Infant Baptism and the Complete Gratuity of Salvation

It is a simple historical fact that the Church has always baptised infants. Even our earliest documents speak of the practice. For example the Apostolic Tradition written about 215 A.D. has this to say:

The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family. (Apostolic Tradition # 21)

Scripture too confirms that infants should be baptized if you do the math. For example

People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (Luke 18:15-17 NIV)

So the Kingdom of God belongs to the  little Children (in Greek brephe indicating little Children still held in the arms, babes). And yet elsewhere Jesus also reminds that it is necessary to be baptized in order to enter the Kingdom of God:

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. (John 3:5 NIV)

If the Kingdom of God belongs to little children and we are taught that we cannot inherit it without baptism then it follows that Baptizing infants is necessary and that to fail to do so is a hindering of the little children which Jesus forbade his apostles to do.

So both Tradition and Scripture affirm the practice of baptizing infants. Strange then that some among the Protestants should criticize us for this practice. Even stranger that the Baptists are usually be the ones to do so. You’d think with a name like “Baptist” they’d be more into baptism. (Truth be told, most of the other Protestant denominations do baptize infants). It is primarily Baptists and some Evangelicals who refuse the practice. They seem to water down (pardon the pun!) the fuller meaning of baptism no longer seeing it as washing away sins and conferring righteousness per se but more as a symbol of faith already received when they said the sinners prayer and accepted Christ as their savior. But what a tragic loss for them for baptism and particularly the baptism of infants says some very wonderful things about the gratuity of salvation and the goodness of God. Consider these points:

  1. The baptism of infants is a powerful testimony to the absolute gratuity (gift) of salvation. Infants have achieved nothing, have not worked, have not done anything to “merit” salvation. The Catechism puts it this way: The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant baptism. (CCC # 1250) The Church is clear, salvation cannot be earned or merited and infant baptism teaches that most clearly. Salvation is pure gift. How strange and ironic that some of the very denominations which claim that Catholics teach salvation by works (we do not) also refuse to baptize infants. They claim that a certain age of maturity is required so that the person understands what they are doing. But this sounds like achievement to me. That the child must meet some requirement seems like a work or the attainment of some meritorous status wherein one is now old enough to “qualify” for baptism and salvation. “Qualifications….Achievement (of age)….Requirements….it all sounds like what they accuse us of: namely works and merit. To be clear then, the Catholic understanding of the gratuityof salvation is far more radical than many non-Catholics understand. We baptize infants who are not capable of meriting, attaining or earning.
  2. The Baptism of infants also powerfully attests to the fact that  the beauty of holiness and righteousness is available to everyone regardless of age. To be baptised means to be washed. Washed of what? Original Sin. At first this seems like a downer, “Are you saying my baby has sin?” Yep. All of us inherit Original Sin from Adam and Eve. We are born into a state of alienation from God that is caused by sin. The Scriptures are clear: [S]in entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned (Rom 5:12).  So even infants are in need of the saving touch of God. Now why would we wish to delay this salvation and resulting holiness for 7 to 12 years? The Catechism says this, Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by Original Sin, children also have need of new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and be brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God….The Church and parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer baptism shortly after birth. (CCC # 1250). St. Cyprian Bishop of Carthage in the 3rd Century was asked if it was OK to wait to the 8th day to baptize since baptism had replaced circumcision. He respond with a strong no: But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day We [the bishops] all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man. (Epist# 58). So then here is the beauty, that infants are summoned to receive the precious gift of holiness and righteousness and that they are summoned to a right relationship with God by having their sin purged and holiness infused. Infants are called to this dignity and should not be denied it. With this done, some of the holiest and most innocent days of our lives may well be our first years. Then as the will begins to mainfest and reason begins to dawn the grace of holiness gives us extra strength to fight against the sinful world that looms.
  3. The Baptism of Infants also attests to the fact that faith is gift for every stage of development– To be baptized is to receive the gift of faith. It is baptism that gives the true faith. Even withadults, true faith does not come until baptism. Prior to that there is a kind of prevenient faith but it is not the Theological Virtue of faith. Now faith is not only an intellectual assent to revealed doctrine. It  is that but it is more. To have faith is also be be in a righteous and trusting  relationshipwith God. An infant relates to his parents long before he speaks or his rational mind is fully formed. He trusts his parents and depends on them. It is the same with God. The infant trusts and depends of God and is in a right relationship with God. With his parents, this relationship of trust leads the infant to begin to speak and understand as he grows. Here too it is the same withGod. As his mind awakens the infant’s faith grows. It will continue to grow until the day he dies (hopefully) as an old man. That faith accompanies us through every stage of our life and develops as we do is essential to its nature. An infant needs faith no less than an old man. An infant benefits from faith no less than a teenager or an adult. To  argue as some Protestants do that you have to be a certain age before faith can exist hardly seems to respect the progressive nature of faith which is able to bless EVERY stage of our human journey.  I have some very vivid memories of my experience of God prior to seven years of age and I will say that God was very powerfully present to me in my early years, in many ways even more so than now, when my mind sometimes “gets in the way.”

