The politics of same-sex marriage and the salvation of unbaptized babies

On July 13, Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec City, acting on behalf of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, offered a statement entitled Saving Marriage as a Fundamental Institution Recognized by the State, which was presented to the Canadian Senate prior to its vote on bill C-38. Part of his presentation has become exceptionally controversial, however, in that the Cardinal did mention that there might be circumstances in which a Church-State conflict would emerge due to this law. In particular, he mentioned the situation where a “married” homosexual couple would insist on both signing the baptismal register. Given that Catholic canon law only allows for the signature of “mother” and “father” as parents, were this couple to insist that both adults sign the register, the baptism itself would have to be refused.

The example the Cardinal gives is, quite honestly, a very limited circumstance, and I believe he raised it in order to point out the range of possible unintended consequences of Bill C-38. In itself, the example is really not all that remarkable. Baptism does have its requirements, such as the requirement that at least one godparent be a fully-initiated Catholic. Couples sometimes call wanting to name godparents where no one fits the requirements, and we simply politely tell them to call back once they have found someone who does. It is really not a big deal, and only is if people make it one.

Which, of course, is exactly what happened in the wake of the Cardinal’s remarks. There was a storm of controversy in the newspapers, in particular among the letters to the editor. Take, for example, this letter printed in last Sunday’s edition of the Montreal Gazette:

The threat by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the archbishop of Quenec and primate of the Canadian Catholic Church, to refuse baptism to infants of same-sex couples is the latest example of how un-Christian the Catholic Church has become. Christ said, “Let the children come to me; Do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” The Catholic hierarchy’s attempt to deny sacraments — baptism, communion, even extreme unction — to gays and lesbians, and now their children, is not only contrary to Christianity, it is immoral and sinful.

A few things worth noting in this letter include: (1) The Catholic Church doesn’t call it extreme unction anymore, so for a writer who claims such knowledge and authority I’m forced to wonder, where has he been the last 40 years? (2) There was absolutely no mention of sacraments of communion and extreme unction anointing of the sick in the Cardinal’s remarks, AFAIK, so why does the writer of the letter drag this in? and (3) The Cardinal did not propose to not baptise the children of gay/lesbian couples, but only if they insisted on signing the register in an improper way. There may be an argument to be made for a wider restriction, but the Cardinal did not make it!

No, my friends, what the Cardinal stated was that the Catholic Church was not going to let its long-standing canon law — which no one has made a stink about before Bill C-38 — be dictated by the State. And suppose somebody does try to pull a fast one, and in a huff chooses to make lots of noise over the “refusal” of their child. I think it is shameful that parents, knowing ahead of time the discipline of the Catholic Church, might then choose to use the baptism (or not) of their child to score socio-political points. Excuse me, but it is not the Catholic Church holding that child hostage — it is the parents, trying to hold the Church hostage through their child.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the real goal of Bill C-38 is not to mandate social equality, but social approval. The Catholic Church does not approve of “same-sex marriage”, and allowing both parents to sign as “parents” risks sowing confusion in people’s minds on this point. Some of the people who are upset, therefore, are not really upset because the Church won’t do a baptism, they are upset because once again the Church has explicitely stated it will not approve of something of which it does not approve. It reminds me of these words of Jesus:

“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, ‘We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ (Matthew 11:16-17)

So just because the music has changed in civil society, don’t expect the Catholic Church to start dancing.

Part of the reason this issue is so tense, however, is because of the teaching of the Church regarding the necessity of baptism for salvation. Many people of good will — including one of my parishioners on Sunday — worry about the fate of the unbaptized child. If we withhold baptism, isn’t that child’s salvation in jeopardy? So how can we withhold it, even if the child’s parents are behaving in a non-Catholic way?

The Catholic Church has, in fact, a pretty broad policy on baptism already. Assuming the formal requirements are met, I only know of two final circumstances where we will refuse a baptism: we will not baptise if both parents object (or would object) to the baptism, and we will not baptise if there is the total absence of a founded hope that the child will be raised in the Catholic faith. But that founded hope can come from the faith of the godparents or even the grandparents, so the latter is still pretty broad. Now some might argue that any such good example would be vastly overshadowed by a poor example of the parents, and they are right, which is why the Catholic Church is actually often criticized for being too loose, not too narrow, with baptism. What Cardinal Ouellet is really saying, then, is not that we won’t baptise the child of gay parents, but that we won’t allow those persons to use the sacrament to advance some other agenda. In that regard, I think he is totally right, and in fact we are not refusing a baptism, but the coupling of the baptism with that agenda.

