Shouldn’t parents let their children decide for themselves whether to be baptized when they’re older? Why does the Church baptize infants?
By their very nature, all human beings – infants included – are in need of God’s grace, which is made available through the Sacrament of Baptism for the removal of original sin and incorporation into the Church, both of which are necessary for man’s salvation.
In the New Testament, St. Paul writes that "in Adam all die" (1 Corinthians 15:22) and that we are all "enslaved to sin" (Romans 6:6). When Adam disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, he fell from grace and was cut off from God. This stain, which is called original sin, “is a deprivation of original holiness and justice” (CCC 405). All those with original sin are “by nature children of wrath” and are “under the power of the devil and of death” (Trent: Session 6, Ch. 1). While in a state of original sin, it is impossible to merit anything before God or to attain salvation. Anyone who dies with original sin goes to hell: “We define that… the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains” (Florence: Session 6; July 6th, 1439).
Adam’s sin “affected the human nature that [he and Eve] would then transmit in a fallen state” (CCC 404). As a result, original sin is inherited to every person by way of his parents. All human beings have original sin from the moment they are conceived; thus, infants are born with original sin.
Is there a way to be freed from original sin and be restored to right relationship with God? If left to our own devices, it is impossible; we are utterly helpless. It is for this reason that the Son of God entered the world: to gain heaven and avoid hell, a person must be washed of original sin through the grace opened up to us by Christ's redeeming work on the Cross.
But how do we access this grace? “Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back toward God” (CCC 407). In so doing, baptism also “incorporates us into the Church” (CCC 1267). As a result, “the Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude” (CCC 1257). Baptism, or the desire thereof, is necessary for salvation (Trent: Session 6, Ch. 4); for this reason, Scripture repeatedly reaffirms the necessity of baptism for salvation (John 3:5, 1 Peter 3:21, Acts 2:38, Mark 16:16, etc).
Due to original sin, even infants are in desperate need of God’s grace in order to obtain salvation, and thus are in need of baptism: “Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called. The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth” (CCC 1250).
The Church has always practiced infant baptism: “The practice of infant Baptism is an immemorial tradition of the Church. There is explicit testimony to this practice from the second century on, and it is quite possible that, from the beginning of the apostolic preaching, when whole ‘households’ received baptism, infants may also have been baptized” (CCC 1252).
What about children who die without baptism? The Catechism explains the Church’s teaching:
“As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism” (CCC 1261).
Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC)
Council of Florence (Florence)
Council of Trent (Trent), Session 6