Bishops and priests are being increasingly challenged to balance pastoral sensitivities with the concern of creating public scandal as same-sex parents across the country are more often seeking to have children baptized in the Church.
The growing phenomenon will be a topic of discussion at the upcoming extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family. The situation has already prompted reflection among several bishops and pastors. The Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, has implemented a new policy requiring priests to consult the diocesan vicar general when they are approached by a same-sex couple seeking baptism for a child.
“As you know, there are a plethora of difficulties, challenges and considerations associated with these unnatural unions (including scandal) linked with the baptism of a child, and such considerations touch upon theology, canon law, pastoral approach, liturgical adaptation, and sacramental recording,” Msgr. James Bartylla, the Madison diocesan vicar general, wrote to priests in an internal e-mail first reported by the Wisconsin State Journal.
In one way, same-sex couples presenting children for baptism continues a decades-long trend of the Catholic Church in the United States having to baptize an increasing number of infants who are born out of wedlock. The general approach of bishops and priests has been to been to baptize the children as long as their parents did not publicly say that they disagreed with Church teaching on sexual intimacy having its proper place in the marriage of one man and one woman.
“While people may have fallen in weakness, the presumption was that they at least accepted the norm and were going to try to live by it,” Msgr. Charles Pope wrote June 29 on his blog on the Archdiocese of Washington’s website.
Pope Francis—and Pope Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI during his pontificate—have both defended the practice of baptizing children to parents whose lives do not conform to Church teachings, on the basis that children are not to blame for their parents’ situation, and that baptism can have an evangelizing effect.
However, the situation of same-sex parents wanting to baptize children presents a new set of issues. A pastor has to consider whether the couple sincerely intends to rear the child in the Catholic faith, or if the parents instead are seeking a form of legitimacy to their union.
“Sometimes, they really have no intention of raising the children in the practice of the faith. They just want to get their baby baptized, so you have to confront that,” said Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts who said he has been approached on three occasions by same-sex couples seeking baptism.
Father Landry told Aleteia that he delayed baptizing one couple’s children when it became clear that the parents did not intend to rear the child in the faith, but were instead seeking baptism as a symbol of Church acceptance of their lifestyle, as well as to please their respective Catholic families. With the other couples, Father Landry said the parents agreed to carry out their obligations after he explained to them the baptismal rite and their responsibilities to teach their children the Catholic faith.
“I hope to create a conversation so that down the road they’re able to start applying a fuller understanding of Church teachings to the decisions they have made,” Father Landry said, adding that the longterm hope is a conversion of life that rarely happens after a single one-hour discussion.
The Code of Canon Law teaches that for an infant to be baptized in the Church, “there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion” (Canon 868). The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in the 2006 document “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care,” said the Church does not refuse baptism to children of same-sex parents, as long as they will be reared in the faith.
“In those cases where Baptism is permitted, pastoral ministers should exercise prudential judgement when preparing baptismal ceremonies,” the bishops wrote, adding that baptizing children of same-sex households presents “a serious pastoral concern.”
“The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization,” the working document for the Synod on the Family, which will be held this October, indicates that many respondents to a set of questions distributed throughout the Church last year said it would be “helpful to receive more concrete pastoral directives in these situations.”
When same-sex couples present children for baptism, the document said “almost all the responses emphasize that the child must be received with the same care, tenderness and concern which is given to other children.”
“When people in irregular situations of any kind request baptism for the children in their care, priests and other ministers of the Church should regard it as a precious opportunity with respect to both the children and those presenting them,” Jesuit Father Peter F. Ryan, executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Doctrine.
“On such occasions, the Church’s ministers should beg Jesus for the grace they need to communicate his love and the truth of his life-giving teaching sincerely and effectively. Ministers must also exercise discretion to ensure that the conditions for licit baptisms are fulfilled and scandal is avoided,” Father Ryan told Aleteia.
In trying to balance a child’s right to baptism with the concern of causing scandal, the Church is finding itself “between a rock and a hard place,” said John Grabowski, a professor of moral theology and ethics at the Catholic University of America.
“The Church, in conferring baptism on children of unmarried couples, particularly same-sex couples, that could be construed by people inside and outside the Church as giving tacit approval of these relationships, and saying that they are just as good as any kind of marriage,” Grabowski told Aleteia.
“The bishops are trying to do the best they can pastorally with an important and sensitive situation, where you have these both sets of interests at tension with each other,” Grabowski said.
Archbishop Carlos Nanez of Cordoba, Argentina, told Catholic New Agency in April that a recent baptism of a baby girl being reared by her biological mother and her same-sex partner did not endorse their lifestyle. The archbishop told CNA that the case “is like that of any other person who asks for baptism,” and that baptism is the girl’s “right.” In Mexico, Bishop Raul Vera Lopez of Saltillo, in May, baptized a child being raised by a lesbian couple. The archbishop reportedly told local media that if the parents seek baptism, “it’s because there is a Christian faith.”
Father Landry, of the Diocese of Fall River, said one of the lesbian couples who approached him followed through on their promises to raise the child in the Catholic faith. The couple brought the child to Mass on Sundays and did not receive Holy Communion.
“But they were there every week,” Father Landry said. “They were clear about the commitment they made at the baptism. I give them a lot of credit for that.”
Father Landry added that there can be different pastoral assessments of what it means to have a “founded hope” that the parents—and godparents—will carry out the commitments they make on behalf of the child at baptism.
“We absolutely want to be able to baptize babies because of the consequences for salvation that Jesus is very clear about in the Gospels,” Father Landry said. “Myself and most pastors interpret the requirement of a well founded hope leniently when the parents state their intentions to raise their child in accord with the Catholic faith through teaching them and going to Mass. They may not follow through on that, but as long as they make the verbal commitment, that’s enough because we want to see that child baptized.
“It’s not the child’s fault for the circumstances they’re in,” Father Landry added.
Brian Fraga is a daily newspaper reporter who writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.