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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?

  • Bob Hayes

    I applaud Archbishop Diarmuid for speaking out on this tricky subject, and for Francis highlighting the matter. Francis suggests we may have to choose between mercy and justice. When seeking to be merciful it is important that we are not – unintentionally – unjust to both ‘à la carte Catholics’ and faithful adherents. By ‘mercy’ are we not in danger of deceiving at least some ‘à la carte Catholics’ into thinking they are still following the faith? Likewise, will accommodating ‘à la carte Catholicism’ undermine Church teaching and authority in the eyes of the faithful? 

  • Mikethelionheart

    I really cannot believe what I am reading.
    The pompusness and arrogance of some of our priests is astounding.
    Not only has the church completely failed in its duty to teach the faith for the last 2 or 3 generations but now those who have (for some odd reason) not left because of the poor catechizing of our churches and schools are to be met with obstinance and unwelcomeness at just the moment which is an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past (ie the lazy, arrogant attitude of the church in thinking that once someone is a Catholic they will always be a Catholic and the Church needs do nothing to promote the meaning of Christianity to anyone already baptized) and to bring them back into the fold.
    Actually, the more I think of it I have no idea why I was so surprised.

  • Joel Pinheiro

    One of the priests you mentioned seems to strike a good balance in requesting that the family attends some sessions of instruction. Nothing too heavy, no necessary commitment to become a fully-practicing Catholic; but also requires from the parents a token of commitment in attending the sessions and gives them the opportunity to learn more about the Faith; and who knows, if they like what they hear, perhaps they will come to Mass some time.

  • MCarroll

    They need to start getting firmer with practising Catholic before they start getting firmer with non-practising ones.

    The shambles of three generations of lost Catholic teaching.needs to cease immediately. This farce can not continue. I am Catholic but in terms of teaching, the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches are putting us to shame (even despite the fact they do not have the full deposit of faith).

  • Liam Ronan

    I think it is indeed a conundrum, however, I do believe a child should not be denied baptism. I am reminded of the verse “The bruised reed he shall not break: and smoking flax he shall not extinguish: till he send forth judgment unto victory.” Matthew 12:20 

  • Oconnord

    If I may I’ll repost my comment the Irish Independent’s original article:

    “The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, has urged the country’s lapsed Catholics to have the maturity to leave the church. Archbishop Martin urged non-believers to walk away from the church”The Archbishop’s words are wilfully misleading when compared to the actions of the church over the last two years. If I may quote from the website.”The Catholic Church continues to block efforts by those who wish to formally renounce their membership of the faith. The organisation recently assisted 16 people in their effort to have an “Act of Apostasy” recognised as a formal declaration of their wish to leave the church. However, the Archdiocese of Dublin has decided it cannot accept these declarations meaning those who wish to leave the church continue to be denied this option.The website made headlines in 2009 when it offered a simple 3-Step process for this wishing to formally leave the Catholic Church. The process involved sending a “Declaration of Defection” to one’s local diocese, after which an annotation was made to the baptismal register. In 2010, however, the church made changes to Canon Law which removed the option to formally defect. Count Me Out has been exploring alternative methods of formally renouncing one’s membership since the changes to Canon Law and recently trialled a new declaration known as an “Act of Apostasy”.The Act of Apostasy allows someone to declare themselves an apostate to the faith, i.e. one who rejects Christian teachings. Canon Law stipulates that an apostate to the faith automatically incurs a latae senteniae excommunication. In response to the 16 Acts of Apostasy which were sent to the Archdiocese of Dublin in June 2011, a spokesperson stated that they would not be accepted. Furthermore, it was stated that excommunication does not mean that somebody is no longer a member of the church.”So the reality is the church is much like “The Hotel California”, you can try check out anytime you want, but you never ever get to leave!

  • Liam Ronan

    Not to over-egg my point about not excluding children from baptism, but I think Luke 18:16 is worth reflecting on: 

    “But Jesus, calling them together, said: Suffer children to come to me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”

  • Ms. Drew

    When a baptised Catholic chooses to not practice their faith, that is their choice that one day they will be required to answer to God for.  But if you choose to practice your faith, the church has an obligation to speak the whole, absolute TRUTH in the spirit of merciful love.  At the present time there is much confusion in the church and many parishoners who call themselves Catholic are not practicing the true catholic faith.  This is what the church needs to be firmer about.     

  • Mariano Barrientos

    There are many things that I don’t like about the my church, so what I have decided to be catholic and my likes and dislikes are mine only, either I follow the rules or I go some where also

  • Anonymous

    People of God:
    Realize that since the communists/socialists/atheists/secular humanists/pagans removed the 10 Commandments from the public square, there is no “value” placed on believing in God. What do you think that the Russians and Nazis were doing to the entire Eastern Bloc? Also, remember free will? There many people with unformed and uninformed consciences. In the day and age of multi-media, there is no excuse for pleading ignorance. The catholic church (nor any other) is NOT the country club nor McDonald’s.
    By the same token, it is up to the remnant to Know Your Faith!!!! Then, you are able to, by way of The Holy Spirit, to instruct the ignorant, councel the doubtful, and for God’s Sake, get out and evangelize! Be bold and enthusiastic… then maybe these folks would have a more positive example of what it’s like to live like a catholic should.
    Until then, free will takes over and the wrong choices make us stupid.

