For the first five centuries that the church existed, the norm for initiation was baptism of adults. Infants were probably also baptized, but the New Testament never explicitly mentions that they were. By the second century, there is more firm evidence of the baptism of infants and children, but it is not the norm. Some church leaders, in fact, argue against baptizing infants since they are too young to “know Christ.”
By the time of St. Augustine, at the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth centuries, infant baptism is becoming more common, but still not as dominant a practice as it would soon become.
St. Augustine resets the norm
Augustine was a “normal” Catholic for his time, meaning his mother enrolled him in the catechumenate as an infant, and he was not baptized until he was in his 30s. Once he was baptized, he became a fierce critic of some of the heresies that were popular in his day.
One heresy he fought against was Pelagianism. The Pleagians believed that we are born completely pure and innocent. As we grow, we are corrupted and fall into sin.
That didn’t make sense to Augustine. He reasoned that the church baptizes infants, even if it was not yet the usual practice to do so. And the reason for baptism is to wash away sin. Therefore, infants couldn’t be completely pure. There must be some sin to wash away.
Augustine realized, of course, that no infant can commit a sin. But he concluded there must be something inherent in human nature that is contrary to God’s perfect will. The imperfection of the human condition came to be called “original sin.”
Adult catechumenate dies out
Unfortunately, people who came after Augustine took the notion of original sin to an extreme and concluded that if babies die before being baptized, they will go to limbo or even hell. Since infant mortality rates were high in those days, this was a big concern. The result was a complete shift in initiation practice. Even families with little or no faith began to present their babies for baptism to protect them in the afterlife.
Following Augustine’s era, the widespread convention of infant baptism dominated church practice, and the adult catechumenate died out. Up until the Second Vatican Council, adult baptisms were seen as abnormal, and they were done outside of the view of the parish community.
Recovery of our roots
When the Second Vatican Council issued the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the church immediately recovered the original norm of adult initiation. Infant baptisms, despite the vastly overwhelming number of them in our parishes, became what liturgical theologian Aidan Kavanagh called a “benign abnormality.”
“A norm,” said Kavanagh, “has nothing to do with the number of times a thing is done, but it has everything to do with the standard according to which a thing is done” (The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, p. 108).
The reason adult initiation is important and the reason it is the norm for the church is not simply because it is an older practice or that infant baptism is somehow less worthy. The reason adult initiation is the norm is because the sacrament of baptism-confirmation-eucharist and the faith journey initiation sacrametalizes is the norm for how we exist as a church. The baptism of infants is a pastoral necessity, but it is not the model for Christian life and mission. The preparation and initiation of adults and older children tell both the catechumens and the faithful who we are as church and why we exist.
Please share what you think about adult initiation? Do you think it should be the norm for the whole church?
10 thoughts on “Why is the norm of adult initiation so important?”
If the Sacrament was completely dependent on the recipient I would say that adult initiation process should be the norm. However, Church teaching is that the Sacraments are efficacious on their own independent of the person. To be sure the Grace given by the Spirit needs to be responded to by the person as he/she grows, but it is far better to have the aid of the Holy Spirit already within us to fight the spiritual battles that come long before adulthood.
From and experiential standpoint, my son chose to be Baptized (divorce situation) at the age of nine. He always struggled mightily against a propensity to steal. After his Baptism he was far more successful in his battle against it. In addition, I have observed that young folks who have not been Baptized seem to embrace their sinful nature more readily.
Good insight Chip. Thanks for the food for thought.
I am strongly in favor of “adult” initiation being the norm for the entire church. (I have put “adult” in quotes since I believe that seven years old should be the minimum age for Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.).
Sometimes infant Baptism is treated like a provisional sacrament with Confirmation giving teenagers the opportunity to say “yes” to Jesus themselves. But is not Baptism a serious commitment to following Jesus on the part of the person being baptized?
I can’t imagine that our church would stop baptizing infants and young children. But I wonder how things would be if infants were accepted into the Order of Catechumens instead.*
*One warning from a former colleague who had been a Baptist: she told me that in the church where she grew up there was a lot of pressure on young people to have a personal encounter with Jesus at the age of 12 so that they could be baptized. Can we not trust the Holy Spirit?
Great comment Sheryl! Thanks for sharing.
When the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults process and journey is being done to its fullest not only the catechumenate but the entire community is enriched by the experience.
Hi, even though I am involved in my parish RCIA program, I wholeheartedly believe in infant baptism. The main reason being is to have the Holy Spirit bless them early in life. I believe that Baptism gives the infants a “hedge of protection” from the evil ones.
I also believe that in the Book of Acts, when Peter and Paul were converting and Baptizing whole households, there was no mention of excluding children or infants, to me, that kind of sums it up. That being said, it should be emphasized to be fully catechised as they enter into adulthood.
Biblically, isn’t it true that when the head or heads of a household were baptized, the entire family was included, as salvation was never a strictly individual endeavor? Just as with the Jewish people, salvation was being a part of the covenant people, you were “saved” if you will within and as part of a community. Circumcision at 8 days was a sure sign of this. “As for me and my household…”–Joshua. It’s inferred in Acts 10 that Cornelius and his whole household were baptized after the Holy Spirit fell on them and they were praying in tongues. It’s ultimately God’s initiative to graft people in or adopt them into God’s family and therefore infant baptism makes sense. The grace received can also “stack the deck” against the forces in this life that would like to upturn what God wishes to do in each soul.
Another interesting side note is if complete cognition were the sole factor in accepting a candidate for the sacraments, that could exclude those who are mentally disabled. In fact, if we waited for everyone to understand the mysteries we celebrate before they could participate, there would be no Church!
This of course is not to say that all of us, no matter when we are baptized, do not have the obligation to live out our promises, but even the working out of those in our lives is developmental and should deepen with age and maturity. Since none of us ever “arrives” why not take hold of the grace of the sacrament and allow it to form us from the earliest time when it is available. God is anxious to save and draw us near to God’s heart.
While I understand the desire to see adult initiation as the norm, I find that such arguments tend to be based on a bias held by adults for adults with infants viewed as lesser beings that are not worthy to be part of the Church, at least not full members of the Church.
I am not saying that infant baptism should be the norm, but I believe that a strong and healthy Church is one that readily embraces Christ’s command to make disciples, be they infants or adults. If this is the desire, then the question changes from what is the norm of initiation to is the Church doing all that it can to effectively initiate all people at all stages of life, which will require a variety of responses for the variety of situations.
I believe adult initiation should be the norm, in as much as a person, whether he’s an infant or adult or some age in between, is being formed in the faith by a gradual process that allows for conversion and becoming part of the community of believers. Unfortunately, many adults presenting their infants for baptism don’t hold up their end of the agreement by not educating their child in the faith either by failing to bring them to Mass regularly nor by religious education. The sacraments have become things to get, not a relationship with Jesus Christ to enter into. The adults themselves don’t understand their responsibility because their own faith formation is lacking and they haven’t had their own conversion experience.