Another post too long. Forgive me dear reader. But please spread the word. Too many Catholics are waiting months, even years to have their children baptized. Precious time is lost by this laxity. Infant Baptism speaks powerfully of the love that God has for everyone he has created and of his desire to have everyone in a right and saving relationship with Him. Surely baptism alone isn’t enough. The child must be raised in the faith. It is the nature of faith that it grows by hearing and seeing. Children must have faith given at baptism but that faith must be explained and unwrapped like a  precious gift for them. Don’t delay. Get started early and teach your child the faith they have receved every day.

25 Replies to “Infant Baptism and the Complete Gratuity of Salvation”

  1. One question I have is why the Western Church, unlike the East, does not allow infants and small children — though baptized — to receive Holy Communion. What is the Church’s thinking on this?

    1. It is the tradition in the west that the child should be able to distinguish between ordinary bread and the Eucharist. This is not a doctrinal teaching, just a discipline of the sacraments. It can Change and as others in this comment section have pointed out it has changed. I suppose the practice of the East is more in keeping with the gratutity of the Lord’s gift. In the West more emphasis is given to the scriptural teaching from Paul and Luke that we be able to discern the body (1 Cor 11:17ff) and also that they recognized Him in the breaking of the Bread (Luke 24:35). These sorts of things require soemthing more of the rational mind than may be developed yet in infants and young children.

    1. In an absolute sense we do not know their fate. However, as Pope John Paul pointed out, we entrust them to a loving and just God and are on good grounds for thinking that they are given a cahnce to accept Christ and enter heaven. God does not hold us repsonsible for the impossible and these children could not have possibly sought baptism. Knowing that God is just we entrust them to his care and have good grounds to consider tha they are offered faith in Jesus and heaven and most surely accept the offer and are there

  2. I think infant baptism is okay. But I have to say that using your second and third quote at the beginning of the post as a proof of infant baptism is quite a stretch. Reminds me of the saying: “A quote without a context is a pretext for a proof text.”

    1. Yeah, you sure don’t like the way I use scripture do you :- Well I still stand by what I did. I was doing something called reasoning from scripture, a perfectly acceptable practice that may at times be better than proof texting. But I don’t suppose you’d like that either. Actually Michael I am trying to find any way that you accept me using scripture. 🙂

      1. Perhaps you can show me the reasoning behind linking those two passages to confirming (proving?) the necessity of infant baptism. My reason says they have nothing to do with one another, but I am not a priest, I am open to being wrong. Furthermore, if those two quotes are “it” as far as Scriptural support for infant baptism, maybe we just need the humility to say that Scripture doesn’t endorse it, but Church tradition does, and that’s okay? Using those quotes to back up the Tradition of infant baptism, when they seem totally unrelated, only makes it look like we’re desperate for validation and out of touch with the Biblical understanding of baptism. (And there is, no doubt, baptism found in the Bible.)

        I hope I am not coming across as a party pooper by questioning the appropriateness of the interpretation, Msgr. You have used – let’s say “taught” instead – Scripture before that zoomed in and provided context and as such illuminated the meaning of a passage and Church teaching. For example, the love your enemies passage and our response to 9-11. I liked that. Of course, there are others, but I’m not going to write “I liked the way you used the Scriptures” as a comment.

      2. Actually Michael in your response above I think you are being a “party pooper” 😮 Sometimes I think you’re argumentative when you don’t have to be. THe scripture is not meant to be a slam dunk. The slam dunk in this case is tradition. There is ample evidence that we have always baptized infants. If you don’t like my reasoniong from Scripture, thats OK but it’s not wrong to pull a scriptural argument together from several texts. My argument isn’t as bad as you say. But again, you seem very anxious about any use of Scripture. What is that about?

