Baptism by water is a sacrament that dates back to the very beginning of the Christian church. In some denominations, baptism is a requirement for salvation, while others view it as initiation into the church. For many families, whether or not to baptize their baby is an important conversation. This is particularly true for interfaith couples, as well as couples in which one partner is a believer and one is not. With a diversity of religious traditions, as well as a range of beliefs within families, there are certain things you should ask your partner before you baptize your baby.
I have a somewhat complicated history with religion, although I expect that's a fairly common experience. Growing up, I went to vacation bible school and attended a Methodist church on occasion. Eventually, we settled on a Lutheran church where I was baptized at the age of 13. I remember attending youth group meetings, "lock-ins," and even a "purity" seminar (spoiler: it didn't work).
I felt like something was lacking, so in search of the missing piece, I chose a Christian college after high school. There, the pressure to conform and the general intolerance of diverse thoughts and opinions by the student body drove me from religion entirely. I had a brief resurgence of faith during my volunteer year in Honduras, when I was regularly attending mass, but I think what I really liked was the ritual and community.
Now, in my 30s, atheism seems the best fit for me. Personally, Christianity doesn't sufficiently explain suffering in the world, and it's history is pretty ugly. Currently, especially among conservative Christians, I see a lot of hypocrisy (e.g. railing against abortion but opposing birth control and universal access to healthcare). I also can't get behind any faith that claims to be the one true church, damning the rest of the world to hell.
My husband is nominally Catholic. He grew up in the church, and it's something I think he'd like to go back to eventually. Before we even had children, we established that they would be raised Catholic. I agreed to this on the condition that I would not regularly attend church, that I would answer honestly if asked about my convictions, and that when they were old enough, they would be allowed to decide whether or not to continue their religious education. Although there are parts of the Catholic Church that give me serious pause (specifically, their history of sexual abuse), I respect Pope Francis, the Jesuits, and the church's work toward social justice.
Whether you're the religious partner or not, or even if you both are, there are some ground rules you'll want to establish before your baby's baptism.
"When Will The Baptism Take Place?"
Not all churches agree about when a person should be baptized. Some argue against infant baptism because it is sacrament that requires both repentance and faith, neither of which an infant is capable of expressing. Some proponents say that baptism is necessary in order to wash the baby clean of original sin, while others assert that it confers divine grace and ushers the child into the visible church.
Families need to consider which church they will baptize their child into, as that will help answer this question. We already knew it would be a Catholic baptism. According to canon law, babies should be baptized within their first few weeks of life. Because we wanted all family to be present and were planning two moves within the first year of our child's life, we waited until we were settled to baptize her. It was a matter of practicality. Although it was contrary to theological teachings on the matter, we viewed baptism as signifying membership in the church. As far as we were concerned, the only thing sinful about our baby was what she was leaving in her diaper.
"What Does Baptism Mean To Us?"
As you approach baptism, it's important to consider its meaning for your child and family. Do you see it as salvation? Rebirth? Deliverance? Or is it merely symbolic? An initiation to the Christian life and the church community? Does it signify a responsibility on the part of the baptized to be faithful and obedient to God?
Your answers to these questions will inform your decision regarding religion moving forward. For us, baptism meant that our baby was now part of a greater community. We agreed to bring her up in the church, but we'd let her decide as she got older whether or not to continue. Since I'm not worried about her being liberated from sin, it's fine with me either way.
"What Will Our Respective Duties Be?"
At least in the Catholic Church, getting your child baptized takes some work. Since it was kind of my husband's deal, he was in charge of contacting the parish, meeting with the coordinator, ensuring the correct paperwork was complete, and scheduling the baptism with the church and our family. During the baptism, he would hold our daughter.
For my part, I agreed to attend one meeting (at which I asserted my non-belief but my support of my husband's wishes), find a baptism outfit, arrange for a photographer, and plan the after-party. Even though I don't believe in God myself, it was important to me to be there and stand by my child as the sacrament was performed.
"What Role Will Religion Play In Our Child's Life?"
Baptism may very well be the first of many decisions you make about your family's spiritual life. Maybe you're already religious and active in your church, so it's not even a question for you. But as we know, kids can change things.
My husband and I decided that religion would play the role of positive force as a part of our daughter's "village" (if it becomes negative, I'm pulling it. Period.). He will take her to mass each week, and she'll attend Sunday school. She'll go through her first communion, but confirmation will be her choice. We'd like for her to be involved with Catholic Youth Ministries when she gets older. Basically, we're looking to give her a religious foundation with the understanding that she can choose to ascribe to it or not.
"How Will Both Our Beliefs Be Honored?"
My partner's beliefs have most certainly been honored, as we chose to baptize and raise our daughter in the church of his childhood. But what about me? I'm making some serious compromises by having my child brought up in the church. I'm OK with church activities and whatnot, but I'm not OK with indoctrination.
I made it clear early on that if my child ever asked me why I didn't attend mass, I would answer her honestly. And, honestly, I don't go to church because I don't believe in God. I will also be raising my daughter to be tolerant and inclusive, even if it goes against Church teaching (although Pope Francis gives me hope).
"What Traditions Do We Want To Honor?"
As the parents seeking a baptism, you need to know about the different modes of baptism. There's aspersion, affusion, immersion, and submersion. There was no way I was letting my precious babe get dunked in a pool of water, but fortunately, that's not the Catholic MO. She just had some water poured over her sweet little head (affusion).
There are other traditions to consider. Catholic babies are generally dressed in white, sometimes with a little cap. I got a hold of the baptismal gowns that my mother-in-law used for all four of her boys. My little girl wore that and a bonnet made by a friend that converts to a handkerchief for "something old" if she ever gets married.
"Who Will The Godparents Be?"
In most Christian faith traditions, the role of the godparents is that of sponsor. Godparents sign on for the responsibility of instructing the child in the faith, especially if the parents have failed to do so. In Catholicism, the godparent must be a practicing Catholic (a non-Catholic Christian may serve as a secondary "Christian witness") who will be a consistent presence in the child's life.
Since we wanted a couple (although this isn't obligatory), these requirements really whittled down our list. We ended up with my husband's younger brother and his wife. That worked out well, since they are second on the list (after my sister and brother-in-law) in our will to take our daughter should anything happen to us.
"Who Are We Doing This For?"
My mother-in-law is devoutly Catholic, and I knew it would mean a lot to her to have her granddaughter become part of the church. However, I didn't want to do it just for that reason. It was really my husband's desire to have our child baptized, and since it didn't matter to me and it did matter to him, my thought process was that of, "Well, why not?
I think I can look at it and say we did it for my daughter. I see it as my husband's commitment to renewing his Catholic faith. I see it as a way for her to be part of a community that will reinforce our parental teachings of the values of kindness and compassion. I see it as giving our child the option and opportunity for religion in her life, even if I've decided not to have it in mine.