Why Do We Need Baptismal Classes?

Q: My wife and I are both Catholics and are expecting our first child in three months. Our parish requires all parents who want their baby baptized to attend an evening class, which conflicts with my work-schedule. Otherwise they told us we cannot have our baby baptized. But both my parents and my in-laws have told us that they never had to attend any such class before we were baptized! Why do we have to do this? The pastor knows us, and can see that we regularly attend Mass on Sundays. Does he have the right to refuse to baptize our baby if we don't attend this class? — Tony, Annapolis, MD

A: In our last discussion on May 24, we saw that according to canon 843.1, Catholics have the right to receive the sacraments if they opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them. On the surface, therefore, it would appear that your pastor may not refuse to baptize your child if you sincerely wish it.

But with every right comes a corresponding obligation, and this right to receive the sacraments is no exception. Canon 843.2 states that pastors of souls have the duty to ensure that those who ask for the sacraments are prepared for their reception.  In the case of parents who present their infant child for baptism, it is the parents who must be adequately prepared, as they are asking for a sacrament on behalf of another person who is too young to request it for himself.

What is the primary purpose of baptizing an infant? The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that Christ Himself affirmed that baptism is necessary for salvation (CCC 1257), and that even innocent children, who are born with original sin, need baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and to become children of God (CCC 1250). Since canon law follows theology, it should not be surprising that this teaching also appears in the Code of Canon Law, as canon 849. Parents should want their children baptized because they want them to be freed from original sin, and made members of the Church. 

But unfortunately, in many cases nowadays, parents who ask for their children's baptism do so for cultural reasons rather than spiritual ones. Too often, religiously indifferent parents ask for their child's baptism merely because they are being pressured by their own parents to have their child baptized. In some cultures, the celebration of an infant's baptism is an important social event, quite separate from its religious significance, and baptism is for this reason requested by parents who no longer practice their Catholic faith themselves. In such cases the spiritual importance of this sacrament is being lost.

The Church seeks to avoid situations in which a child is baptized a Catholic, but then, due to the negligence and indifference of his parents, is not raised to practice the Catholic faith. For this reason canon 868.1 n.2 notes that for a child to be baptized, there must be a realistic hope that he will be brought up in the Catholic religion. If such hope is lacking, the baptism is to be deferred — and if, at some point in the future, the parents can provide grounds for hope that their infant will in fact be raised as a Catholic, the priest may then proceed with the baptism.

This requirement routinely presents practical problems for pastors who are faced with non-practicing Catholic parents seeking baptism for their children. A priest is obliged by law to determine that there is reason to believe that somehow the child will in fact be raised Catholic, or else he must tell the parents that their baby may not be baptized. At the same time, denying the parents' request requires great pastoral sensitivity and tact, since a priest does not want to drive such parents away from the Church for good.

Deciding what constitutes a "realistic hope" that the child will be raised Catholic is often a difficult judgment call, and sincere priests may at times differ about what to do in a particular case. It cannot be automatically assumed that there is no hope of the child's Catholic upbringing simply because the parents themselves are less than perfect Catholics. For example, the fact that the child's parents were not married in the Catholic Church, or perhaps are not even married at all, may not necessarily indicate that they have no intention of raising their child as a Catholic. God alone knows whether, in some cases, the decision of lapsed-Catholic parents to educate their children in the Catholic faith may actually bring about a return to the Church on the part of the parents themselves! Over the years, some pastors have told me that they feel that the mere fact that such parents phone the rectory to arrange a baptism, is in itself an indication that they have not totally severed their connection with the Church, and constitutes a reasonable hope that they will bring up their child as a Catholic. Others will disagree, wanting to see stronger evidence that the baptism is not simply being sought to please other family members, or to satisfy social expectations. 

To avoid confusion and inconsistency, it has become the norm for US dioceses to require parishes to hold mandatory classes for parents requesting infant baptism, in order to ensure that (1) all parents truly understand the spiritual obligations that their child's baptism will place on them, and (2) the pastor may have the opportunity to determine whether it may be unrealistic to hope that the children of the parents attending the class will be raised as Catholics. The development of these classes no doubt took place after you and your wife were baptized, which explains why your own parents were not required to take one. Attending such a class, and participating in it, shows your pastor that you are properly disposed for the baptism of your child; adamantly refusing to attend it may be interpreted as a sign that you are not.

Keep in mind that, while you may have a right to have your baby baptized, your pastor simultaneously has an obligation to ensure that the sacraments are celebrated properly in his parish. In fact, canon 851 n.2 notes that the pastor is required to see to it that the parents of a child who is to be baptized are suitably instructed on the meaning of this sacrament and the obligations connected with it. A mandatory class is an obvious way to do this.

It may require some inconvenience and sacrifice to make arrangements to leave your workplace in order to attend the class. But given the tremendous spiritual importance of the sacrament of baptism to your child, surely it will be well worth it!

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  • Thembi

    If you know and value your Catholic religion, you will definetely make means to attend these classes they also help you to recall your 7 sacraments, as a God Parent the commitment you make to God to see that the child is brought up in a Catholic faith.

  • Marta

    I was raised Catholic, Baptized, First communion and Confirmed.
    married by law, but not by cathoc church, woukld like to be the Godmother of my nephew? am I permitted to do so?

  • Thomas

    Just another example of the Church putting tradition in front of Gods Will.
    So sad to find that the Church is truly a danger to itself. Where has Love gone?
    And if not Love then one would think surely that the fear of God would undoubtedly bring this practice into question… I Love the church … However I have to tell you that this is a kind of Vanity ~”are less than perfect Catholics”
    You may know a lot but you understand very little!

