I’m going through RCIA right now as a sponsor, and I just wanted to share a difficulty someone in the group had regarding the Catholic Church’s normative position on baby baptisms, as opposed to baptisms at a later time when children are at an age when they can cognitively choose or assent to being baptized.
We were discussing the Sunday mass readings for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord and using them as a segueway into the Sacrament of Baptism that some in the group would be receiving at Easter Vigil. After discussing the importance and richness of the Sacrament of Baptism, a sponsor of one of the catechumens remarked that she couldn’t help but be a little bit envious of those who received the Sacrament as an older child or adult, because then they could enjoy and remember the experience. This of course is what many other Christian traditions have when they reject infant baptism in favor of baptizing after a child “gets saved”.
There are several problems with this way of thinking about baptism. That pining after the baptismal practice of another Christian tradition is an implicit assumption that the other rite’s understanding of baptism is correct. As is usually the case with Bible *only* believers, there is a minimalist approach to the Sacraments, both in belief and in practice.
In this case, the minimalist understanding is that baptism is merely a visible sign that indicates one has chosen to be a disciple of Jesus. The RCIA sponsor was thinking about baptism along this idea of “knowing what you’re doing” or “making a personal decision”. Baptism is then understood as cognitively assenting to be a disciple of Jesus, or rather, as the outward sign that one has already done so.
But this is not a Sacramental view of Baptism. Baptism is not about making a personal decision for Jesus. Baptism is about the removal of original sin, the bestowal of real grace, becoming a son or daughter of the Father, and being initiated into Christ’s Church, and much more theological depth than this. When Baptism is understood in it fullness, it is clear that of course you’d want your children baptized in their infancy, and of course you should be glad that you were baptized as a child as opposed to later in life. Baptism is for the Church was circumcision was for the Jews; it is a covenantal sign that you’re in God’s covenant family.
That’s not to say that there is no place for personal choice and no ‘remembering’ of sorts; when a child gets older, they can continually make a choice for themselves to renew their baptismal promises, especially at Easter. This baptismal remembrance is one of the reasons behind why we cross ourselves with Holy Water as we enter a Catholic Church too. It is a calling to mind and renewal of our baptism, a conscious rejection of sin, and making a choice to live in the light and grace of this Sacrament.
No one says, “I wish I wasn’t brought into God’s covenant family so early” or “I wish I had remained in a state of original sin until I was old enough to enjoy the experience of no longer having it.” Just as these statements sound silly in light of what the Sacrament of Baptism is, so no Catholic should feel “cheated” with the Church’s position on infant baptism. Infant baptism is rather an advantage.