A few years ago, I was having lunch with the Sarasota chapter of the Full Gospel Businessman's Fellowship, a group of Protestant businessmen who gather regularly to talk about business, politics, religion or whatever - it is largely a Protestant social networking organization. The conversation was light; I was the only Catholic among the group, and while I was willing to scatter seed where I could, it was not the ideal moment for an intense debate. All of the sudden, one of the older gentleman at the luncheon gazed at me and said, "Do you know what God has against the Catholic Church?" "Please tell me," I responded. "God said, 'Give me children', but the Catholic Church gave Him grandchildren." It took me a while to catch his meaning, but finally it dawned on me; he was referring to the practice of infant baptism. His quip about "grandchildren" referred to Catholic believers initiating their children into the faith when they are too young to make the commitment themselves.
In this article, we will revisit the theological and rationale for infant baptism as understood in Catholic Tradition. While Scripture itself does not teach clearly that infants ought to be baptized, we can clearly derive the Catholic practice from principles found in Scripture.
God's grace works equally upon all, regardless of age
If we return to the Sacred Scriptures, we see the principle that God's grace is able to work efficaciously upon those of any age. Frequently, God endows very young people with extraordinary grace. Samuel begins to hear the word of the Lord at a very young age (1 Sam. 3) and even as a boy continued to "grow in favor with the Lord" (1 Sam. 2:26); David is chosen by God and anointed while only a youth (1 Sam. 16). Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, though only youths, were granted the grace of extraordinary faith to endure being cast into the fiery furnace (Dan. 3), even as the young sons of the woman in 2 Maccabees 7 were empowered to undergo horrific martyrdoms.
Some characters in the Old Testament are called and sanctified by God before they are even born. The classic example is Jeremiah, who was called by God even from his mother's womb (Jer. 1:5); we could also note Isaac, who was already destined to become the child of promise before his birth, as well as Samson, who even before his conception was promised the actual graces necessary to deliver Israel from the Philistines, in accordance with the will of God (Jud. 13:2-5).
A more striking example is the case of Solomon. Before he is even conceived, God promises to never remove His mercy from Him; in other words, by God's grace Solomon will never die impenitent - he will always have recourse to God's mercy (2 Sam. 7:15). An extraordinary promise indeed!
We could also note St. John the Baptist, who was sanctified even in the womb when the Spirit of God came upon him at the greeting of Mary (Luke 1:44). Clearly, then, age is no barrier to God's grace. He can call, and empower and sanctify a youth to do whatever work He pleases or endure whatever trial He wishes. It makes no difference whether a person is a young man like David, a mere boy like Samuel, a child in womb like St. John the Baptist, or has no existence at all, such as Solomon, Samson and Jeremiah, who were called and promised certain graces before they were even conceived.
St. Cyprian and the Shunammite's Son
This principle is also found in the writings of the great Bishop of Carthage, St. Cyprian. Cyprian, however, turns to the story of Elisha and the woman of Shunam to prove his point. In 1 Kings 17, the Shunammite woman bears a son who tragically dies after working in the fields all day. Elisha is summoned and restores the child to life by laying on top of him in the following manner:
"When Elisha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed. So he went in and closed the door on the two of them, and prayed to the Lord. Then he got up on the bed and lay upon the child, putting his mouth upon his mouth, his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands; and while he lay bent over him, the flesh of the child became warm." [2 Kings. 4:32-34]
Cyprian marvels at the manner in which Elisha took pains to line his own body up with that of the child in order to breathe the life of God into him, and sees this as a sign of the equality of all men when it comes to the distribution of graces. He says:
"Moreover, belief in divine Scripture declares to us, that among all, whether infants or those who are older, there is the same equality of the divine gift. Elisha, beseeching God, so laid himself upon the infant son of the widow, who was lying dead, that his head was applied to his head, and his face to his face, and the limbs of Elisha were spread over and joined to each of the limbs of the child, and his feet to his feet. If this thing be considered with respect to the inequality of our birth and our body, an infant could not be made equal with a person grown up and mature, nor could its little limbs fit and be equal to the larger limbs of a man. But in that is expressed the divine and spiritual equality, that all men are like and equal, since they have once been made by God; and our age may have a difference in the increase of our bodies, according to the world, but not according to God; unless that very grace also which is given to the baptized is given either less or more, according to the age of the receivers, whereas the Holy Spirit is not given with measure, but by the love and mercy of the Father alike to all. For God, as He does not accept the person, so does not accept the age; since He shows Himself Father to all with well-weighed equality for the attainment of heavenly grace' [Letter 58:3]
The last sentence establishes the point we have been endeavoring to make: Since God tells us He is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34), neither is He a respecter of age, but all are equal before Him with regards to their capacity for heavenly grace. If this were not so, Our Lord could not admonish us to "become like children" (Matt. 18:3).
