The Catholic Church has been baptizing babies ever since Christ commanded His apostles to baptize all people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (see Mt 28:18-20). This has always been the practice of the Orthodox churches and of many Protestant denominations as well.
Parents bring their babies to the waters of baptism by professing a belief in Christ on behalf of the child, and promising to raise him or her in the faith. For adults who are to be baptized, the Church also requires them to profess their faith in Christ. Because baptism confers saving grace, the earlier a person comes to baptism, the better. In infant baptism, then, though the child is too young to have faith, the parents extend their faith on the child’s behalf.
On what basis does the Church believe that the faith of one person may be effective on behalf of someone else? The Scriptures are full of examples in which Jesus extends healing grace to people based on the faith of others. For example, Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic based on the faith of those who brought him (see Mt 9:2; Mk 2:3-5). Jesus heals the centurion’s servant based on the faith of the centurion (Mt 8:5-13). Jesus exorcises the child’s unclean spirit based on the father’s faith (Mk 9:22-25). We might also note that in the Old Testament, God spares the firstborn child’s life during the Passover based on the parent’s faith (see Ex 12:24-28).
Given these examples, then, we must ask ourselves: If God is willing to effect spiritual and physical cures for children based upon the faith of their parents, how much more will He give the grace of baptism to children based upon the faith of their parents?
Why Infants Need Baptism
Why do children need baptismal grace for salvation? Because they inherit original sin from the moment of conception.
The psalmist laments: “Indeed, in guilt was I born, and in sin my mother conceived me” (Ps 51:7). The Book of Job observes: “Man that is born of woman is of few days, and full of trouble. … Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one” (Job 14:1,4, RSV). The apostle Paul tells us that “through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death” (Rom 5:12). He does not say that this sin is manifested only when the person reaches the age of reason. Rather, he writes, before baptism “we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest” (Eph 2:3).
Because babies are born with original sin, they need baptism to cleanse them, so that they may become adopted sons and daughters of God and receive the grace of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that the kingdom of God also belongs to children (see Mt 18:4; Mk 10:14). He never put an age limit upon those eligible to receive His grace (Lk 18:15-17; Mt 18:2-5).
Infant Baptism in the Early Church
The Scriptures also demonstrate that the early Church baptized babies. In the Book of Acts, for example, St. Peter preached to the crowd:
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, whomever the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39). When St. Peter said the promise of baptism is for children, the word “children” (from the Greek teknon) also includes infants. This same word, teknon, is used later in Acts 21:21 to describe the circumcision of eight-day-old infants.
The Greek word for “household,” oikos, refers to all the members of a family, adults as well as infants and children. The Book of Acts speaks of whole households being baptized, so any infants and children who belonged to these households would have been included. St. Paul baptizes Lydia with “her household” (16:15); the entire household of Cornelius (see 10:48; 11:14); the Philippian jailer “and all his family” (16:33); and the “household of Stephanus” (1 Cor 1:16). In none of these accounts is there ever any indication that infants and children are excluded from baptism.
God continues to extend His covenantal grace through the generations, then — not only to adults but to children as well, through the Church who offers His sacrament of baptism.
Read more in the “Why Do We Do That?” series from Deacon Mike Fritz.