  3. Well, this is one to keep. I’m printing it out and putting it into my reference file. Thanks Msgr!

  4. I learned that some faiths do a baptism of the dead. I didn’t ask a lot of questions, as I wasn’t in a situation to do that, but I gathered that one stands in place in the actual baptism for the person who has died. I’m not sure in what denomination this is done either.

    In my circle of friends, I have noticed how long many wait to baptize their children. It has been a longtime since I have been to the baptism of a very young baby.


    1. Yes indeed many wait awfully long today to baptize. I think it’s a response to the fact that infant deaths are rare today. However as I point out, there are more easons to baptize a child than protection from hell. Ther eis sanctifying grace, holiness, friendship with God, healing and the like.

      As for baptizing the dead, I think the mormons do this frequently. I am not well schooled on why they do this. There IS an ambiguous text in 1 Cor 15:29 that talks of the dead being baptized. It hard in the text to understand what Paul is saying. There is no other text in the NT that mentions being baptized on behalf of the dead. Neither is there evidence in sacred tradition or history for such a practice anywhere in the early Church. There were some heretical sects in the late 3rd century that undertook the practice but they were not of the Church. So we are left with little understanding of this text. Just not sure what it means it is a kind of hapax legomenon (a unique experssion) in the Scriptures and there is little way to understand what it meant to Paul and to the Corinthinas. Lacking any evidence of this practice being done in apostolic times (other than this obscure text) we do not practice being baptised for the dead like the Mormons.

      1. Baptism for the dead is an ordinance performed by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints also known as Mormons. It is done vicariously for those who never heard the Gospel and never had a chance to learn of Christ. It does not make one a Mormon. Rather, it is the fulfillment of the law to be baptized for those who never had the chance. This is done in order to be a co-inheritor of Christs Kingdom. Any decision to accept it must come from the departed person. It is accepting the ordinance by the deceased that makes one a Mormon. Otherwise, it is just an exercise in getting wet. So, if your great aunt Mollie was a staunch Catholic in her life, and your Mormon cousin Billy performs this ordinance on her behalf, don’t fret. It is meaningless unless she accepts it on the other side.

        For those who know little about Mormon theology, the mission is one of returning the full gospel to the world. It was had in Christ’s time but were abandoned. LDS theology says they alone have priesthood authority. Among those was baptism for the dead. There are others.

      2. I realize after re-reading my response that I was not clear on a couple of points about Baptism for the Dead. This ordinance is done because it can’t be done in the spirit world. It is an earthly ordinance. Mormons believe the dead are just as alive as anyone on earth. The difference is they don’t have a physical body but rather a spirit body. They know what is being done on their behalf and have just as much freedom to make choices as we have. They also will have an opportunity to have the full gospel preached to them and decide whether to accept it or reject it. Not all will accept it, but all will have an equal chance to hear it. It is not appropriate to get too deep into theological discussions here without being invited so I won’t. But this question comes up quite often in genealogical circles so I feel compelled to set people minds to ease when I can. So don’t worry. If your dead relative does not want to be a Mormon they will not be even if this ordinance is performed on their behalf.

  5. I realize that this is a post on baptism, but baptism leads me to think about Last Rites- I guess b/c one usually happens at the beginning of life and the other at the end. Is the sacrament of last rights the same as the sacrament of healing? When my grandmother was dying, a local priest came semi-regularly to do the sacrament of healing and also came immediately after she died. This confused me. I mean, it was very nice and comforting to have Father there during that difficult time, but I don’t understand the sacramental part in it. Why was it neccessary for him to come again after she died?

    1. It may not have been necessary for Fr. to have come after death especially since she was “up to date” on her sacraments. In certain cases, when a person has just died the priest can give anointing and absolution since we are unclear when the soul actually leaves the body. However, it is unusual if a person has been dead for many hours and the body is cold to do this. But there’s a rule of thumb in situations like this: when in doubt give it out.” Thus, if there is any doubt as to the time of death and it has not been a long time the priest can and should give anoinint and absolution. This is especialy true if the person had not received sacraments in a long time. Now in the case of your Grandmother, it doesn’t seem she needed to be anointed after death since this had taken place not long before her death. A priest would only give these sacraments in a doubtful situation if it was clear that the person had not been recently anointed. As you point out it was not necessary in her case.