So anyone of any age is capable of obtaining the grace of God. This is very relevant when looking at infant baptism through the lens of the Old Testament practice of circumcision.
In the Old Testament, circumcision was the sign of the Israelite's covenant with God. It was circumcision which inaugurated one into the family of God. The act of circumcision was to be performed on the eighth day after birth. Even in the Old Testament, however, it was prophesied that one day would come a New Covenant in which there would be a circumcision of the heart, not of the flesh. Consider the following passages, in which a remission of sins and change of heart are promised as part of a new covenant:
"And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live." (Deut. 30:6)
"I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. "I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them." (Ezk. 36:26-27)
"Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— "not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. "But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. "No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more." (Jer 31:31-34)
This promised "circumcision of the heart" as part of the New Covenant is fulfilled in the Sacrament of Baptism, which St. Paul teaches is the "circumcision made without hands":
"And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power: In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. (Col 2:10-12)
It is clear that the baptism Paul speaks about in the third sentence is what is being referred to by the phrase "circumcision made without hands". Thus, Baptism is the fulfillment of the promise of a new circumcision. It is said to be "made without hands" because, baptism, unlike circumcision, remits sin by an immediate act of God and confers a special character upon the baptized that identifies them as a child of God. Circumcision does not remit sin, and there is no direct act of God in the rite of circumcision.
Please note that the teaching of the Catholic Church does not depend upon or promote the idea that baptism replaced circumcision; i.e., that all the particular ordinances relating to Jewish circumcision are simply transferred to baptism. Baptism was a fulfillment of Old Testament circumcision, which was only ever meant to be temporary in nature, as the Old Testament itself suggests.
The particular ordinances of the Jewish practice to not necessarily transfer to baptism. Baptism, obviously, is for all peoples, not males only, as circumcision. Furthermore, though the Church has always practiced infant baptism, it has never asserted that baptism ought to occur on the eighth day after birth, as circumcision. In fact Cyprian of Carthage, in the above mentioned epistle on infant baptism, rebukes a certain Bishop Fidus, who had taken the connection between baptism and circumcision too far and was asserting the permanent validity of the Jewish custom of the eighth day in its connection to baptism. Cyprian, however, suggests otherwise:
"But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man. For as the Lord says in His Gospel, The Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them, as far as we can, we must strive that, if possible, no soul be lost. For what is wanting to him who has once been formed in the womb by the hand of God?"[Letter 58:2]
What is most interesting about this text is that it presupposes that the connection between circumcision and baptism was well understood in the Early Church. In other words, Fidus must have understood that some connection existed between the two if he was taking that connection too far. Cyprian's response is also very relevant; rather than rebuke Fidus for thinking that baptism should be performed on infants, he chastises him for wanting to wait so long as the eighth day. If a child was born, nothing was lacking, and he was able to receive the grace of baptism.
Thus, if our Protestant friends ask us, "Where does it say in the Bible that infants ought to be baptized?" we can respond with another question, "Rather, you tell us, where does it say that the practice of initiating children into covenant with God has ever been revoked?" The ordinances surrounding the details of how circumcision was administered do not apply to baptism, but the principle remains the same.
Faith and Conscience: The Opinion of Aquinas
Note also that Cyprian asks "What is wanting to him that has been formed in the womb by God?" If an infant has been born into this world, what does he lack that prevents him from receiving baptism? The answer to Cyprian's rhetorical question is "nothing" - if a child has been formed in the womb by God and brought into this world, He is capable of receiving the grace of God, as explained above. He lacks nothing.
