Catholic Meaning of Baptism

I’ve heard many prominent Protestant theologians lately claim Catholics believe baptism has an effect on the person being baptized (adults and infants alike), even if there is no faith present. In other words, if an adult gets baptized but doesn’t have any faith (let’s say he is doing it to appease a relative or something), baptism still has some sort of an effect on that person.

I’ve read through the CCC for answers on this, and in some sections it appears to say something similar to that claim, while in others it sounds like that’s not true. I don’t see anywhere that specifically addresses this issue.

Can someone give me a clear understanding of the issue?


St Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, Part III, Question 69, Articles 10 and 11, discusses how insincerity hinders the effects of baptism and how baptism takes effect when the insincerity ceases.

Aquinas also discusses whether faith is required on the part of the one baptized a little earlier in Question 68, Article 8.

If I understand St Thomas Aquinas correctly, when an unbeliever is baptized his soul is indelibly marked, reconfigured for a life of grace, so as to make a future re-baptism unnecessary but the salvific effects of Baptism, such as the forgiveness of sins and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, are blocked until his unbelief ceases.

The Catechism of the Catholic Chruch talks about this indelible mark in paragraph 1272-1274

Ok, so then why not just encourage baptisms for everyone, including people who don’t believe? Wouldn’t people be better off with that “indelible mark” than without it? Not trying to pick a fight; I just don’t understand why the church would withhold baptism from some (including infants) if baptism does so much for them.

I have never known any one at my church to ‘hold back’ baptism to anyone who requested it for their child.

I have seen the priests ask people ‘if they will ever be seen again’ though.

Has anyone ever heard of someone being denied baptism if they request it for a kid?

For an adult, it is a different situation though. They have to be able to request it themselves and so have to understand what they are asking for. Makes sense.

I don’t know. Perhaps the damned with such a mark experience extra sufferings in hell or experience the sufferings of hell more intensely. If that is the case, it would be better to only baptize believers or, in the case of infants, those for whom there is a well-founded hope they will be raised in the Catholic faith.

Oh of course. If you’re not Catholic, for instance, you can’t get your child baptized. In many dioceses, a Catholic mother who has a child out of wedlock often cannot get their children baptized (if the children are born outside of marriage). There are other situations as well. For instance, if you flat out say, “No, I don’t intend to raise my child Catholic,” they can deny baptism for your child as well. This is actually more common than you think, because a lot of people only get their children baptized to appease some relative.

I understand your point, but I don’t see anywhere in scripture that would indicate such a situation would occur. A person who rejects the faith but has been baptized (often as a baby) would be punished worse than a person who was never baptized but also rejects the faith? That doesn’t make much sense to me.

I don’t know. In the Bible, Baptism is sometimes compared to circumcision. Circumcision being the removal of the protective foreskin, permanently exposing the more sensitive part underneath, perhaps Baptism removes the soul’s protective “foreskin,” permanently exposing its more sensitive part to spiritual experiences. This would have the advantage in the afterlife of making the soul of the saved more sensitive to the joys of heaven but the disadvantage of making the soul of the damned more sensitive to the torments of hell. Perhaps it would also make the soul more sensitive to spiritual experiences in this life. If that is the case, then a baptized unbeliever would have a slight spiritual advantage in life over the unbaptized unbeliever which would justify their differing experiences in hell in the afterlife. However, if this advantage in life is so slight that it never results in the conversion of the unbeliever, then it would makes sense to only baptize believers and those children with a well-founded hope they will be raised in the Catholic faith.

Definitely an interesting theory. Thanks for sharing!

The Church requires faith in order to baptize. Parents can make a confession of faith on behalf of their children, but the expectation is that they will be raised in the faith. I have seen baptism pended until the parents demonstrate a willingness to raise the child in the faith.

I understand this; thanks for pointing it out again. My question is: Why? If baptism does something to the infant, regardless of the faith of the parents, why not just baptize every infant the church can get its hands on?

Baptism is a rite of initiation. It is a starting point for making disciples. Jesus was clear that He intended for the Church to “make disciples”. People who are baptized enter into the process of becoming a disciple.

Your logic is sound, and in fact, this used to be done. Some children were even baptized against the the will of the family. It was Jesus’ intention that children be raised in the faith, this is clear in the writings of the NT.

Mostly because, in addition to cleansing a person from original sin etc…baptism also initiates a person into the life of the Church, which means that person now has obligations to follow the precepts of the Church. That would mean this person would be bound by Catholic fasting and marriage laws that don’t apply to non-Catholics. (Non-Catholics baptized outside the Church still receive sanctifying grace, but aren’t bound by Church law)

If there’s absolutely no hope that the child will be raised as a Catholic, what you’re essentially doing is binding them to laws they can’t ever be expected to follow, since they won’t ever be taught them. The Church doesn’t want that for them, which is why she discourages baptizing infants if the parents aren’t serious about the faith.

So in a sense, the fact that baptism actually does something, regardless of the parent’s faith, is precisely WHY the Church wants to make sure there is a reasonable hope that the child will be raised in the Faith. It’s not a fair deal for the infant to be initiated into Catholicism - with all that entails - if their parents are not serious about raising them that way and won’t even teach them about it.

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