The Necessity of Baptism

Today most Catholics are in no great hurry to have their children baptized. In the past, the practice was to baptize children as soon as possible after birth. Now, medical technology has decreased danger for newborns, seemingly removing the urgency for immediate baptism. Add to this the widely publicized recommendation by the International Theological Commission to abolish the doctrine of limbo, a place of natural happiness, but deprived of the vision of God for unbaptized infants, and suddenly there seems no compelling reason to rush to the baptismal font.

Yet even without fears of imminent danger, baptism remains an urgent sacrament that should be conferred upon infants as soon as possible after birth. In the words of St. Peter on the first Pentecost, baptism both forgives sins and imparts the gift of the Holy Spirit. These are spiritual gifts par excellence that all Catholics of all ages and sizes require to live their respective vocations in the world. Therefore, baptism remains vital and relevant even in the lives of adults who were baptized decades ago.

Baptism, followed by confirmation and the Eucharist, is the first of the sacraments of initiation into the Catholic Church. As noted in the first column of this series, the sacraments are necessary for salvation; baptism is the foundation of this promised salvation since through it recipients are born spiritually and given a share in the inner life of the Trinity. Sacraments are physical signs of God’s invisible grace of salvation. In baptism, the physical matter of water combines with the formal prayer “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” to confer the grace of the sacrament.

Many wonderful gifts are imparted by baptismal grace, but baptism itself is a gift God freely bestows on those whom He wills. Infant baptism highlights the sheer gratuity of God’s generosity, as infants obviously do not ask for the sacrament themselves. But even when parents have their children baptized, or when converts approach the baptismal waters at the Easter Vigil, they have done so only because God has called them first.

Primarily, baptism removes sin, as repeated in the Nicene Creed each Sunday. For adults, baptism removes all sin, venial and mortal, as well as the punishment due for sin; thus baptism is quite literally a spiritual rebirth. For infants, baptism removes original sin, the condition of deprivation of grace and inclination toward evil. Although baptism reverses the former state by flooding the soul with divine life, the inclination toward sin, called concupiscence, remains; the grace of baptism gives recipients the power to overcome this inclination. While original sin is not as grave as personal sin, it is a serious matter nonetheless; and though it has been downplayed as a result of this age’s loss of a sense of sin, we need only honestly examine our thoughts and actions in a single day to see the presence of original sin in our lives and the need for grace to combat it.

Positively, baptism confers the gift of the Holy Spirit, who brings the three virtues of faith, hope, and love to the lives of recipients. Baptism particularly accentuates the beginning of supernatural faith, the gift of belief in God and the consequent personal relationship with Him. For this reason the rite of baptism, continuing the practice that began as early as the second century, includes a profession of faith in the teachings of the Church, in question and answer format, that underscores the mystery into which the baptized are entering. (This ancient profession developed into the Nicene Creed we say today.) When infants are baptized, the godparents respond on their behalf; and in responding, they promise to help the infant to be educated in the faith. Though baptism imparts real grace independent of the minister, grace cannot work in a vacuum; the baptized require the nurturing support of parents, godparents, and the community to see that their faith and the other virtues grow properly.

In addition to faith, hope, and love, the baptized receive the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit – wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord – which direct and sustain the moral life of Christians throughout their earthly pilgrimage.

Thus baptism remains vital even for adults baptized decades ago. The sacrament of baptism imparts a permanent seal, or mark, that cannot be erased by even the most heinous sin; for this reason baptism cannot be repeated. This indelible seal is the source of grace, so Christians can call upon their baptismal grace through prayer, deepen and strengthen it with the grace of the other sacraments, and foster its growth through charity and through learning about the faith. Though we may not realize it, the grace of baptism has guided all our decisions for Christ throughout our lives.

Baptism, like the other sacraments, carries an objective and subjective dimension. The objective dimension is the grace received, which begins working in an invisible and mysterious way immediately; the subjective dimension depends on how we cooperate with this grace. With baptism our spiritual lives are born by God’s free gift; with time baptismal grace, properly developed and nourished, leads us to the salvation God has promised through Jesus Christ.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is associate editor of The University Bookman. This is the second in his series of columns about the sacraments.

© 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

The Catholic Thing
is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

  • Willie

    The Dilemma
    A good article especially in these days of lacking catechesis. It is hard to believe, however, that so many will be deprived of the Beatific Vision because of lack of baptism. The victims of abortion, the Holy Innocents and.indeed. The Good Thief did not receive Baptism per se. One can say they received Baptism of blood or desire. But what of all those who never heard of Jesus or blatantly reject Him (Jews and Muslims). I believe baptism of desire is a bit of a leap in this case. What think you?

  • Edward Lewis

    Limboa doctrine?
    Limbo was never a doctrine of the Church. Limbo, a theological idea was developed very informally after the concept (also not a doctrine) of the limbo of the Prophets.

