Tuesday, April 14, 2015

NPR Gets Me Riled in the Morning - Baptism Edition

This morning, I half caught an NPR story about a pastor talking about whether or not she'd baptize a baby of a lesbian couple.  So then I went and read the story when I had a moment, and here it is.

From the story, a pastor some 15 years ago refused to baptize a lesbian couple's baby; according to the story, "The pastor said because the child had lesbian parents, there was no way he could get a Christian upbringing."  That pastor has move on, and there's a different one; it's the different one I caught a bit of this morning, saying that she'd have a tough decision.  At the end of the story, she has the last word:
"If the only reason for there to be reservations were around that, issues of sexuality," she says, "that would not be something that would keep me from doing it. I absolutely would."
 I'm no ordained pastor; indeed, I'm an atheist.  But I do read some religious stuff, and I was raised in a household religious enough that I still remember a fair bit of catechism and so forth.  And I think these two pastors have forgotten the point of baptism.  It's not about the parents.  In Christianity, baptism is a sacrament that marks the "remission of sins" (in the Nicene Creed I was taught in the old days).  That is, baptism provides for salvation for the person baptized.  (This is apparently a church that practices infant baptism, so that's not it.)

So, theologically, I'd think that if anyone wanted their baby baptized, and the pastor (or priest, or whoever does baptisms) thinks they're serious in that desire, they baptize the baby.

Let's take an extreme example:  say a parent was excommunicated or out of fellowship and thus couldn't partake of any of the sacraments of the church, but wanted their child baptized (and let's imagine there's only one parent in this overly extreme example).  Would most churches baptize the baby?  Would a church baptize the baby with only the Godparents there for the naming?   (That would keep the excommunicated person from participating in the sacrament.)


When I was a little kid, and first heard of excommunication, someone told me that it basically meant no one, even your parents and family, could ever talk to you or interact with you again.  It seemed like a horrible punishment, and I secretly worried that I'd be excommunicated somehow.  (I didn't realize that I wasn't Catholic, so wasn't really part of it all anyway.  Nor did I realize that it's pretty darned rare.  If you look at a list of people who've been excommunicated on Wikipedia, though, you can see that it's being used still, and it looks like it's being used a whole lot more now than before.  Our culture seems to think the Middle Ages were crazy about religion, but we sometimes seem crazier today.)


  1. Anonymous7:22 AM

    I didn't catch today's, but yesterday we heard about the story from a waitress in town, and it made me all teary-eyed. A lot of people left the church because of that decision, but they did it silently, and the waitress wished she had but didn't. It was a moving piece.

    I'm pretty sure that a Catholic priest is supposed to baptize any baby and not let the "sins of the fathers" etc. etc. (though I wouldn't bet money on that) but I don't know anything about Methodists (which is the type of church in the story).

    1. Anonymous7:23 AM

      (clarification: yesterday NPR interviewed a waitress in town and that's where the story came to light)

  2. Anonymous8:09 AM

    Excommunication doesn't mean what you think it means, at least among Catholics. I think you are confusing it with shunning, which Catholics don't practice. Excommunication means that certain sins remove the offender from the community to such an extent that he or she is denied access to the sacraments until he or she repents. So if I were to be excommunicated, I could not take communion in a Catholic church until I went to confession and was absolved. (At least, I shouldn't. There is no way that anyone could actually enforce the ban on communion.) I am still a Catholic and I can still go to church -- I just can't receive the sacraments, except for confession. Certainly nobody is obliged to shun me.

    On the topic of baptism, different Christian churches have very different understandings on exactly what baptism does and why (or whether) it is necessary. Some churches maintain that baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation, which tends to lead to a) infant baptism and b) a tendency to be willing to baptize even if the parents are not ideal Christians. (Whether a lesbian couple could be absolutely model Christians or whether their sex acts are inherently sinful is another question that divides churches, as well as dividing Christians within many denominations.)

