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Q and A with Fr John Flader: Grandparents and baptism

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Grandparents should not baptise their grandchildren without the consent of the parents.
Grandparents should not baptise their grandchildren without the consent of the parents.

My married children do not practise their faith and, in spite of the encouragement of my wife and me, they have not had their children baptised. Can I baptise my grandchildren myself sometime without telling their parents?

I have been asked this question multiple times over the years. It is a reflection of the sad reality that, often due to lack of formation, many parents are no longer practising their faith and consequently are not even having their children baptised. The answer to your question is simple.

In spite of your excellent intentions of wanting the best for your grandchildren, you should not baptise them without the agreement of their parents. And if the parents agree, you should take the children to the church to receive the sacrament.

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St Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae (STh IIa-IIae, q. 10, art. 12), explains why you should not baptise your grandchildren. In that article he answers the question: “Whether the children of Jews and other unbelievers ought to be baptised against their parents’ will.”

In his usual approach in answering questions, he begins by raising reasonable objections to what will be his final answer. Let us consider two of his five objections.

In Objection 2, he says that a person is more bound to help someone who is in danger of everlasting death than one who is in danger of temporal death. Now it would be a sin if someone saw a man in danger of temporal death and failed to go to his aid.

Since the children of Jews and other unbelievers are in danger, not of temporal death but of everlasting death if their parents were to imbue them with their unbelief, it would seem that they should be taken away from their parents and baptised and instructed in the faith.

In Objection 4, St Thomas says that every person belongs more to God, from whom he has his soul, than to his earthly father, from whom he has his body. Therefore, it would not be unjust if Jewish children were taken away from their parents and consecrated to God in Baptism.

Summarising his answer to the objections and stating his conclusion, St Thomas goes on to say:

“On the contrary, injustice should be done to no man. Now it would be an injustice to Jews if their children were to be baptised against their will, since they would lose the rights of parental authority over their children as soon as these were Christians. Therefore, they should not be baptised against their parents’ will.”

In explaining his answer, St Thomas begins by saying that it was never the custom of the church to baptise the children of Jews, or unbelievers, against the will of their parents.

There are two reasons for this custom. One is on account of the danger to the faith. That is, if children are baptised before coming to the use of reason, afterwards when they are older their parents might easily persuade them to renounce what they had unknowingly embraced, and this would be detrimental to their faith.

The other reason is that it is against natural justice. For a child is by nature part of its father. At first it is not distinct from its parents as to its body, so long as it is enfolded in its mother’s womb.

And later, after birth and before it has the use of free will, it is enfolded in the care of its parents, which is like a spiritual womb.

According to the natural law, a son, before coming to the use of reason, is under his father’s care. Hence it would be contrary to natural justice if a child, before coming to the use of reason, were to be taken away from its parents’ custody, or have anything done to it against its parents’ wishes.

As soon as it begins to have the use of free will, it begins to belong to itself, and is able to look after itself in matters concerning the divine or the natural law. And then it should be induced, not by compulsion but by persuasion, to embrace the faith.

It can then consent to the faith, and be baptised, even against its parents’ wishes, but not before it comes to the use of reason.

In conclusion, grandparents should not baptise their grandchildren, but they should pray very much that the parents will see the desirability of having their children baptised.

Naturally, if the child is in danger of death, anyone can and should baptise it. In the next column I will suggest other things the grandparents can do to help their grandchildren grow in the faith.

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