Editor’s Note: In some Catholic dioceses and parishes, the question of whether to baptize the children of same-sex couples is not disputed. The child, say some dioceses and parishes, should be treated like any other children whose parents present them for the sacrament of baptism. In other dioceses and parishes, the approach is far different, with some couples being turned away. Here, Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe, N.M., addresses a pastoral question that has caused distress in parishes and among same-sex Catholic parents.
The Great Commission, as presented at the end of the Gospel of Matthew (cf. 28:16-20), could easily be called “The Great Gift,” as the risen and ascended Christ, who possesses “all power in heaven and on earth,” empowers the disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
From that mountaintop 2,000 years ago down to the present age, the church has been conducting its divine mission and sharing the gift of baptism with the same generosity with which our Savior gave it to us.
This generous impulse of the church is mirrored in the Book of Isaiah: “All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, buy grain and eat; Come, buy grain without money, wine and milk, without cost!” (55:1). Although speaking of the Eucharist, Pope Francis also captured this theme in his latest apostolic letter, “Desiderio Desideravi.” He wrote: “No one had earned a place at that Supper. All had been invited. Or better said: all had been drawn there by the burning desire that Jesus had to eat that Passover with them.”
It is of great concern, therefore, when people are refused the sacrament of baptism, or any of the sacraments, for that matter. I understand that the church, as guardian and dispenser of the graces of the sacraments, must exercise prudence in their celebration and even, in certain serious and rare cases, refuse the sacraments to some until reconciliation and/or the lifting of impediments are removed.
Nonetheless, the general disposition of the church is one of hospitality, openness and welcome, in the spirit of the new evangelization. Refusing to baptize children of same-sex couples is not in keeping with this outreach, and I find it quite troubling. To refuse baptism to these children solely on the basis of the fact that they have same-sex parents, while possibly done with good intentions, is not supported by church teaching or practice, in my view.
Let me say from the outset that when a parent (or parents) request baptism for their child, this is a moment of grace not only for the child but for the parents as well. Indeed, the first response should never be “Sure!” or “Nope!” Automatic approvals or blanket refusals are never good pastoral practices. Rather, the priest, deacon or lay leader should journey with the parent(s) and help them to understand the beauty, implications, responsibilities and rights of this important moment of faith. This is true for all parents requesting to have their child baptized, including same-sex couples.
The Vatican II declaration on religious freedom, “Dignitatis Humanae,” states that the family, “since it is a society in its own original right, has the right freely to live its own domestic religious life under the guidance of parents.” Hence, not only is the church’s outreach one of welcome, but it is also incumbent upon the institutional church to respect the domestic church, the family.
While the ideal family, according to church teaching, is headed by one father and one mother, in reality we baptize many children from families who do not live up to this ideal. Some families have only one parent due to divorce, abandonment or death. Sadly, many families are fragmented by addiction, violence, dysfunction and poverty. In all of these cases, I am not aware that the norm is to refuse baptism to their children.
Rather, we meet these couples where they find themselves and encourage them to grow in the faith as they pass that faith on to their children. Yet same-sex couples are at times refused baptism of their children. Why?
I suspect that same-sex couples’ children are refused baptism because a judgment has been made that they cannot raise their child in the Catholic faith as LGBTQ parents. This is not true. It is true that same-sex couples cannot live up to the understanding of marriage intended by God and taught by the church in every respect, but we must admit that no couple can ever live up to this understanding in every respect.
In church teaching, marriage is a human reality, consisting in a committed, lifelong, exclusive relationship of total love between one man and one woman; the marital act is the privileged expression of that (and requires the complementarity of male and female to be unitive), and in God’s design, this marital act of love also brings new life into the world. No wonder that this graced relationship is seen as analogous to Christ’s bond with the church.
The church’s minister is called to help the couple seeking baptism for their child to strive to make their marriage ever more attuned to the church’s understanding of this bond, allowing that this openness to the faith will give them credibility in raising their children as Catholics.
It is important to keep in mind that the question at hand is the baptism of the child and not the ability of the parents to live up to all of the church’s teaching on marriage. Just the same, there are substantial, foundational and critical elements in the same-sex couples’ relationship that do offer strong assurances that the child will be raised in the faith.
I want to underscore here the critical importance of love. In the baptismal rite, the priest or deacon tells the parents that they are “the first teachers of their children in the ways of faith, bearing witness to the faith by what they say and do, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Without a doubt, same-sex couples are quite capable of teaching their children about the faith, by living lives that respect others, by remaining faithful to each other and by loving one another.
God is love and the most fundamental catechesis that a child can receive is to be loved, to return love and to be a member of a loving family. All other catechesis is based on this. In addition, same-sex couples give witness to many other aspects of Catholic life that form a coherent catechesis for children: commitment, fidelity, self-giving, honesty, humility, kindness, spiritual depth, church attendance, respect and so much more. These considerations form the basis for the specific Catholic teaching that same sex parents give to their children.
Hence, I see no reason why a couple would be refused when they present their child for baptism based solely on the fact that they are a same-sex couple.
As a pastor, I am also persuaded to baptize children of same-sex parents because the parents, by requesting baptism for their children, are showing good faith. The mere fact that they are approaching the Catholic Church in this regard, knowing that their relationship cannot be recognized as a sacrament, gives evidence that they are serious about their faith and that they wish to raise their children in that faith. Good will on their part should be presumed.
This is a time of grace for the parents. The priest, deacon or lay minister should take advantage of it by spending time with the couple, exploring the faith with them, challenging them to grow in that faith and supporting them in their desire follow Christ as Catholics. I believe that undue attention given to the fact that the couple is gay blinds the church’s minister to the abundance of positive and virtuous qualities that abide in their relationship.
Moreover, the believing community into which the child is initiated, and which is represented by the godparents, is also responsible for the deepening of the faith in this child. The church has always pointed to the Body of Christ as an integral part of the faith development of the newly baptized. Years ago, when missionaries asked Rome if they could baptize children even if the parents had not converted, they were told that the community assumes the responsibility of raising the children in the Catholic faith.
This is lived out quite well by the multitude of religious education teachers in our parishes and schools. It is also exemplified in our parishes as children are catechized by the celebration of the Eucharist and the witness given by the parishioners throughout the week. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we are given a beautiful reflection on the community of faith into which the baptized are initiated and which becomes a conduit of grace for the newly initiated (Nos. 1267-71).
Scripture also gives us guidance in approaching the question at hand. The Gospel of Mark shows that Jesus responds generously to the father who wanted his son cured of a mute spirit (9:14-29). Even though the father’s faith was weak (“I do believe, help my unbelief!”), Jesus performed the miracle and cured his son. LGBTQ parents who believe, though aware of their own challenges to faith, are no less worthy, by having their child baptized, of the healing sought by the man in Mark’s Gospel.
In the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel, we see that Jesus rejects the idea that children are punished for the actions of their parents. This trajectory of grace leads me to the view that the children of same-sex parents should not be refused baptism on the basis of their parents’ same-sex relationship alone.
The church’s proclivity to baptize is captured in the Acts of the Apostles (8:26-40). The words jump out with enthusiasm and joy as the Ethiopian eunuch says: “Look there is water. What is to prevent my being baptized?” The chariot was ordered to stop then and there, and Philip baptized him. Jesus echoed this impulse to baptize in Matthew’s Gospel: “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (19:14).
LGBTQ parents who strive to live and love their Catholic faith may rightly ask, like the Ethiopian in Acts, “What prevents us from baptizing our child?” I believe that the answer is: Nothing. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water!” (Is 55:1).