    Other churches, however, have a much different theology of baptism, in which baptism is less about the remission of sin and more about a serious commitment on the part of the parents to raise the child within the Christian community. This can cause a lot of tension when non-practicing or non-believing folks want to have their child baptized to appease the grandparents or something. The minister thinks baptism is a serious commitment on the part of the parents, the parents think baptism is a quick ceremony.

    I wish the NPR piece had been a bit clearer about what the ministers were thinking. The first one is probably in the "homosexuality is inherently sinful" camp, but I really couldn't tell what kind of argument the second one would make. Is it "I probably would baptize the kid . . . a) as long as the parents made a real commitment to being a part of the church," or b) because I don't think homosexuality is sinful," or c) because baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation, no matter what the parents are like"? Without more information, it's hard to evaluate.

  3. Yeah, Anonymous has it right--a lot of Protestant denominations have very different views of baptism. There's a reason Baptists won't baptize babies at all, because they think baptism should only occur after a person has made a personal commitment to Christ. My own denomination prefers to do "dedications" rather than baptisms for babies, so that kids and adults make their own decision about baptism, but they will baptize an infant or toddler if asked. That said, part of the liturgy around both dedications and infant baptisms is asking if the parents to commit before God to raise their children in the teachings of the church. In this story, theology needed to be more than "homosexuality is a sin" for it to be accurate and complete.

  4. A somewhat related anecdote:

    When my now-5-year-old son was hospitalized at a month old and we were very afraid that he was going to die, we asked the hospital chaplain to baptize him. (I was thinking, "Just in case God exists, which I don't know, but this is the family tradition.") I didn't say that I was being superstitious and could they please just baptize him. Perhaps I let off that vibe though. The chaplain refused to baptize him, and he never has been since. the chaplain said, "It's not necessary at this point." Thanks for the comfort, jackass. So it goes to show -- science saved my son. Not baptism.

    1. I'm so sorry you received an ungenerous response. My hope is that a chaplain would work to comfort parents as best they could.

    2. Anonymous4:46 PM

      The official Catholic church position is that infants are saved whether or not they're baptized. This one I really do remember from CCD. When an infant is sick, the position is that it is safer not to baptize.

  5. The latest document from the Vatican synod on the family has pretty clearly asserted that all children have the right to baptism (or any other sacrament), and that the status of their parents (married, unmarried, divorced, gay) should be no impediment. But since some parishes will only baptize the children or grandchildren of parishioners or people will some connection to the place, in practice there probably aren't a lot of baptisms of children of gay parents in Catholic churches.

  6. Thanks, all.

    I think I have a pretty good sense of what the Catholic practice is re excommunication: there's no participation in sacraments other than confession. My being told that no one would talk to you was when I was a little kid.

    But I absolutely don't know what all protestant beliefs about baptism are.

    The two parents were evidently members of the parish, and not excluded from sacraments such as communion, as evidenced by the article saying that they left the church after the pastor refused to baptize their son. So they were doing at least some of the things needful to demonstrate that they were raising their son within the church. No Christian expects every church member to be without sin, though, right? I mean, that's why confession is important. Alas, we don't have the original pastor's explanation of the decision not to baptize the child in the first place.

    Flavia, I think that's a very affirming doctrine nowadays!

    It makes sense that parishes might choose only to baptize their members; these women were members of the parish.

    I imagine that a Catholic who had a child, then recognized themselves as being gay, could, indeed still want the child baptized. My sense is that many Catholics feel both deeply religious, and convinced that some church dogma is wrong (birth control, etc.)

  7. I'm not Methodist, but I'm a member of another mainline Protestant denomination that offers both infant baptism and the option of dedication (and that is having similar debates about ordination of gays and lesbians, same-sex marriage, etc., with some all-too-slow progress in what I consider the right direction).

