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Should priests be firmer with non-practising Catholics?

Priests vary on how they respond to requests for baptisms or church weddings from Catholics who do not go to Mass

By on Monday, 12 December 2011

Archbishop Martin says that cultural Catholics should have the maturity to leave the Church altogether if they do not believe in it (Photo: CNS)

Archbishop Martin says that cultural Catholics should have the maturity to leave the Church altogether if they do not believe in it (Photo: CNS)

A friend has pointed me to an article by Lynne Kelleher in the Irish Independent, which was taken up by an American blogger calling himself The Deacon’s Bench. The article quoted Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin as suggesting that Ireland’s lapsed Catholics should have the maturity to leave the Church. In an obvious reference to “cultural Catholics” who eg want to be married in a church and have their children baptised for purely social reasons, the archbishop is alleged to have said: “It requires maturity on those people who want their children to become members of the Church community and maturity on those people who say ‘I don’t believe in God. I really shouldn’t be hanging on to the vestiges of faith when I don’t really believe in it.’”

He was followed by Fr Michael Drumm from the Catholic Schools Partnership who said that the Church in Ireland would be firmer in future with parents wanting to have their children baptised as Catholics.

The blog led to some interesting comments in the posts that followed: a fellow US Catholic deacon stated that “in a few cases I’ve refused to marry a couple or baptise an infant until the adults involved demonstrated that their faith would be meaningful and practised”. Yet another deacon related that he was asked by his parish priest to baptise the baby of a non-churchgoing, unmarried mother and also give her instruction – and that she did come to Mass sometimes afterwards.

Generally the responses were evenly divided between those who agreed (cautiously) with Archbishop Martin and who felt that if it were known that the family did not intend to raise their child as a Catholic, baptism should be delayed until their attitude had changed; and those who felt this attitude lacked compassion: lost or wavering sheep should be welcomed and supported, not shunned. (Inevitably, a few posts said the Irish Church was in no position to preach to anyone, given her recent history etc).

I am never sure which way to jump in this debate – and priestly responses vary. One priest I know always baptises on request with no questions asked, believing he should give non-practising parents the benefit of the doubt; yet another used to firmly insist on attendance at sessions of instruction beforehand, as a way of showing parental commitment. I also recall an elderly priest, on the occasion of a First Communion family jamboree, telling me with sadness that he did not expect to see the parents or child again in the church – and he was proved right.

If I were a priest I would want to point out that baptism shouldn’t be done just to please the grandparents; that First Communion is more than an occasion to buy an expensive dress for family photographs; and that a church wedding shouldn’t be requested in order to have a tasteful backdrop. But what if this puts off the enquirers from coming to church again? Is mercy rather than justice required here?

  • MeganG

    Thank you very much for your reply & the link. I’m very happy that your reconciliation with the Church was a positive experience. It gives me some hope and encouragement for my own personal journey. I just wish some people would think of the consequences for others before they approach their keyboard. The general tone of some of the comments left me feeling quite depressed, frankly.

  • EditorCT

    I always suggest to Catholics thinking of returning to the Faith, to explore thoroughly what is happening in the Church today.  To “return” to the nearest parish, may actually be hazardous to your spiritual health!
    May I suggest you study the Mass and Priesthood pages (as well as the Fatima pages) on our website at before you make any definite moves.  To return to the Faith of our Fathers may not, sadly, be the same thing as returning to the nearest parish.
    God bless you – I sincerely hope everything works out well for you.

  • MeganG

    Thank you very much for taking the time to reply to me. I have taken on board your comments and will study the pages you recommend.