  • gertrude

    I come from a catholic upbringing – baptism, confirmation, marraige, even went to a catholic school from K – grade 12. After reading this, I am more inclined not to have my child baptized. The Catholic church is it’s worst enemy.

  • Carol

    I was looking for information on Baptism Classes and came across this article .. saw the comments and felt moved to add a comment.

    You know it is really easy for all of you to say the Catholic Church is at fault when you are not in a position to make those type decisions. I work as a Religious Education Coordinator of a fairly large program and one of the hardest parts of the job are when I have to recommend to the pastor that someone be deferred to a later time for a sacrament. It is not something that is done easily, flippantly or otherwise without thought. But – for a variety of reasons this decision needs to be made and one of the reasons would be if a student did not attend class or enough of them for them to be properly prepared to receive a sacrament. Allowing someone to receive a sacrament without proper instruction would be a grave injustice to the sacrament. I will also bend over backwards to try and work with the variety of family situations that come across my desk – BUT there are always those who just want to sail through without any effort and it is usually those people whose children are deferred.

    The sacraments are special and should be treated as such and being properly prepared to receive them is one way we can treat them with the reverence they deserve.

    At this point I suspect that the parents in the article have attended class and have gotten their child Baptized and I would hope that in attending the class they received information about the spiritual aspect of Baptism ….

    God Bless

  • Janine

    Marta, maybe you’ve already found your answer as some time has lapsed. But in short, unfortunately, no you are not permitted to be “Godmother.” Because you did not make the sacrament of Marriage in the Catholic Church means you have not fulfilled your adult Catholic duties, per say. If you were not married, it would be okay. But you CAN be a witness of the baptism of your nephew. The parents will need to choose a Catholic Godfather who has completed all his sacraments and then you can stand with him. I am in a similar position as you and wanted specific godparents who were raised Catholic but married outside the church-therefore they did not meet the requirements. Best of luck and happy baptism to your nephew!

  • No name Jane

    Catholics believe baptism is necessary for salvation.
    VATICAN II declared this in #7 of it’s decree Ad Gentes:
    “Therefore, all must be converted to Him, made known by the Church’s preaching, and all must be incorporated into Him by baptism and into the Church which is His body. For Christ Himself “by stressing in express language the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mark 16:16; John 3:5), at the same time confirmed the necessity of the Church, into which men enter by baptism, as by a door. Therefore those men cannot be saved, who though aware that God, through Jesus Christ founded the Church as something necessary, still do not wish to enter into it, or to persevere in it.” (Dogmatic constitution by Vatican II: Lumen Gentium 14) Therefore though God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith without which it is impossible to please Him (Heb. 11:6), yet a necessity lies upon the Church (1 Cor. 9:16), and at the same time a sacred duty, to preach the Gospel. And hence missionary activity today as always retains its power and necessity.”
    We need baptism.

  • MIchelle

    What I think is sad is that Catholic Parishes are falling into the same trap as big government many times. Would it not be common sense and even a better option for the pastor to just meet with the couple for a ten minute interview at a convenient time. If the couple knows the pastor and they are regular Mass participants, it is ridiculous to have a mandatory class attendance policy. He can still ensure the couple is prepared through a short interview and providing them with reading material and a follow up if necessary. It’s the staff at the parish level treating everyone exactly the same that is the problem. You could be a person that volunteers for multiple ministries, attends daily mass and you will be told you must attend the same class as the couple that just walked in an hasn’t been attending mass for years. Then the Pastors and DREs wipe their hands clean while assuring themselves that the parents are now prepared after taking an hour long class. So I guess I disagree with the author. A mandatory class is not an obvious way to ensure that canon 851 is fulfilled. It may, in fact, be a very inefficient, ineffective and impersonal attempt at fulfilling the pastoral obligation.

  • Midget01

    Janine. Please read Cannon Law 874 Baptism, Communion and Confirmation are the Sacraments that make you a practicing Catholic
    They are referred to as the Sacraments of Initiation.
    One is not expecting to have received the sacrament of Marriage in order to witness or be a apart of a guide, sponsor or God Parents to others who wish to be brought into the faith.
    The key is to be fully initiated through the main 3 sacraments and to be what is known as a practicing Catholic by having gone to confession and Communion at least once a year.

  • Midget01

    The Lack of the Church Sacrament of matrimony does not prevent you from serving as a God Parent or Sponsor, If you have received the Initiation Sacraments Baptism Communion and Confirmation and are acting as a Practicing Catholic in a Catholic Church you are eligible to be a God Parent if asked and approved by the Parents of the Child. Cannon Law 874 gives you 5 main stipulations which are necessary to be an acceptable Sponsor. If you were baptized in another faith and not practicing as a Catholic you could only serve as a witness but not as a God Parent. You must be at Least over the age of 16 in most Countries to serve in this capacity. You cannot be under any canonical Penalty such as remarried without an annulment or having issues with the government for any reason . This mean things that would place you in the state of sin so as not to be viewed as a proper Catholic Witness. The fact that you never married in Church is not an issue. While it would be nice it is not a requirement. I hope this clears up some of your questions. You may go on line and look at The Code of Cannon Law and it will clear up many issues. Once in awhile there are special traditions that form in each area of the country but this basic to all Catholic Churches.

  • Des

    I have the same problem. There is no way we can fit this in. I understand the need for the course totally. But if both parents work and have a child, there is no time to scratch your back, let alone attend a course.