Still, this does not solve the “salvation question”. Many persons worthier than I have tried to tackle this issue, and John Paul II himself, the October before he died, asked the International Theological Commission to study the question anew. I don’t presume to anticipate their work, but in all honesty I don’t see why this question is so darned thorny.

There is no doubt that the Church teaches the necessity of baptism for salvation. But it is also true that the Church also teaches that it isn’t absolutely necessary for an individual to personally receive water baptism to attain salvation. Vatican II taught the following:

Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.

If it is possible for adults to attain to salvation outside of personal reception of baptism, the only real question concerns the human “default setting”. Are we basically destined for damnation, unless baptism (or something else) intervenes? Or are we basically destined for salvation, unless we lose it through sin? If the former, the babies are lost. If the latter, they are saved.

Certainly, Pope John Paul II believed the latter. He said so himself, in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae:

I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give into discouragement and do not loose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercy is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord. (emphasis mine)

Now some may fret about the effect of such a doctrine on the idea of the necessity of baptism for salvation, but in fact there is no need for the latter doctrine to be compromised by the former. We need to understand that, even though the celebration of a sacrament represents a moment in time, the grace of a sacrament already starts to be felt even before the actual liturgical celebration. We expect engaged couples, for example, to already be living in fidelity prior to their marriage, and we don’t begrudge them for already living some of the joys of the “partnership of life and love” that marriage represents. The actual ceremony does produce something different — the creation of an unbreakable bond open to sexual union — but it does not mean that what came before was unrelated to the grace of marriage. Indeed it was, in part because the couple was oriented towards marriage in the first place.

Historically, the Church has recognized a similar pattern can exist with baptism: what tradition has called baptism of desire is not a separate form of baptism, but a kind of “baptism by analogy”, where the central element of the analogy is actual water baptism. Baptism of desire is only able to produce saving grace because it is oriented to water baptism in the first place. So water baptism is still necessary for salvation, even if it is not actually personally received, because it is a defining structural characteristic of the Christian life. Salvation requires that one have either received water baptism, or be oriented towards it. To be outside of this “baptismal path” by rejecting the grace of baptism (something, I should add, that can happen both before and after an actual water baptism) is to be on the road to perdition. There is only one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

Now some of you may ask: what about original sin? Doesn’t baptism wash away original sin, and isn’t original sin a possible cause of damnation? The answer is yes and yes. But we must be careful about using terms such as “before” and “after” to original sin. If original sin exists chronologically prior to the grace of baptism, then we are back to the initial problem. But if original sin is ontologically prior to the grace of baptism, then the above analysis probably is more accurate.

The final objection I can see to this analysis is a renewed questioning of the value of water baptism for infants. After all, if they are saved anyway, why bother baptising them? There are three good reasons for doing so:

  1. The infants are part of a movement towards salvation because the salvific will of God has inscribed them in this movement, with water baptism being the concrete sign of this invisible grace. Assuming the expression “Thy will be done” is to be taken seriously, it would be disrespectful to God to not bring the children to the water baptism to which they are already oriented.
  2. While some of the preliminary blessing and obligations of the baptismal covenant may already have begun to be lived even before baptism, it is also a fact that the actual celebration of the sacrament does have additional effects. I was living some of the obligations (such as celibacy) and some of the blessing (such as spiritual leadership) when I was a priest-in-training, but I still couldn’t consecrate the bread and wine until I actually got ordained. Presumably there are elements of baptismal grace that require the actual water baptism to become effective (St. Thomas Aquinas mentions the impression of the sacramental character as one example). So if we desire these “extras” for our children — and any good parent wants the best for their child — baptism should not be delayed.
  3. Baptising infants has a catechetical value for the whole community, in that (i) it proclaims the priority of the free gift of God’s saving grace, over any possible decisions or works on our part, and (ii) not baptising the infants can diminish a sense of the necessity of baptism among the adult faithful. The infant baptism is a declaration to the world of the means by which God has chosen to offer his salvation, and it allows adults to be challenged to either get baptised or to renew their own baptism.

In the final analysis, the sacramental policy of the Catholic Church needs to respect the nature of the sacraments are both a source of blessing and a proclamation of the New Covenant. If we emphasize the first but neglect the second, the sacraments become little more than a “celestial vending machine” where we go to get our quick-and-easy “hit of grace”. God’s love *is* unconditional, but not so unconditional that he ceases to desire our good, nor to call us to greater holiness. Cardinal Ouellet was simply reminding the world of this reality, and for this he is to be applauded.