Tuesday, 14 September 1999

Understanding sacraments week 2 - Baptism

In general, the ‘graced reality’ or ‘ecclesial effect’ of a sacrament is the new or changed (ie deepened) relationship between the recipient and the Church.

The sacrament of baptism has a number of effects: permanent membership of the Church, incorporation into Christ’s death and resurrection and thus a share in his priesthood and the mission of that priesthood, adoption into the life of the Trinity and thus reception of the Holy Spirit. As with all sacraments, baptism involves aspects of healing was well as elevation - traditionally this healing was understood as forgiveness of Original Sin’. Today, this is more commonly understood as part of a process of conversion – forgiveness of past sins and turning away from sin to live a new life in Christ.

Vatican II, in examining the sacrament of baptism, concluded that the principal ecclesial effect is the membership of the Church. The recipient is incorporated into the Body of Christ and becomes a graced reality of the Church.

Church teaching on the necessity for baptism is complicated. Early scriptural sources are insistent that ‘baptism’ is necessary for salvation, but are perhaps a little light on what exactly they mean by baptism. To people who believe in an all-powerful and loving God, it seems untenable that people of good will who die before having a particular ceremony performed by the church on earth should be denied salvation. This is particularly so when it seems ‘unfair’ that they did not have the opportunity for the ceremony or the knowledge of needing it. This conflict has been known from very early times – witness the ideas of baptism by blood and baptism by desire which were developed. But it is still difficult to get away from the blunt statements of the scriptures.

Current thinking suggests that baptism is necessary for the salvation of anyone who has accepted the Gospel and who knows of their need for baptism. This avoids the troublesome cases of infants who die before being baptised, and people who were never exposed to the Gospel. There are still issues around catechumens (and even non-catechumens) who die between receiving the desire for baptism and actual reception of the sacrament. These can be addressed in two ways. First there is the statement that while God has bound salvation to the sacraments, God is not bound by the sacraments – in short, anything is possible for God.

Another approach (not from the reading, but I’m sure I’m not the first to suggest it) comes from seeing baptism as a process of conversion. A person who desires baptism has started on the process. This process has a high-point, a named moment of significance if you like, when it is publicly acknowledged by the Church and the person is visibly and publicly incorporated into the Body of Christ. But the actual moment of ultimate salvation comes when God and the recipient are ready – when the recipient has experienced ‘enough’ of the process so to speak.

Baptism can be both an aid and an obstacle to ecumenism. Recognition of baptism performed by other Christian churches, involving the use of both water and a Trinitarian formulae, makes it clear that the Catholic Church accepts that it has belief in the risen Christ in common with other ecclesial bodies. In a sense, it is accepting that their faith is as valid, if not as complete, as the faith which it teaches.

But baptism does not happen to the individual in the context of Christianity in general. Each person who is baptised is received into a specific, local church community. My baptism in a Roman Catholic church in small corner of Wellington guarantees my acceptance, on a certain level, in any Roman Catholic parish in the world (provided I can avoid ex-communication!). It establishes a relationship between me and all these other local communities, even though we have never met. And this relationship at lease seems materially different to the relationship which the world’s Catholic parishes have with someone baptised with all propriety into a Presbyterian congregation.

Unlike other sacraments, baptism is relatively clearly understood by the Church, and its theology is well developed. The practice of infant baptism appears to be justified by the primary ecclesial effect of the sacrament being Church membership. Church membership is a valuable thing, and there appears to be no reason for denying children of it.

The traditional answer to questions about how an infant can have the faith which baptism pre-supposes is that the faith of the community, concretely expressed by the parents and god-parents, in some way guarantees the faith of the child. This appears a little unsatisfactory – it is not difficult to name the baptised children of devout Catholic parents and god-parents who are become confirmed atheists, and remain so for the rest of their lives. But again, viewing baptism as a process of conversion may help. Catholicism rigorously defends the rights of unborn children, seeing them as persons in their own right from the moment of conversion. But we do not baptise unborn children. Our experience (lived out in two thousand years of tradition) suggests that they have not yet experienced enough of the process to be ready for baptism. In terms of theoretical sacramental theology, before birth they are not able to experience the presence and action of Christ expressed in the sacrament. But at some time after birth (determined by their parents/caregivers and the local community) they are judged to be ready and able to experience this. We cannot necessarily say how Christ will be communicated to them, but we can believe that it will occur. The communication will, however, occur at a level which they can understand. In this framework, infant baptism appears to make more sense.

A theology assignment from 1999

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