biblical practice, and so ought not to be pursued. Mrs McAleese’s objections to infant baptism will be appearing in her doctoral dissertation, and so until I get a chance to look at and engage with that I shall pass over her remarks and focus on the two general issues noted in the public discussion.
The first issue can be dispensed with quite easily. Outside of the religious context, parents make all sorts of choices on their children’s behalf. These range from quite significant life and death choices when they are newborn, to various decisions affecting their lives as they grow. The reason why parents make these choices on behalf of their children is because children are not mature enough to make such decisions for themselves; yet these decisions have to be made. So for instance, parents make decisions on a child’s diet, home, school, social media access, internet access etc. Not only that, parents in nearly all cases make the unconscious decision about what language the child will speak, what community he or she will be brought up in etc. Parents make these decisions on behalf of their children because they ideally want what’s best for them. The same is the case then when it comes to religion. Ideally parents want what is best for their children, and so when it comes to introducing them to a religion, they often introduce them to the religion that has been the best for them (the parents). This often involves some sort of rite, and in Christianity it involves baptism. But indeed if the parents make the choice that no religion is good for their children because they (the parents) do not think any religion is worth pursuing, that is still a choice that is made on the child’s behalf, a choice the child can reject later in life just as the religious child can reject religion. Hence the initiation of an infant into a religion or not is not itself any more problematic that introducing a child to a form of life with a particular diet, home life, language, cultural community etc.
We are then led nicely to the second issue. Ideally we make choices for our children because we want what is best for them, and for many that is to introduce them to a religion at an early age, and for Christians this often entails baptism at the earliest age. But the argument is made that such a practice is not biblical, that infants can be brought up in a Christian environment without baptism and that it should be deferred until they can choose it for themselves. But when we look at the biblical witness of the matter, we notice that baptism is associated with salvation (e.g. Jn 3:5, Rom. 6:3-11). It is not a mere rite of initiation, but the means by which original sin is cleansed from the infant. Whilst it is true that the infant has not committed any actual sin, the infant is subject to the state of original sin to which all humans are subject, and thereby deprived of something he or she would have had were it not for being in such a state. Baptism is the sacrament by which that state is removed and the one baptised may be able to enter heaven. Hence the motivation for baptising infants is that they may participate in such a good.
Furthermore, in Pauline theology, St Paul takes Christian baptism to be the circumcision of Christ, such that those baptised need not be physically circumcised; this was a particularly dominant theme of Paul’s preaching (e.g. Col. 2:11 – 12). The NT practice of baptism has taken over from the OT practice of circumcision. But just as it was usually infants who were circumcised, so too then we can take it that it is infants who are baptised (aside of course from first generation Christians or newly converted Christians).
Not only that, we have scriptural witness to entire households being baptised, e.g. Lydia’s household in Acts 16:15, the Philippian jailer and his family in Acts 16:33, and the household of Stephanas in 1 Cor 1:16. Hence it was a known practice to baptise children as well as adults, and this no doubt because of the fact that baptism is the primary means by which one is saved in Christ.
The earliest witness of the post-apostolic Church takes infant baptism as a matter of course, no surprise is expressed by it, the earliest known baptismal ritual makes mention of infants, and it was a practice that had the support of notable Church Fathers (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19801020_pastoralis_actio_en.html). All in all then the practice of infant baptism is not something new or anything radically divergent from scripture.
Infant baptism is a practice that is tied in with parents’ wishing the best for their children. Baptism is the sacrament by which the person can be free of original sin and thereby able to enjoy the benefits of salvation. Making a choice of religion for one’s child in this respect is not just about educating him or her within a Christian community, ensuring attendance at a Catholic school, bringing him or her up within the faith; unless the child is baptised, the child cannot participate in the benefit that the sacrament offers. So when the Catholic parent makes the decision to have the child baptised, it is ideally because that parent sees the great good offered by the sacrament, and wishes that good for the child.
Dr Gaven Kerr