    I know that my church will baptize the children of same-sex couples or single/unmarried parents (because it has), but we do have real debates about whether to baptize children of parents who don't currently attend the church (usually the situation is as anonymous describes: the grandparents are members, and the parents were raised in the church, but aren't currently active members of any church), because baptism for us is all about introducing the child to the faith community that will help raise hir. A promise from the parents that they will become active in a church is all that most of our pastors have required to say "yes," but the baptismal questions to the congregation (and baptism pretty much has to take place during a service, or at least in front of a congregation, in our church; the Catholic practice of doing it at another time wouldn't work for us) sound strange, since they're pretty much all about the parents and the congregation working together to help the child grow in faith. From our perspective, it's much better news when grandparents travel to see their grandchildren baptized in a church (pretty much any church) where their grown kids are active members than when the grown kids travel "home" to have their own kids baptized.

    It's also worth noting that we don't believe baptism actually *does* anything; instead, it recognizes a pre-existing fact: that we belong to God, and are saved by God through Christ. One has to be baptized to join the church, and is supposed to be baptized to take communion, but there's no belief that the unbaptized are unsaved (or vice versa; we're Calvinists, so predestination comes into the picture).

    So I can *almost* see at least part of the first pastor's logic (though I absolutely disagree); he may have felt he had reason to believe the mothers' promises to raise their child as a Christian would not be fully sincere, and/or that their belief that their relationship was acceptable was proof that they didn't read the Bible appropriately, and so couldn't raise their child to do so. I couldn't figure out quite what the second pastor meant, unless she was afraid to alienate a large portion of the rest of the congregation by seeming to publicly recognize/support a family with same-sex parents; either the editing of the story was bad, or she wasn't very clear, or both. But I have to wonder whether that first pastor ever refused to baptize the child of a parent he knew to be continuing in other sins (adultery, say, or dishonest/exploitative business practices). If so, he might have a case that he's being consistent (given his reading of the Bible; still, there's a lot more in the Bible about things like exploitation of workers than there is about sex of any kind). Otherwise, I don't think he had a leg to stand on.

    1. In any case I'm pretty sure that the correct response to parents you see as especially noticeable sinners asking to have their child baptized is to baptize the child, for the parents' sake as well as the child's. At least in our liturgy, parents are asked to "reject sin and the power of evil in the world," which seems like a pretty good chance for a fresh start, and the congregation promises to support both child and parents in their faith journeys. I suppose the pastor could argue that the parents couldn't truly make the promises if they planned to continue living in sin, but there's a lot more to being a Christian than one's sex life, and everybody continues in sin in some way. Maybe there's a difference between pietism and Calvinism, but I'm just not getting it, and, as a leader in my own church, I would certainly object very strongly to any argument a pastor made along those lines. Then again, as I said, we've always welcomed all comers to both membership and baptism, and we've also knowingly served communion to unbaptized people, on the theory that people's faith journeys don't always proceed in a linear fashion, and that it's better to be welcoming than rule-bound. There are undoubtedly some members of our denomination who would object strongly to both positions, but there are also many who'd agree (and I'm pretty sure most Methodists I know would feel and act similarly, so I suspect this is a matter of local as much as denominational culture, and local culture seems to be the point of the NPR story).

  8. Oh, absolutely. And some parishes are really welcoming of families of all stripes, on the quite reasonable grounds that anyone who wants to attend mass and wants their children to receive the sacraments is demonstrating a real commitment to the faith. Frankly, if a gay couple is attending mass despite the very real possibility that they'll encounter some unwelcoming or unsupportive people, I think we should assume that their faith is stronger and deeper than that of a lot of heterosexual couples, and that they're risking more for it.

  9. CC has expressed my understanding of baptism from the Episcopalian perspective. But that whole series has been outstanding, showing social change on the ground. The story yesterday where you had this great sense of love in a family, but two of the sisters-in-law were really conflicted about marriage. http://www.npr.org/2015/04/16/399806354/a-north-dakota-family-breaks-the-silence-on-gay-marriage