Protestants, however, would be more likely to respond to Cyprian's question by asserting that the child does lack three fundamental things: Faith, Intention, and Conscience. While not all Protestants would assert all three are lacking, they would most likely object on one of these counts.
Their objections would largely be based upon a different sacramental theology, one which denies the objective or ex opere operato nature of the sacraments. For most Protestants, the sacraments are subjective actions which have no intrinsic value apart from the disposition or faith of the one receiving them.
While it is not within the scope of this essay to compare and contrast Protestant and Catholic sacramental theology, we can turn to Aquinas for responses to these sorts of objections to infant baptism. Aquinas' thought on infant baptism can be found in the Summa Theologica, III, Q. 68 Art. 9.
In his initial objections, Aquinas notes three arguments against infant baptism, which can be summarized:
1) Infants lack use of free will and hence cannot will to be baptized.
2) Infants cannot exercise the virtue of faith.
3) Infants have no conscience, and since baptism is "the examination of a good conscience towards God" (1 Pet. 3:21), cannot examine their conscience. This is a variation of objection one.
The objection from faith of course presupposes that a person must deliberately understand and will baptism in order for it to be efficacious. We will not go into this here. But St. Thomas answers by noting a connection between baptism and carnal birth; after all, baptism is known as being "born again" or as "second birth." Just as a child in the womb receives nourishment not of its own accord but through the mother, so those who descend into the baptismal waters are said to be born out of the "womb" of the Church. They, too, receive spiritual nourishment through the agency of their spiritual mother, the Church.
This relates also to the objection from lack of intention. The intention is manifest by the sponsors who bring the child to baptism. But what if the sponsors themselves do not understand the sacrament or lack a perfect intention? St. Thomas says this is irrelevant, because it is not based upon the holiness or wisdom of the sponsors that the intention is made - otherwise, the sacrament would be understood in a semi-Donatist sense, the efficacy deriving from the worthiness of the sponsors. Rather, the sponsors, by participating in the rite, manifest the intention of the Church. It is the Church's faith, the Church's intention that are, as it were, "pledged" for the child. This is a function of the Communion of Saints. St. Thomas says, "But the faith of one, indeed of the whole Church, profits the child through the operation of the Holy Ghost, Who unites the Church together, and communicates the goods of one member to another" (STh, III, Q. 68 art. 9).
St. Augustine also explains it thus:
"Little children are offered that they may receive grace in their souls, not so much from the hands of those that carry them (yet from these too, if they be good and faithful) as from the whole company of the saints and the faithful. For they are rightly considered to be offered by those who are pleased at their being offered, and by whose charity they are united in communion with the Holy Ghost." (Cont. duas Ep. Pelag. i).
One might still object that, despite these explanations, we are still left with a situation where the sins of the child are remitted without its intention, knowledge or belief. But according to Aquinas and Augustine, this is fitting, since children contract original sin without their intention, knowledge or belief. Since "where sin abounds, grace abounds more" (Rom. 5;20), would we not expect the means of wiping away original sin to be just as liberal, if not more so, than the manner in which it was contracted? Sin is contracted without knowledge, and through God's mercy and the graces available through the Church's communion of saints, it can also be wiped away without knowledge.
St. Thomas thus summarizes the Church's understanding of this in his reply to the third objection about conscience:
"Just as a child, when he is being baptized, believes not by himself but by others, so is he examined not by himself but through others, and these in answer confess the Church's faith in the child's stead, who is aggregated to this faith by the sacrament of faith. And the child acquires a good conscience in himself, not indeed as to the act, but as to the habit, by sanctifying grace." (STh, III, Q. 68 art. 9).
While a larger treatment of this question would also involve a discussion of the concept of grace administered ex opere operato through the sacraments, as well as the historical development of the practice, this is a sufficient introduction to the theology behind this practice. Rather than begetting "grandchildren for God" when believers baptize their infants, it is in fact nothing other than the Church herself manifesting her fruitfulness in bringing sons to glory, supplying her own faith, knowledge and willingness for the defects of those who come to the font. This is done because of the manifest mercy of God, who has never ceased to will that children enter into covenant with Him, and who wills to make His grace abound freely, more so than the sin which that grace was sent to destroy.
AD MAJOREM DEI GLORIAM