  • Bradley

    Thanks, Mr. Bonagura, for a wonderful column. I would add a comment about a corporate element of baptism. Our Catechism teaches us that baptism is "the foundation of communion among all Christians" and that a "sacramental bond of unity" already exists among baptized persons. This is at once a hopeful teaching, further scandalizes our divisions, and adds urgency to the Church’s work to unite all believers in the fullness of the Faith, in communion with the successor of Peter.

  • Michele

    What about Godparents
    Please address the Godparent factor in Sacraments. One of the biggest headaches I deal with monthly through Sacramental Prep for Parents and Confirmation Prep for students is suitable Godparents. Many parents delay baptism because they don’t know anyone who is an actual practicing Catholic. Even after extensive teaching many parents still want ‘my brother’ ‘my sister’ etc., who are only civilly married, or are of another faith-even Mormons. They ALL say, “they will raise the child Catholic”.

  • David Bonagura

    By “doctrine” of Limbo I mean “teaching” in the informal sense. It is true that Limbo is a hypothesis, but one that has received approbation from popes over centuries, even if it was never formally defined. In reality, we do not know the fate of unbaptized babies; we can only commend them to God’s mercy with prayer and hope, as stated in the funeral rite for them. Space did not permit an expose of baptism by blood (martyrdom) and by desire, both of which are affirmed in the Catechism 1257-1261.

  • Sean

    It removes original sin
    Baptism removes original and actual sin, instills sanctifying grace, makes the recipient a member of the Church, subject to its laws and capable of receiving other sacraments, and puts an indelible mark on the soul. It’s for everyone, from newborns on up.

  • Peter Hart

    Limbo has only been a speculative “place/idea” and has never been a doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. Listen to Benedict XVI and do not make Limbo what it never has been. In the liturgy for an infant who dies before baptism, the Church entrusts the child’s soul to the mercy of God. As far as St. Augustine is concerned, we should all appreciate his deep respect for the sacrament of Baptism.

  • Anne Gomes

    Parishes delay baptism
    Just a comment. My son was serving in Iraq right before his son was born. He called his parish where they were active to schedule classes and the baptism. He was told that there was no hurry and they could take care of it when he got back, just a week before his son’s birth. He was told the same for his daughter in a different parish where they had just moved. So, sometimes, it is the parish staff, not just the parents who do not see the urgency for the sacrament. AnneG in NC

  • Louis Pereira

    The idea of “limbo” was put forward by St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived in the 13th century. He distinguished between the “Limbus Patrum” (the Limbo of the Fathers) and the” Limbus Infantium” (the Limbo of the Children). The Church taught “Limbo” for a long time in catechesis classes. I was taught it and so were by parents and grandparents. i own a Manual of Dogmatic Theology dated of 1949 and another of 1875, used in seminaries in Europe, where Limbo is explained in detail.

  • Peggy Coffey

    Our daughter was born seriously ill and was quickly baptized by the hospital chaplain. We had planned a family celebration with a priest I’d known since childhood, whose parish my family had helped found and where I was married, but when we brought our baby home he refused to baptize her, because we were military and not then living in the area. We called the bishop who said it was up to the parish priest. So baptism isn’t important to some priests. I haven’t been in a Catholic church since.

  • Bill Strom

    Limbo is a doctrine of the Church. St. Pope Zosimus proclaimed it in his ex cathedra–Tractoria
    “.. that it might be understood that in the kingdom of heaven there will be some middle place or some place anywhere where the blessed infants live who departed from this life without baptism, without which they cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven, which is eternal life, let him be anathema.”

  • Cheryl Curtis

    Unbaptized grandchildren
    Beautiful article. Like many grandparents I suffer daily knowing that my two precious grandsons ages 5 and 6 – borne out of wedlock – are not baptized. I have asked three different priests if I can do this myself since their transgendered mother has custody and opposes any form of Christianity. But I have been told “No”. I have had many opportunities but have remained faithful to what I have been told and can only pray for God’s mercy on these innocent little victims.

  • David Deavel

    On Godparents for Michele
    Michele, my wife and I teach baptism prep too and we’ve taken to offering to find godparents for couples or putting them in touch with our Director of Religious Ed, who is solidly orthodox and will find them good godparents. More often we run into people who want unsuitable people to be godparents; they get very angry when we explain why this is not possible.

  • David Bonagura

    In the early centuries of Christianity, sponsors were required to attest to the moral integrity of the adult convert. Since infant baptism became the norm, sponsors-called godparents-take the baptismal promises on behalf of the child. In doing so, they promise to ensure the child is raised in the faith, both morally and spiritually. Therefore, godparents must be practicing Catholics in good standing. “Godparent” is not an honorary title; it is a duty of profound spiritual obligations.

  • Ashley Collins

    In Response to Peggy C.
    I am sorry to hear that you will not return to your home, the Church, because you feel that there are priests who do not see baptism as important. May I point out that the priest, even if he had wanted to, would not have been allowed to baptize your daughter because she was already baptized. You can only receive baptism once. I don’t know what he said, but this should have been said in stead of saying that it’s because you were not from the area. Please come home!

  • JoanJ

    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.” important!