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Child vs. Adult Baptism


Jeffrey Bruno

Julio de la Vega Hazas - published on 07/14/14

Does baptizing at a young age take away choice regarding religious practice?

Why is it better to baptize your children young? Wouldn’t it be better to let them "choose" when they grow up?

The question is important, because it is an objection that is fairly widespread. The answer addresses two aspects of the question: one anthropological, i.e., about who and what the human person is; the other is specifically Catholic.

Regarding the first, today it is common to find a strongly individualistic view of man, whose ideal is the autonomous man who does and decides everything by himself. This has consequences for education, as it seeks not just to avoid instilling a moral sense, but even bypasses the very meaning of things. Constructivism, as this trend in education is called, attempts to limit itself to providing information so that the child gives a true meaning to what he or she sees and then selects his or her own convictions, including ethical ones. Each person would thus form their own value system.

It may seem an attractive theory, but in reality it is unsustainable. Humans need to learn, not just "crude" information, but the meaning behind things.

They need to learn how to behave. They need to learn not only in a theoretical way, but they need to learn how to live. In other words, they need to be educated. By nature itself, those who are first and foremost responsible for that education are their parents. And no parent would think of ceasing to insist that their child say “thank you” when they are given something with the argument that gratitude is an ethical value that they must choose for themselves when they are older.

We do not wait for them to get older to instill those virtues, simply because they cannot wait. Regarding the previous example, if we do wait, what we will discover is that when the child comes of age, they will have become an ungrateful person who is difficult to change. I give this example on purpose, because often that’s the experience of parents who, for whatever reason, have neglected to educate their children; their children do not show the slightest gratitude to the parents for giving them life or for the effort and sacrifices they have made for them.

In this respect, there is no possible neutrality, no middle ground in what we learn. Either Hitler was someone to be rejected, or his ideas are just one option among many. We do not wait for children to be older to make their own value judgments. Otherwise, we run the risk of one day finding a display of Nazi paraphernalia in their room.

The Catholic faith has something important to contribute to these considerations. The truth is that we all find that doing good requires effort, while doing evil requires nothing more than just letting ourselves go. The Latin classical author Ovid said with some astonishment that "I see and approve what is best… but I end up following the worst."

Man is neither angel nor devil, that is clear. But, in his humanity, he has a certain deterioration which, without preventing him from doing good,  often inclines him towards evil. This is easy to see, but not to explain. The explanation given by faith is called original sin. It is not a sin in the usual sense of the word, but is the inherited negative consequence of rejecting God at the beginning of man’s existence (subsequently, in modern terms, the sin was in wanting total autonomy from God).

The first reason to baptize a child is that baptism removes original sin. It is true that it does not get rid of all its consequences, since the tendency towards evil persists, but it reduces it and, by opening the door to divine grace, makes it possible to gain some effective means to overcome it.

When people talk about delaying baptism until an older age when the child chooses it, they are implicitly including the refusal to educate their child in the Faith, which is something that parents are required to do as a prerequisite. And it has been argued that neutrality in this case is utopian. If parents renounce the obligation of passing on their beliefs, they will end up discovering that others who are less scrupulous have done so in their places. Nobody is in a neutral position, free of influences, and children need human models to follow.

If they do not find those models at home, they will look for them elsewhere. With that attitude, what parents ultimately have done is to leave their child vulnerable to any ideology or religious group, some of which are hardly recommendable. 

The positive side of this argument is that choosing to baptize a child or not usually shows the degree of the parents’ faith. Any normal father or mother will seek the best for their children and, if it is within reach, they give it. Baptism makes its recipient a child of God, and gives him or her the grace that leads to heaven, unless there is a willful rejection on their part.

For someone with a genuine faith, there is nothing better that we could give our child. When this is not done, the parents would have to see if their faith is really a conviction of receiving the truth or just an opinion with little impact on their lives. They should also see if they are clear about the meaning of Baptism, which is something that goes far beyond an initiation ceremony in the Church.

Almost everything discussed here can find summarized in No. 1250 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is expressed in these terms: “Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also need the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of freedom of the children of God, to which men are called. The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. Therefore, the Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God if they do not confer Baptism shortly after birth.”

But, could it be objected that we must we embrace the faith freely?

Yes, of course, but a simple look at the reality shows that baptism does not prevent it. One remains free to accept or reject the Faith. Quite the opposite happens: the Catechism mentions “the freedom of the children of God,” which for this purpose means that Baptism gives a supernatural help so that this choice is less influenced by the consequences of original sin, i.e. that tendency to get carried away by what is not good, something we all bear when we come into the world.

Orginal article from Aleteia Spanish.

Fr. Julio de la Vega Hazas, from Natural de Vitoria, has been a priest since 1983. He is a professor of moral theology at the Studium Generale de la Prelatura of the Opus Dei, and member of the Red Iberoamerican Study of Sects. He has published various books and articles on these themes.

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