Q: My wife and I both remember as children that when our siblings were born, our parents had to give them a saint’s name. If their first name wasn’t a saint’s name, at least their middle name had to be. But nowadays, we often see notices in our parish bulletin announcing the baptisms of newborns, and neither their first nor their middle name is a saint’s name! Is the rule different now, or is something fishy going on at our parish? –Steve
A: Back in the September 11, 2008 column, we saw that baptism is the easiest sacrament to administer validly. This is no accident—since baptism is “the gateway to the other sacraments” (c. 849), it follows logically that it should be governed by the fewest restrictions. That does not mean, however, that administering this sacrament is a free-for-all, in which anything goes! There are definitely a fair number of rules and regulations regarding the administration of this sacrament, and the issue of the child’s name is among them.
Canon 855 directly addresses Steve’s question. Parents, godparents, and pastors are to ensure that the name given to the child to be baptized is not foreign to Christian sentiment. Note that the canon does not specifically require that the child’s name be a saint’s name. In fact, the canon does not specify that at baptism a child must receive any particular sort of name at all. Rather, since it is worded in the negative, we are only told what sorts of names may not be given to a child at his baptism.
While it goes without saying that it is laudable for Catholic parents to choose a saint’s name for their child, it is not actually necessary. Thus it’s quite possible for a Catholic priest to baptize “Ashley” and “Jennifer,” “Curtis” and “Todd.” Even if there may be no canonized saints with these same names, there is certainly nothing unchristian about them.
So what is an example of a name that could not be given to a Catholic child at baptism, because it is foreign to Christian sentiment? Obvious non-options would include “Satan,” “Lucifer,” and “Death”; names like “Hitler” and “Stalin” would presumably raise an instant red-flag as well. If parents were to announce to their pastor that they had chosen such a name for their child, he would have every right to ask them why! Is there conceivably an innocent and legitimate reason for giving such a name to a Catholic child?
Based on this canon, the priest who was to baptize the child would have not only the right, but the obligation to object to the name—as would the child’s godparents as well. The parents would be required to choose another name instead. If they were to persist in their offensive choice, the baptism simply could not take place.
This is not merely a question of personal taste. As we saw in that June 21, 2007 column, if a priest is to baptize a child, there must be a well founded hope that the child will be raised in the Catholic faith (c. 868.1 n.1). If the parents wanted to give a bizarre, unchristian name to their child, it would be altogether natural for the parents’ pastor to question their intentions! Are they serious about rearing their child as a Catholic? Or do they regard the whole baptismal ceremony as an empty tradition or even a joke? It is the pastor’s duty to find out.
We can see that within these broad parameters, the current law on this matter is quite general. At the same time, though, Steve and his wife are not alone in their understanding that baptismal names traditionally had to be the names of saints. And they are not mistaken: the prior Code of Canon Law was much stricter in this regard than the current one.
We saw in the September 6, 2007 column that the law currently in force in the Catholic Church took effect in 1983, under Pope John Paul II. It replaced the previous code, promulgated by Pope Benedict XV back in 1917. The old law is, therefore, no longer in use—but for those of us Catholics who were baptized between 1917 and 1983, it was the prevailing law that had to be followed at the time of our baptism.
Canon 761 of the 1917 code said that pastors were to ensure that those who were to be baptized received a Christian name. It added that if this could not be done, the name of “some saint” was to be added to the name chosen by the parents, and in the baptismal record both names were to be recorded. Note that the first part of the canon didn’t actually say that the name had to be a saint’s name; it merely said that the name had to be Christian. This is why in practice, children were occasionally given baptismal names like “Christian,” “Grace,” and “Faith.” Strictly speaking, these might not be saint’s names—but as they obviously described concepts directly related to the Catholic faith, they were traditionally considered equally acceptable choices.
Under the previous law, therefore, choosing a Christian name was required—or the priest would choose one for you. Imagine, for example, that during the period when the prior code was in force, a Catholic woman had married a protestant man whose first name was Stanton. Let’s say that for generations, the eldest son in his family had been given this name. If he and his Catholic wife had a son, the father might naturally want to have him baptized “Stanton” as well. This might have been quite possible in his own protestant church; but as his Catholic wife intended to raise their son in the Catholic faith, the baby of course had to be baptized in her Catholic parish, in accord with canon law.
The previous law would lead the Catholic priest to balk at baptizing the baby as Stanton, since it is not a saint’s name. But if the father insisted, the work-around was simply to add a second name, and baptize the child with a full name like Stanton Joseph, or Stanton Michael. Note that even under the old law, a child could receive a first name that was not the name of a saint—but he always had to have a middle name that was.
Under current law, there would be no problem baptizing a Catholic child with the name Stanton, since there is nothing about it that is contrary to Christian sentiment! Nowadays, however, it is no longer required to have a saint’s name as a middle name, although of course the child’s parents might very well choose to add one.
Thus we can see that while Steve’s memory about the baptisms of his siblings is absolutely correct, there is nothing irregular about the current practices at his parish as he describes them. There is more leeway today about selecting names for our children, even though rules about clearly anti-Christian names certainly exist. Perhaps if we all raise our children as committed Catholics, names like “Ashley” and “Jennifer,” “Curtis” and “Todd” may some day in the future indeed be the names of saints.