  6. Eric W: You bring up an interesting point. My educated guess would be tradition. The Church wants to take steps to make sure that those receiving the Body and Blood realize what they are receiving. Thus an age of reason was established. If I remember correctly, the age of reason was set in the teen years, but Pope Pius XII reduced to around age seven. I also have a dusty recollection that it was also once common practice in the medevil Church to only receive the Eucharist once in life. Maybe someone can remember better than I.

    anon: Mormons “baptise” the dead, they also will seal the unmarried dead in marriage. Of course, Mormon “baptisms” of the living or dead are not recognized by the Church anyway. (

  7. Can you explain this to me, please? “… claim that Catholics teach salvation by works (we do not)…” What exactly does the Church teach, then? Works and faith? Grace?

    1. We are saved by grace through faith (cf Catechism # 161). So the first act of God in the soul of one who receives saving grace is faith. But what is faith. It is not just some intellectual or abstract thing. Faith is a fruit bearing tree. For faith to be real faith it will have works, works such as charity, chastity, mercy, kindness etc. But notice these are the fruits of saving frace and faith not the cause of it. If faith is real it will bear fruits like these. To speak of faith apart from works is an abstraction. In our mind we can separate the two but reality we cannot. Consider a candle flame. In our mind we can distinguish between the light and the heat of the flame. But in reality I caould not take a knife and seperate the two. They are always so together in reality as to be almost one. It is the same with faith and works. The Book of James says that faith without wolrks is dead. In other words, it isn’t really faith at all. So, bottom line. We are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ. The first effect of this saving grace is faith. Faith too has effects, it produces in us the good works to which we have been called. Condisder this text from Ephesians 2: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9not by works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Notice then, we are not saved by works, be we ARE saved UNTO works. But our works are not ours to boast in, they are the fruit of faith that God has prepared in advance for us.

      On the day of judgment we will be judged on the basis of our works, (cf Rom 2). But it is not that our works save us. Rather, they are the evidence as to whether we had received the grace of saving faith. We may say we have faith, but our works give the real evidence.

      1. Thanks; I had never heard it (read it) explained that way. I knew that “sola fide” is not right, but I wasn’t sure about the rest.

  8. After a baptism which was done after the grandmother asked the mother to do it, a friend mentioned it should not have been done since the child will probably not be raised Catholic. I tried to point out the grace the child received but she does not agree. In this case, should the baptism have been postponed until the child can choose for herself?

    1. Pastor do have to have a well founded hope that a Child will be raised in the faith. In effect the parents are promising that they will see to it that the child understands the gift that is given and begins to accept and act upon it. Think of this, a gift of 100 Million dollars is only helpful to me if I know I have it and how to use it wisely. It is the same with faith. A child must know the gift they have receieved and how to “use” it. As you may guess, the judgement as to whether there is a well founded hope that the child will be raised in the faith IS a judgment and it will vary from priest to priest. Some will be more strick than others. I will usually be slow to dealy a baptism. If I can just get the family to return to Church for a few months I will baptize. But a complete lack of practicing the faith in the family usually means I must delay the baptism and work with the family to get them more faithful. Their child’s own faith will depend in a large way on their practice and hence, though the delay is unfortunate it may be better in the long run for the Child if the parents can be reinvogorated in their faith. One would hope a priest would not dely a baptism so long that the child would be old enough to choose for herself. But occassionaly the parents simply walk away from remedial efforts and there is little that can be done.

      1. To the distress of my in-laws, my husband’s step-niece has never been baptized – her mother had long since ceased to attend Mass, and her father is an atheist. The niece is now a young woman.

        I think that the niece’s parents showed respect for the Sacrament by declining it. They chose not to profess a faith they lacked, and not to make a promise they’d no intention of keeping. Baptism shouldn’t be done to appease a family member, or to fill in a line in the baby book.

  9. We received an invitation for my niece’s Catholic Baptism. The parents lived together before they got married, didn’t want to make alternative living arrangements or honor an abstinence period. Two different priests with whom they met refused to marry them. They found one priest who would marry them as long as they made a “good confession” prior to the wedding and could receive the Eucharist in “good standing.” That parish ended up being too far from the reception site and they married outside the church by a minister who used to be a priest (it was the strangest wedding ceremony). I thought it couldn’t possibly be licit, but now I wonder. If it was not, wouldn’t they need to remedy that prior to baptizing their child?

    I wonder if there are specific guidelines for priests or deacons to follow to prepare others to receive the sacraments. Some priests are very good about preparing others for the sacraments, but others, as you stated, seem to be very lax. There is a lot of disparity in what is allowed parish to parish.

    My daughter is getting confirmed this year and is doing prep work for it. Those baptismal promises have been stressed, and it is challenging to continue to stress the importance of honoring them while others do not and leaders in the church are inconsistent in caring.

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