Every now and then I get invited to the baptism of babies and I have sometimes wondered at the number of godparents—ranging from just a couple to as many as a dozen on one occasion! Another matter that had baffled me is the difficulty, at times, to get children baptized. I am referring especially to the poor people, who seem to postpone the baptism of children for lack of financial means both for the baptismal ceremony and the traditional reception attached to it.
What does Canon Law really say about this?
THE Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission” (n.1213). This Sacrament is so fundamental to the whole juridic order of the Church—like the acquiring of citizenship to the civil order—that one article would not suffice to discuss the canonical aspects of it. Thus, let me tackle this question in parts.
Nature and Sacramental Structure of Baptism
a. The Sacramental Sign
Like all sacraments of the New Law, Baptism is a sacramentum—i.e., a visible sign through which is expressed and is effected an invisible reality: the res sacramenti. Without going into what is properly sacramental theology, c.849 outlines the elements of the sacramental sign of Baptism, which is washing with true water together with the required form of words. What interests us is the canonical regulation of this sign.
1) The remote matter for validity is true water (c.849). This has always been understood to mean what can be perceived by the senses and ordinarily considered as water, and not another liquid. Thus, even if—chemically—dirty river water may have more impurities than—for example—an infusion of tea leaves, the former is considered water (albeit dirty) and constitutes valid remote matter for baptism, while the latter is not considered as water (it is tea) and is thus an invalid matter for baptism.
For licitud, outside a case of necessity, the water to be used in the conferral of baptism should be blessed in accord with the prescriptions of the liturgical books (c.853).
2) The proximate matter for validity is the act of washing. The visible sign is washing (ablution), which historically had been done by immersion, by pouring (infusion), or by sprinkling (aspersion). The very name of the sacrament comes from the Greek baptizein—“to submerge” or “to introduce into water”—which symbolizes the act of burying the person to be baptized in the death of Christ, from which he emerges with Christ’s Resurrection (cf. CCC, n.628).
For licitud, Baptism is to be conferred either by immersion or by pouring, the prescriptions of the conference of bishops being observed (c.854). Thus, the clear will of the universal legislator is to let particular law determine the specific way that is most adequate to the circumstances and usage of each region.
3) The form: For validity, the verbal form is what is prescribed in the liturgical books, the essential elements of which are the words pronounced by the minister during the ablution, with the intention of baptizing, and which should express: the minister (active subject), the person to be baptized (passive subject), the action of baptizing, the unity of the divine nature and the mystery of the Blessed Trinity. In the Latin Rite, the formula is: I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
For licitud, Baptism should be administered in accord with the order prescribed in the approved liturgical books, except for the case of urgent necessity when only what is required for the validity of the sacrament must be observed (c.850). It is noteworthy that, in contrast to civil law, the name of the person does not have much canonical significance. Nevertheless, the CIC establishes that parents, godparents and parish priests are to see that a name foreign to a Christian mentality is not given (c.855).
b. The reality caused by Baptism: the res sacramenti.
The theologico-canonical effects of Baptism, the reality caused by the sacramental sign, are summarized in c.849 as follows:
1) Liberation from sin. By Baptism, all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin personal sins (CCC, n.1263).
2) Divine filiation. Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte “a new creature,” an adopted son of God, who has become a “partaker of divine nature” (CCC, n.1265).
3) Baptismal character: The faithful are configured to Christ by an indelible character, since in this sacred rite, one’s association with the death and resurrection of Christ is represented and carried out (LG, n.7). By Baptism he shares in the priesthood of Christ, in his prophetic and royal mission; Baptism gives a share in the common priesthood of all believers (CCC, n.1268).
4) Incorporation to the Church: By Baptism one is incorporated into the Church of Christ and is constituted a person in it with duties and rights which are proper to Christians, in keeping with their condition, to the extent that they are in ecclesiastical communion and unless a legitimately issued sanction stand in the way (c.96). For this reason, Baptism is not only the first among the sacraments, but the door for all the rest. Baptism therefore constitutes the sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn (CCC, n.1271).
The Juridic Relevance of Baptism
The juridic dimension of Baptism stems from two principles, which can be gleaned from the Instruction on the Baptism of Children, issued by the SCDF in 1980, as follows.
1º Baptism is necessary for salvation. It is both a sign and an instrument of the love of God. It is a gift.
2º Baptism incorporates the human person to the Church. Measures must be established to guarantee his posterior development in it.
a. Juridic Consequences of the Necessity of Baptism for Salvation
The theological doctrine of the necessity of baptism for salvation—in fact or at least in intention—expressed in c.849, is the basis not only of the fundamental right of all men to its reception, but also the canonical foundation of many aspects of its regulation. Noteworthy are the following:
1) The general disposition for the baptism of adults: Every person not yet baptized and only such a person is able to be baptized (c.864). Can.865, §1 specifies the minimum requirements that adults:
a) have manifested the will to receive Baptism;
b) be sufficiently instructed in the truths of faith and in Christian obligations;
c) be tested in the Christian life by means of the catechumenate;
d) be exhorted to have sorrow for personal sins.
