“Should priests be firmer with non-practising Catholics?”

That is the title of this article in the Catholic Herald.

Archbishop Dairmuid Martin is claimed to have said, with regard to non-practicing Catholics who present their children for baptism:

“It requires maturity on those people who want their children to become members of the Church community and maturity on those people who say ‘I don’t believe in God. I really shouldn’t be hanging on to the vestiges of faith when I don’t really believe in it.’”

According to the article, opinion falls into two camps on the matter of whether priests should acquiesce to requests from non-practicing Catholics for baptism of their children:

Generally the responses were evenly divided between those who agreed (cautiously) with Archbishop Martin and who felt that if it were known that the family did not intend to raise their child as a Catholic, baptism should be delayed until their attitude had changed; and those who felt this attitude lacked compassion: lost or wavering sheep should be welcomed and supported, not shunned.

My position is a “third way”: the way of the New Evangelisation. When non-practicing Catholics come to have their children baptised, this is a first class opportunity for evangelisation which should not be squandered by either turning them away or by simply granting their request without any additional action or requirement. Good evangelical Catholic pastoral practice should be to require all parents (practicing or not) to undergo some short period of catechesis in the faith and in the particular meaning of baptism.

I certainly did this when I was a Lutheran pastor, and it was a primary means by which I built up the worshipping community. It is important that the both the priest and the people are involved in this process. Like RCIA, it not only provides an opportunity for catechesis and proclamation of the Gospel, but it also provides a way for establishing relationships between the family and the worshipping community. In fact, it seems to me that this is precisely what is called for by the New Evangelisation: a new kind of Rite for the Initiation of Children which involves the RE-initiation of the family.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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21 Responses to “Should priests be firmer with non-practising Catholics?”

  1. matthias says:

    When i was an Elder in the Uniting Church i use to get peeved because we had one particular minister who would baptise children from non church attending families at the drop of a hat.
    I remember visiting one young family prior to the baby’s baptism and the wife told me she wanted the chiuld to attend Sunday School. The Baptism took place on the first sunday of the month-Communion Sunday-and the husband smirked all the way through the service after the baptism. I visited that family a couple of times before my term as Elder had finished and I never saw them at Church or the child in Sunday School. Probably the last vestige from a past era of Baptism -in Proddy circles anyway- being more for social than spiritual gain.
    I began to ask the minister every time a baptism was being discussed at Elders Council ,if they were committed to sending the child to Sunday school

  2. Dear Erstwhile Brother David,

    I’m sure that, upon reflection, you would rather have written ‘it was a primary means by which God built up the worshipping community’.

    It’s not about us, after all; we are merely ministers or servants of the Word which creates new life.

    Aside from that point, I agree with your position, mutatis mutandis, of course!

  3. Alex Caughey says:

    Jesus of Nazareth was not baptised until he was thirty years of age and deliberately sought out an itinerant, and highly eccentric desert dweller (hermit) to perform the ritual without recourse to instruction in the Jewish religion knowing that he depended upon The Father for guidance in all matters.

    In the case of infant baptism it is expected that the child’s parents should take responsibility for the child’s education in all matters, including raising the child to love, and respect all human life by following the way of The Saviour. The baptismal ritual includes this invitation directed at the child’s parents through the profession of faith in God.:http://www.saintanthonynewbedford.com/pdfs/RiteOfBaptism.pdf

    Sooner or later the call of The Saviour comes to all and it is our free choice to accept or reject Our Father’s invitation to follow him.

    That a parent approaches a priest and requests baptism of their child is prima facie evidence that their concern is for the well being of their infant than merely to address a perceived obligatory rite of passage peculiar to their tribal community’s traditions.

    I am very wary of intimidating, coercing or demanding that a child’s parents take religious instruction – or else, no baptism of their child. Nevertheless I believe that the child’s parents should be invited to spend an hour with their priest prior to the baptism that he may acquaint them with their baptismal vows, and responsibilities as they relate to their profession of faith.

    But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. ~John 14:26

    • Schütz says:

      “Nevertheless I believe that the child’s parents should be invited to spend an hour with their priest prior to the baptism that he may acquaint them with their baptismal vows, and responsibilities as they relate to their profession of faith.”

      On the right track, Father, but I think “an hour” is hardly sufficient time to even for you to get to know the family, let alone for them to get to know Christ.

  4. Fred says:

    Right on! Do not presuppose the faith but propose it.

  5. Christine says:

    Jesus of Nazareth was not baptised until he was thirty years of age and deliberately sought out an itinerant, and highly eccentric desert dweller (hermit) to perform the ritual without recourse to instruction in the Jewish religion knowing that he depended upon The Father for guidance in all matters.

    That is true, but Jesus was not baptized with the baptism of repentance that John performed, since Jesus is the sinless Son of God. An infant/child that is baptized is presented for the “washing of regeneration”, as Scripture calls it. As part of his public ministry Jesus was baptized in order to identify with the sinful humanity he came to save. Parents who bring a child for baptism while never intending to darken the door of the parish church are treating this beautiful Sacrament as something on the level of a cultural tradition. Baptism should not be seen as a “stand-alone” event but the beginning of a lifelong spiritual commitment to Christ and his Church.

  6. Alex Caughey says:

    Christine, we were not present at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, and thus are unable to be so specific in our understandings of that event. That Christian scripture scholars, and theologians have provided us with their speculations over many centuries might well speak more to speculation than to Jesus’ intentions when approaching John for baptism.

    We should recall that John, and Jesus were Jews whose traditions did not acknowledge the so called effects of generic original sin rather for Jews baptism’s (immersion into flowing water) purpose is the washing away of a perceived polluted life, and restoration of the repentant person to his original state of purity.

    It is believed that John the baptiser may well have been a member of The Essene community which also used baptism as a means of purification. The Essenes were known as regular practicioners of daily immersion. In The Talmud these daily Mikveh practitioners are called “dawn bathers.” Not only The Essenes but several other Jewish communities observed ritual immersion every day to assure readiness for the coming of the Messiah.

    Baptism and similar rituals involving sprinkling or immersion in water can be found in Judaism, Hinduism, Hellenic and Roman paganism, Germanic and Celtic paganism all of which predate Christianity.

    Jesus, and John also understood the symbolic nature of their action for Jews when Jesus was immersed in the River Jordan, when understanding that Jesus (Yeshua – one who saves, rescues or delivers) is also poignantly associated with Joshua leading the Hebrew people across the Jordan river into the promised land.

    The baptism of Jesus is also known by Eastern Christians as The Theophany when Jesus is revealed by The Father’s voice, as his well beloved son thus proclaiming his divine status among man. The appearance of the dove flying over the head of Jesus symbolises the presence of the Holy Spirit leading Jesus to reveal The Father’s plan for all human life through The Son.

    Our Father never coerces or, intimidates us to follow him. It is absolutely essential that the adult human person must be left free to make our own choices in all matters, and take responsibility for those decisions.

    In the parable of The Prodigal Son the father grants his son all that he is entitled too, in response to the son’s request for his share of his dad’s estates and leaves him free to live his life, while dad patiently waits for his child’s return to his loving embrace, when he celebrates with joy that of his own free will (arising from his hunger, homelessness and many other painful lessons) the son returns to his father’s loving care and protection.

    I will never speculate on the intentions of parents who wish to baptise their child, understanding that our life’s story presents us with life transforming opportunities which are not foreseen, until they are offered to us by Our Father inviting us to walk with him.

    • Schütz says:

      Very erudite, Father, but Christine’s objection to your original comment stands: the baptism of Jesus was not the Christian sacrament of baptism. Its circumstances therefore have no bearing upon this discussion.

    • ‘Our Father never coerces or, intimidates us to follow him. It is absolutely essential that the adult human person must be left free to make our own choices in all matters, and take responsibility for those decisions.’

      I agree, Father, that the Father does not coerce or intimidate, but can we really say people are left free to make their own choices in spiritual matters?

      ‘No-one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him…’ John 6:44.

      Cf also the Canons of the Council of Orange (II, 529AD) and the writings on the subject of luminaries such as Jerome, Augustine, Prosper, Hilary, Fulgentius et al.

  7. Alex Caughey says:


    Our church authorities inform us that Jesus instituted the seven sacraments including baptism. If Christian baptism did not begin with the baptism of Jesus, when did it begin, and who instituted this sacrament?

    “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” ~ Mark 1:4

    • Stephen K says:

      Alex, my ever-accessible “Protestant Dictionary” (Hodder & Stoughton 1904) says that Christian baptism was instituted by the words attributed to Jesus in Matthew 28:19. I was surprised by this, having thought, like you, that the Jordan river baptism was the foundation and foreshadow of ours. That said, Matthew 28:19 provides the Trinitarian reference but only Jordan provides the water.

      However, on the larger question, though I believe an inclusive pastoral approach in general is more in keeping with the Gospel ethos than an exclusive one, on the question of baptism I have in recent years inclined to the view that infant baptism is highly problematic. Eberhard Arnold, the founder of the Bruderhof, broke from the Lutheran church over this question, taking the position that infant baptism was not validated by the Scriptures and that it did not reflect what both Jesus and Paul had, in his view, in mind – namely, the baptism of believers. Yes, in the principal churches, the faith he thought was required for meaningful baptism is supposedly supplied by the sponsors/godparents, but he would have thought, and I am inclined to agree with him, that faith must be personal and not vicarious, free and competent, hence adult.

      It’s not something I insist upon, simply a position that makes sense to me. Hence, rather than viewing the controversy as a dilemma of harshness or laxity, I would tend to support the idea that baptism in these circumstances would be discouraged, not for reasons that the sacrament would be practically futile or to express disapproval of the parents, but rather in order to explain why it was in the child’s best interests for him or her to freely and competently choose faith later in life. A nuance, I know, but which in my view would strike a better note, both pastorally and theologically. Of course, if the parents insisted or pressed the matter, I would take that as a sign that there was some genuine responsiveness at some level and that the matter was in the hands of the Spirit, as you have suggested.

      • Tony says:

        So does that mean those who took up with Jesus before his death (and were not present at Pentecost) had to be (re-)baptised?

        There seem to be a few references to Jesus baptising, or at least being involved in baptising, during his ministry (eg, John 3:22) and in John 3:5 he says ‘… no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit‘.

        On the broader question, I think all of us in general and priests in particular, can be inspired by the example of father of the prodigal son, that is, a committment to embracing the ‘outsider’ that is radically counter-cultural.

        Dare I say it, the church is not a football club.

    • Schütz says:

      Stephen’s protestant sources have it right: the institution of the sacrament of Baptism is in Matthew 28, and its first performance was on the day of Pentecost. It is connected to the Paschal Event, which is its source. Of course, the baptism of Jesus by John pointed to the Paschal Event. See the Catechism paragraph 1217 and following.

  8. Gareth says:

    This is a delicate issue.

    We are all probably affected by it.

    Last year my own sister and her unmarried ‘patner’ were considering baptising their newborn without any intentions of practising the faith whatsoever.

    After a long thought (and probably thinking that they will not intend to send the child to a Catholic school once they have reached school-age), they decided against it.

    I know it sounds sad – but it was probably for the best.

    Ultimately it is also the attitude of the average parish priest and parishoner that needs to improve as well – so many times we think/accept that it is ok for our friends to miss Mass.

    Maybe we should re-think.

  9. Joshua says:

    The opposite dilemma has been faced by Catholic (and I suspect other Christian) grandparents: what to do when their own children, who were baptized but have lapsed, decide not to get their offspring (the grandparents’ grandchildren) baptized “just yet” / “until they are old enough to make up their own minds” / etc.

    Such grandparents, themselves brought up in a time when they were well taught of the necessity of baptism, find the fact that their grandchildren are unbaptized a sore trial – they fear, in the words of the Banjo Paterson poem, that “St Peter will not recognize him” (strange, isn’t it, in passing, how the idea of St Peter as the gatekeeper of heaven has passed into popular culture?), that these dear little children will have no part in the kingdom of heaven, being unbaptized non-Christians.

    I have actually had such grandparents ask me if it would be alright in the circumstances for them to surreptitiously baptise their grandchildren, the temptation to do so having arisen when they were minding them and giving them a bath! I had to say that of course such a decision was for the parents to make…

  10. Alex Caughey says:

    Pentecost records the baptism of The Spirit which our sacrament of Confirmation celebrates per The Acts 1:8 But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.

    Matthew 28 records the Great Commission:

    16 “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

    Jesus definitely made certain that his actions would be remembered, and acted upon when choosing John to baptise him in the River Jordan from where I would deduce the Christian sacrament of baptism has its roots and, likewise our sacrament of The Eucharist has its origin at the Last Supper.

    Let us not ignore the very clear choice of Jesus to demonstrate the importance of those actions that his apostles, and future generations of his followers would come to understand.

  11. Christine says:

    It is absolutely essential that the adult human person must be left free to make our own choices in all matters, and take responsibility for those decisions.

    From the CCC:

    When God touches man’s heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God’s grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward justice in God’s sight.

    Nor do I agree with all the tenets of higher criticism. I think Jesus knew quite early on that his mission was to go beyond the confines of Israel to the “other sheep”, the gentiles who would respond to his call and to interpret all the New Testament events before the Resurrection through purely Jewish paradigms misses the boat.

    I agree, Father, that the Father does not coerce or intimidate, but can we really say people are left free to make their own choices in spiritual matters?

    ‘No-one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him…’ John 6:44.


    It is also not surprising that those Christian communities that rejected infant baptism also came to reject the sacramental nature of the Eucharist. It is interesting that the Orthodox have never thought “personal faith” necessary for Holy Communion in the context that infants are also communed.

  12. Peregrinus says:

    I’m coming late to this discussion. But a few thoughts:

    1. I confess that this is a real dilemma. I can see powerful considerations pointing in both directions.

    2. Baptism is a sacrament, which means that (a) it means something, and (b) it does something. And what it means, and what it does, is extremely important. I was going to say “life-changing” but, actually, that’s not strong enough. Baptism is more than life-changing.

    3. Precisely because it is so significant, baptism is not something to be undertaken lightly. People should not make, or be encouraged to make, signs and statements and commitments that they don’t mean or intend.

    4. On the other hand, we have a mandate to baptise the whole world. Furthermore, we believe the whole world is called to baptism. And if people respond to that call and seek baptism, it’s very hard to turn them away. Yes, their reasons for seeking baptism may seem imperfect; we might wish they had better and stronger reasons. But if their reason boils down to some kind of desire to participate in the community which is the church that is, basically, a good reason.

    5. David’s response, to treat seeking baptism as an opportunity for engagement and catechesis, is a good one. But it leaves the question, what if the offer of engagement and catechesis is not accepted, or you get the sense that it’s being accepted as a matter of form, or politeness? Do you turn people away because their response is not enthusiastic enough?

    6. Should we not have faith in the Holy Spirit? In the end, it is not us who draw people to God; we merely co-operate in the work of the Spirit. Even if the prospects of a real and full engagement with the gospel seem at present uncertain, is it right to cut people off? Baptism ultimately is not a marketing opportunity for the faith, or even a catechetical opportunity; it’s a channel of divine grace.

    7. I note that the Archbishop is not reported as suggesting, or instructing, that his priests should reject applicants for baptism if they don’t “measure up”. Rather, he is suggesting to the applicants that they should think seriously about why they are seeking baptism for their children. I think there’s two messages in there, First, integrity, sincerity and honesty matter. If you don’t have, and aren’t drawn to, Christian faith or Christian life then not seeking baptism for your children is likely to be the more virtuous course. Secondly, baptism is important; it matters; it means something; it demands to be thought about.

  13. Antonia Romanesca says:

    Speaking of practice – one of our sons is going steady with a Melbourne teacher who teaches in a Catholic College and I was alarmed to learn that 10% or fewer of the staff, actually practice. I used to wonder why Catholic teachers absolutely never showed up at our bishop’s teaching days and evenings, in our Cathedral town, pop approx 100,000 – presumably because the overwhelming majority of them have either lost their Catholic faith or have no interest in practising it, if they still retain it…. its shocking and can it get any better, one has to wonder?

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