Recent debates over baptism for children of same-gender parents received into the Church, may mean baptism is an upcoming point of conflict with newborn children right in the middle.
David Gibson of Religion News Service takes up this question, explaining what had been the status quo until recently:
“The default position for most bishops — reiterated in a major Vatican document released on Thursday (June 26) — is that if the parents pledge to raise the child Catholic, then no girl or boy should be refused baptism.
“They generally let parish priests make the final call and let them administer the sacrament, though it is usually done in a private ceremony with the biological parent — not the adoptive mother or father — listed on the baptismal certificate.”
The Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin recently changed procedures on how it handles same-gender couples who wish to have a child baptized. This announcement comes shortly after a judge’s ruling legalized marriage equality in that state, a judicial decision which Madison’s Bishop Robert Morlino vociferously criticized. The Wisconsin State Journal’s report said the two decisions appear unconnected, and the diocese’s decision was developed before marriage equality became law.
Authority for requests from same-gender couples shifted from the parish priest, who could use pastoral sensitivity when addressing a sometimes challenging situation, to the diocese’s office of the vicar general. Monsignor James Bartylla is the current vicar general, and author of the memo announcing the procedural change. He wrote, in part, that 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…please seek consultation and coordination with the office of the vicar general, since each case must be evaluated individually.’ “
Gibson’s report highlights the problems that could emerge from Madison’s policy targeting same-gender couples, especially if it is adopted by other bishops across the country:
” ‘While this process might protect couples from the negative whims of a local pastor, Bishop Morlino has such a strong record against supporting lesbian and gay people that I worry he might be more restrictive about baptizing their children than most local priests would be,’ said Francis DeBernardo, head of New Ways Ministry, a leading advocacy group for gay Catholics.
“If that happens, he said, it ‘has the potential to blow up into a pastoral disaster.’ …
“DeBernardo said the problem with a policy that focuses specifically on gay parents is that it ‘stigmatizes lesbian and gay couples as being more suspect than any other parents.’
” ‘It is very likely that no parents that present a child for baptism are perfectly following all church rules,’ he said. ‘Why single out only lesbian and gay parents for further scrutiny?’ “
Commenting on the baptism question, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese said:
” ‘In general, the Catholic church does not punish the child for the sins of the parents…As archbishop of Buenos Aires, (Pope) Francis got angry at priests who would not baptize children born out of wedlock. I would presume the same principle applies here.’ “
Indeed, at least two bishops are following Pope Francis’ lead. In April, an Argentine bishop welcomed the baptism of the child of a lesbian couple, Karina Villarroel and Soledad Ortiz. There are now reports that Bishop Raul Vera Lopez, of Saltillo, Mexico baptized the child of a lesbian couple, Lourdes Badillo and Cristal Cobas. Bishop Vera Lopez has previously made headlines for his support of lesbian and gay people, even calling homophobia a mental illness at one point. Banderas News reports further:
“The bishop met two weeks ago with Pope Francis in Rome, and according to the Mexican newspaper Excelsior, the prelate discussed his views of ‘caring for vulnerable groups, such as the lesbian-gay community’ with the pope.
” ‘I have been open and given clarity to homosexual couples or whatever…But some groups within the Church say I promote promiscuity, those are conservative groups that harm pastoral care. Who am I to judge? The Pope has the same attitude as Christ did’ …
” ‘If I find the natural daughter of one of two women, how can I deny her baptism? If the parents seek it, it’s because there is a Christian faith,’ he explained to the media.”
These more inclusive practices around baptism, and more broadly, the pastoral welcome that LGBT people and their partners received, stand in stark contrast to those who would make marriage more difficult for these families. Perhaps Bishop Morlino would do well to read a reflection by Benedict Luckhurst published by Quest, a UK LGBT advocacy group. Luckhurts urges the Church to live by love, not the law. Of Mark 7:1-4 which describes Jesus observing Jewish purity laws, he writes:
“The ritual hand, dish and pot washing practised by the Pharisees – there is no evidence to show that this was a widespread practice among Jews – likely sprang from a fear that they could have come into contact with ritually unclean things in the course of daily use.
“This obsession with purity gave rise to a sharp rebuke from Jesus. Labelling the righteous Pharisees as hypocrites he quotes to them from Isaiah, ‘This people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. Their reverence of me is worthless, the lessons they teach are nothing but human commandments’ (29:13)…
“A little over a year has passed since the Papal Conclave of 2013 that elected Pope Francis I. I am reminded of words he spoke in his interview for Jesuit journals throughout the world: ‘The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you . . .How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbour. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organisational reforms are secondary – that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.’ “
As LGBT rights and acceptance become the rule rather than exceptions in society, clergy and pastoral ministers are faced with a choice: to welcome all in love and celebrate baptisms openly or to adhere so strictly to the law which could cause pastoral damage. The Church must stop baptisms from becoming a battleground over LGBT rights before it even starts. Let’s pray (and urge) our Church’s leaders to be people who are not afraid to be ‘unclean’ when it means following love above all.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry