Some Catholics wait many months before having their child baptised, simply not seeing the importance of early baptism. But in fact Catholics are obliged to have the baptism "within the first weeks". The Code of Canon Law expresses an obligation; its words are: "Parents are obliged to see that their infants are baptised within the first few weeks" (canon 867.1). Let us look at why early baptism is vitally important.
Prior to baptism the baby is without the divine life of grace in its soul. While it is a child of God in a natural sense (because created and loved by Him), it is not a child of God in the supernatural sense of having been raised to a share in His own life. This happens with the infusion of sanctifying grace into the soul at the moment of baptism.
Until then the infant is in a state of original sin, deprived of the grace that was lost to the whole human race by Adam's sin in the Garden of Eden. Of course this is no fault of the baby, but it is a condition alien to the state God wants for the child. And the parents should desire to remedy that situation promptly.
If we could see directly the change in the soul on the reception of the sacrament, our wonderment would be so great that we would never delay reception. In the words of St Peter, we "have become partakers of the divine nature" (II Peter 1:4). That is, the Blessed Trinity raises us, through grace, to a new level of being in which we have a kinship with the Divine Persons that would be utterly impossible by our natural powers.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, by baptism one becomes a child of the Father, a member of Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit (n. 1279). Further, "By this very fact the person baptized is incorporated into the Church, the Body of Christ, and made a sharer in the priesthood of Christ". A spiritual sign called the baptismal character is impressed on the soul and remains there indelibly (n. 1280).
The marvellous inner transformation cannot be seen by bodily eyes, but is none the less real for that; and it is known with certainty by faith. No one with a realisation of this would want to delay baptism.
There is also the possibility that delay will mean that a baby might die unbaptised. Should this tragedy occur, there is no good reason to think the child will ever see God face to face in heaven. The Catechism expresses the Church's constant position: "The Church does not know of any means other than baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude" (n. 1257).
John Paul II's words to mothers who have had an abortion (Evangelium vitae, n. 99), stating that the child is now "living in the Lord", are sometimes quoted to the contrary. But those words were deleted from the official AAS text of the encyclical; and in any case they could possibly be said of limbo, which is a state of great natural happiness, with natural knowledge and love of God.
While the Church has not declared limbo to be a fact, she has declared that those who die in original sin do not go to heaven. Two Ecumenical Councils (the Second Council of Lyons and the Council of Florence) taught infallibly: "But the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin or just in original sin go down promptly to hell, to be punished however by very different punishments" (DS 858).
The word hell here means separation from the vision of God, and does not imply that those with only original sin suffer. Pope Innocent III had already taught, in a letter to the Bishop of Arles in 1201, that "The penalty for original sin is the deprivation of the sight of God ..." (DS 780).
The Council of Florence also ruled that baptism must not be delayed as long as forty days, giving as reason, "the danger of death, which can often happen" and the fact that "there is no other remedy available to these infants except the sacrament of baptism" (DS 1349).
The Catechism of the Council of Trent, in the 16th century, said: "Since infant children have no other means of salvation except baptism, we may easily understand how grievously those persons sin who permit them to remain without the grace of the sacrament longer than necessity may require" (Catechism of the Council of Trent, translated by McHugh and Callan, p. 178).
From the early centuries the general teaching of the Fathers and theologians has been that unbaptised infants cannot be saved. In the mid-20th century, Father P. J. Hill MSC judged that "theologians after Trent [in the 16th century] up to our own days have been practically unanimous in attributing to unbaptized infants the pain of loss, and they frequently qualify this as being of faith" (P. J. Hill, The Existence of a Children's Limbo According to Post-Tridentine Theologians, p. 58). By "the pain of loss" is meant deprivation of the vision of God.
Today, it is frequently said, and sometimes by theologians, that unbaptised babies go to heaven. But the reasons they give are weak, and cannot stand against the weight of authority for the opposite position.
People who are careless about early baptism would hardly approve of a dangerous toy that might deprive a child of its temporal life. Yet they put at risk its eternal life.
John Young, B.Th is a Catholic writer who lives in Melbourne.