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Can a priest refuse to baptize a child born out of wedlock?

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Q:Can a priest refuse to christen a child born out of wedlock? (Mason Neck, Va.)

A: The answer — which may not be the one you were expecting or wanted — is, “It depends.” Simply that the child’s parents are unmarried would not justify refusing a baptism, and I would call Pope Francis as my witness on this.

In 2014, on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Pope Francis was reported by the Italian press as having baptized the child of an unmarried couple in a ceremony in the Sistine Chapel. That would have squared with what Pope Francis, in 2009 while still a cardinal in Argentina, was quoted as telling the Italian magazine 30 Giorni: “The child has absolutely no responsibility for the state of the parents’ marriage. And often a baptism can be a new start for the parents as well.” 

There may, however, be other circumstances that would warrant delaying a baptism. The church’s Code of Canon Law requires that, for an infant to be baptized, “there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion” (No. 868.1.2).

Priests vary somewhat as to just what evidence is needed for that assurance, but pastoral sensitivity is always critical; I personally am inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the parents.

Nearly all parishes require parents to attend a class or two of baptismal preparation, which can help to bring them back to regular church attendance and sometimes, if the circumstances permit, to have a marriage blessed in the church. (And even if there is virtually no likelihood that the parents will bring the child to Mass regularly, sometimes a grandparent is willing to step into that role.)

Questions may be sent to Fr. Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, N.Y. 12203.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017