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On the Catholic ‘Sacrament’ of Baptism…

July 8, 2012

The following is a brief consideration of the Catholic understanding of Baptism:

From the mission of ministry of Christ the Catholic church defines seven instituted sacraments of the new law, which are seen as necessary for the Christian to fulfill. These sacraments touch all stages of life and are meant to resemble the natural stages of life with spiritual acts.[1] Within the Catholic sacramental economy there are three stages of sacraments, sacraments of initiation, sacraments of healing and sacraments of service of communion and the mission of the faithful. [2] The most foundational of these stages is the stage of initiation, consisting of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. Through these the faithful are born into the new life of Christ, confirmed in that life and then blessed by the receipt of His body and blood given for them in sacrifice. The initial part of initiation essential to all the rest is that of baptism.

It is through baptism that the faithful are incorporated into the church; they are reborn as sons of God.[3] This is an initiatory right in which the participant is regenerated through water in the word.[4] Baptism is called baptism to display the way in which the sacrament must be acted out. To Baptize is to “immerse” or “plunge” underwater. This symbolizes burial into Christ’s death and being raised into a new life in Him. This is to be accompanied by the enlightenment of catechesis. An adult can only be baptized if that adult is a catechumen, one receiving the teaching of the Church; infant baptism necessitates a post-baptismal catechumen.[5]

The Catholic Sacrament of baptism, is celebrated in several stages. First comes the sign of the cross, then the proclamation of the word of God, a confession of faith to serve as an exorcism, the baptismal water is then purified by epiclesis, then triple immersion into the water or the pouring of water of the head three times. The adult or infant is then anointed with oil or chrism.[6] Who can receive this sacrament?

Both adults and infants can be baptized in the Catholic Church, and each type of baptism carries with it certain demands and significance. For Adults any one not yet baptized can receive baptism. As long as the catechumen is seeking to bring their faith to maturity, and be in union with the ecclesial community. Adult Baptism has been occurring since the beginning of the church in the Gospels. Infant Baptism is seen as a way of displaying grace to children and removing from them the taint of original sin.[7] Baptism is necessary for the faithful Christian. Christ was baptized, commanded his disciples to baptize others in his name, and baptism is seen as necessary for salvation to whom the gospel has been proclaimed.[8]

All though baptism is seen as a necessary element of the Christian life, the church does maintain a number of scenarios in which those who are not baptized will experience salvation. Baptism is seen as an assurance of salvation, whether it occurs in infancy or adulthood. Absent this assurance one may still experience the benefits of salvation. If one is undergoing catechesis, and dies prior to baptism, one will still have access to Heaven, through their repentance and charity. Even those outside the faith, are seen as able to access salvation through the churches belief in the possibility that even those ignorant of God’s truth may still have access to its benefits. If they are pursuing truth, and doing the will of God according to their understanding of it, they would most likely have been baptized had they know of it, so they receive the benefit of God’s grace, even though they did not experience the new birth of Baptism.[9]

The church sees baptism prefigured throughout the recorded history of scripture. Baptism is seen as early as Noah, prefigured in the flood of Genesis 9 is the concept of sin being washed away by water. Likewise the crossing of the Red Sea by Israel represents the people of God moving from bondage into new life through water.[10] Baptism, including infant baptism figures prominently in the New Testament as well. John the Baptist baptizing those who confessed their sins, Jesus’ own baptism, and the baptism of entire household in act. The baptism of households in act is seen as possible justification for infant baptism going all the way to the apostolic period.[11] The church sources its beliefs concerning baptism to the Scriptures but also makes appeals to tradition and official teaching as well. The Catechism of the Catholic Church along with Vatican II documents Lumen Gentium and Saccrosanctum concilium speak to the issue of baptism. All speak with equal authority and weight informing the church as to its stance on this sacrament. Few issues between the Catholic and Evangelical communities are as divisive as that of baptism, both the form of baptism and those who can participate.

There is much to commend in the Catholic church and in their dedication to the great commission of our Lord to make disciples and to baptize. Fundamentally, though, the common conception of baptism on the part of the church is greatly flawed both in its method and effect. While immersion is the preferred form of baptism for Catholics, pouring and/or sprinkling has become the dominant form of baptism, contrary to the meaning of the word in Scripture. Chief among the disagreements between evangelicals and Catholics regarding baptism is the issue of infant baptism. Both in terms of its method and its perceived effects, infant baptism as practiced by the catholic church seems to have little explicit grounding in scripture. The New Testament gives the picture of baptism as something which follows an express statement of faith in Christ and a confession of sins. It is an outward sin of an inward reality, that the old has passed away and been buried and that the new believer is raised from the water into a new life, in Christ. There is no notion explicitly present in scripture that denotes the efficacy of baptism to remove the “taint of original sin” of infants or adults for that matter. One thing alone mitigates the effect of sin, the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, both of which are pictured beautifully in the protestant rite of baptism.

A second critique is found in the necessity of baptism put forth by the catholic church. While baptism is seen as necessary, their inclusiveness represented in the Catechism, especially section 1260, which allows for non-baptized and even the non-believing to gain access to God’s salvific grace, seems to mitigate their stance on the necessity of baptism. If one need not hear the gospel but merely do the will of God “in accordance to his understanding of it” then there seems to be little teeth in the call to ‘be baptized.’

With regard to mystery or fascination, there seems to be little presence of either within the evangelical protestant community concerning infant baptism. Of course with in mainline Protestantism, infant baptism is practiced. But it is viewed differently not as a sacrament, necessary to salvation, but a mark of the covenant of God. The Catholic understanding of sacramental baptism seems to be inconsistent and un-biblical. Inconsistent in its both being a necessity within the sacramental economy and not necessary if one exists outside that economy but is “pursuing truth.” And un-biblical in the force with which they endow baptism as salvific, even removing the taint of sin.

Glossary

Baptism: the sacrament of immersion, denoting one’s initiation into the family of God, for adults a vehicle into the community of Christ; for infants the experience of grace and the removal of original sin.

Sacraments of initiation: there are three, baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist. Through these believers are initiated, confirmed and blessed into the family of God.

Epiclesis: the calling upon of the Holy Spirit to move upon the baptismal waters and bless the waters, allowing the baptized to be born in both the water and the Spirit.

Chrism: The oil which the priest uses to anoint the newly baptized believer.

 

Bibliography

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Ligouri: Liguori

Publications. 1994. Sections 50-141 the Revelation of God and Sacred Scripture.

 

Lumen Gentium. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Nov. 21 1964)

Sacrosanctum Concilium: The constitution on the sacred liturgy (Dec. 4 1963)

 

 


[1] Catechism Sec. 1210

[2] Ibid. Sec 1211.

[3]Lumen Gentium (LG) Ch. 2:11

[4] Catechism Sec. 1213

[5]Ibid Sec. 1231

[6]Ibid Secs. 1234-1243.

[7] Catechism Sec. 1250

[8] Ibid Sec. 1257

[9] Catechism, Sec 1258-1261

[10]Class Notes Dr. Gregg Allison, Roman Catholic Theology, SBTS Fall 2011

[11] Acts 16:15, 18:8, Catechism Sec. 1252

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