2) The general dispositions for the baptism of infants of Catholic parents: Parents are obliged to see to it that infants are baptized within the first weeks after birth; as soon as possible after the birth or even before it, parents are to go to the pastor to request the sacrament for their child and to be properly prepared for it (c.867, §1).
3) The disciplinar exceptions in case of urgency or danger of death: (cc.850; 853; 857; 860; 862; 865, §2; 867, §2). So taxative is this principle that it capacitates and legitimates any person with the right intention to confer baptism in case of necessity (c.861, §2).
a) Infant of Catholic parents: An infant in danger of death is to be baptized without any delay (c.867, §2).
b) Infant even of non-Catholic parents: The infant of Catholic parents, in fact of non-Catholic parents also, who is in danger of death is licitly baptized even against the will of the parents (c.868, §2).
c) Live fetuses: If aborted fetuses are alive, they are to be baptized if this is possble (c.871).
d) Adult in danger of death: An adult in danger of death may be baptized if, having some knowledge of the principal truths of faith, the person has in any way manifested an intention of receiving Baptism and promises to observe the commandments of the Christian religion (c.865, §2).
4) General guarantees for its valid reception:
a) Conditional reiteration in case of doubt. If there is a doubt whether one has been baptized or whether baptism was validly conferred, and the doubt remains after serious investigation, baptism is to be conferred conditionally (c.869, §1).
b) Baptism of foundlings. A foundling or abandoned child is to be baptized unless upon diligent investigation proof of baptism is established (c.870).
b. Juridic Dimension of the Incorporation to the Church
The capital canon of Title I: Baptism—like all the other opening canons of the titles corresponding to the other sacraments in the Code—immediately declares the juridic situation effected by the reception of the sacrament of Baptism: Baptism [is] the gate to the sacraments, by which men and women … are reborn as children of God [and] are incorporated in the Church (c.849). The incorporation to the Church—understood as People of God juridically constituted—that is carried out by Baptism has serious juridic consequences. Among these we can point out the following:
1) Canonical guarantees for its licit administration to infants. Since an infant is incorporated to the Church without his conscious consent, there must be sufficient guarantees that the gift he receives in Baptism will have a fair chance for growth and development. These guarantees operate on the adults who will play a part in the child’s growth and development—i.e., his parents, godparents or whoever takes their place.
a) The parents of an infant who is to be baptized and likewise those who are to undertake the office of godparent are to be properly instructed in the meaning of this sacrament and the obligations which are attached to it (c.851, §2).
b) For the licit baptism of an infant it is necessary that the parents or at least one of them or the person who lawfully takes their place, gives consent (c.868, §1, 1º) and there be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion; if such a hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be put off (2º).
2) By Baptism, a person is constituted as a Christian faithful, a subject in the ecclesial juridic order, who participates in the priestly, prophetic and royal function of Christ (cf. cc.96 & 204). This brings about the subject’s ecclesial personality—i.e., the members of the People of God are not just individuals comprising a people, but rather persons: personae in Ecclesia Christi. This in turn has several consequences:
a) Baptism is the origin and basis of the fundamental rights and duties of the faithful. On it is founded the radical equality of the faithful, their common dignity, their common call to holiness and their co-responsibility for the building up of the Body of Christ in accord with each one’s own condition and functions (cf. c.208). Just as the dignity of the human person gives rise to a series of fundamental human rights and duties, from the condition of baptized—call it Christian dignity—are derived the fundamental rights and duties of the faithful.
b) Baptism determines the passive subjects of merely ecclesiastical laws, which bind those baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it and who enjoy the sufficient use of reason and, unless the law expressly provides otherwise, have completed seven years of age (c.11).
c) Baptism capacitates a person for the other sacraments, and thus for Christian worship. Conversely, one who has not received Baptism cannot be validly admitted to the other sacraments (c.842, §1).
All men—properly disposed—have a right to receive Baptism. This is in stark contrast to the case of the other sacraments—to which only the baptized have a right—and is premised on the fact that the only Mediator and way to salvation is Christ, who is made present to all in His Body, the Church (LG, n.14); therefore, membership in the Church is necessary for salvation. Since one gains entry to the Church through Baptism, this sacrament is thus understood as the object of a right of all men duly disposed to receive it. While the Code does not expressly state the right of all men to receive Baptism, c.748, §1 clearly implies it: All persons are bound to seek the truth in matters concerning God and God’s Church; by divine law they also are obliged and have the right to embrace and to observe that truth which they have recognized.
Thus, its reception cannot be in any way hindered by financial incapacity or other such reasons.
 Cf. SCDF, Instruction Pastoralis actio (20.X.1980), in AAS, 72 (1980), 1137-1156.