  • Anonymous

    Pray for vocations.
    Here in the USA, we have the “other remnants”– the product of hippies, flower children, and just plain lousy socialist formation. They are in charge, but I got news for them. Saint Peter is tolling the bell for them; the entrance of the pearly gates just might not open. Recall the rich man and Lazarus the beggar.
    The few lousy priests make it bad for the good ones.
    Anybody is welcome in the church, but we are not meant to be passive bystanders.
    Also, if any priest says, It’s ok to miss mass and go to the sacraments any time you please, he’s heaping hot coals on his head.  Big responsibility. Should not be taken lightly.

  • Peter Maher

    I am not sure why we are intent on making the church as difficult a place as possible to enter or stay connected. While the liturgists have won the day by making the consecration of the Mass a new place for exclusion from God’s love by changing “all” to “many”; a surer guide of God’s intention might be Jesus who clearly favoured the outcast, the excluded, the ritually unlcean and the children as locus imperii of the reign of God.  If you want to enter the kingdom, you must become as a little child and be open to seeing God in all people.  The church is doing a very good job of turning people off by poor pastoral and liturgical practice, sexism, homophobia and exclusivist teaching, let’s not turn away those still seeking us for whatever reason.

  • PeterS

    We weretaught as children that baptism brings certain graces. Are we to denythose graces to children who have no say in the matter. Is it not possibl that thaegrace may lead to a genuine acceptance of the faith in later life. The Church in France took a hard line over forty years ago and the churches are absolutely devoid of people. The desire to have children baptised is not just necessarily cultural; does it not often indicate a spark?

  • theroadmaster

    It seems that while the baptismal rite is the entry point for the child into the Church of God, the Sacrament of Confirmation would seem to mark an exit point for a lot of young people as they go into their teenage  years and then adulthood.  Holy Communion of course is supposed to be the introduction by the Church to children of Jesus in the Eucharist but in more recent times it has developed into a fashion show for kids where materialistic concerns seem to trump the spiritual significance of this most Holy Sacrament.  The aforementioned stages in the spiritual development of youngsters cannot be taken lightly and the priest acting in “Persona Christi” is mandated to ensure that the parents, who first and foremost should be the primary resource for the spiritual nourishment of their children, take their responsibilities seriously.  This has to be balanced with encouragement for lapsed Catholic parents and family members to reconnect themselves with the sacramental life of the Church as Jesus Her founder came to gather the lost sheep during His missionary years on earth.



  • Mathart63

    Those who use the Sacraments of the Church for superficial reasons dishonor them, which is sacrilege by definition

  • Anonymous

    I do seem to recall something about separating the wheat from the chaff. Jesus “favoured” the ritually unclean? When?

  • Awjmgibbs

    All of these comments neglect to mention the power of the Holy Spirit at work in these Sacraments.  I have experienced people in later life becoming interested in the Catholic Faith, and taking instruction etc., and they have stated they were Baptised as an infant by some family member. 

  • Bob Hayes

    ‘Many’ may not be to your liking, but I refer you to the words of Jesus at the last supper, Matthew 26:28

    ‘for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is to be poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’. 

    Mark 14:24 also uses ‘many’. 

  • Oconnord

    Having watched the RTE show on which the article is based, I’m pretty sure most commentators would be appalled. They showed the usual scene of closed church buildings and falling numbers. They then visited vibrant modern churches. These seemed to be a mix of a gentle Sunday school and a community centre. The women of the community (not all catholic or Irish) ran them. The priest seemed to be drafted in on Sundays and communions. Overall the removal of the clergy would be a hiccup soon adjusted to.

    Also the much repeated ideas that if you’re raised catholic, you’ll stay or that those raised in non-believing households will “find god” have been shown to be wrong again. The latest BSA survey is interesting. 50% of those surveyed say they have no religion, rising to 65% amongst 18 to 24 year olds. 10% called themselves catholic, but less than 40% attended mass more than once a month.

    Most interesting is retention rates, 60% of people were raised catholic and still consider themselves as such. Sounds pretty good but four in ten who were raised catholic now say they have no religion. If you compare that to people raised without religion, 95% of whom say they still have no religion. 

    The RTE show the article is based on is available on RTE’s Realplayer.
    I’m using the latest British Society Attitudes Survey so please do double check my numbers.

  • Calogero

    The Bible says in Revelations 3:16 “But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”  God said it in His Word and that settles it, rather you believe it or not!  You either are CATHOLIC or ya not!  If not, you are only fooling yourself, not God!

  • Bluebellsandheather

    The Sacrament of Baptism should be received only if a person believes, accepts and commits to Jesus Christ. It is a putting on of Christ and dying with Him.

  • Bluebellsandheather

    The children are not coming to him per se; some parents have this ceremony and never take the chikd to church again or instruct the child in the Faith.

  • Pesqueira

    i would refer the Archbishop to the examples of the woman at the well, the good Samirian, the Roman officer. The Church in a very authoritarian way demands allegiance to it’s beliefs and practices and yet is not all to adherent to the message of Christ. Belief in a practice is not Faith, as demonstrated by the Gospel. In light of the non-Jew examples and to paraphrase Christ own words, ye of little Faith, and what Faith has this one, where others have failed. The Church has shown a very judgemental attitude, granted in some cases it may be correct in others it may be entirely wrong. When it is wrong, it’s examples cause great harm to souls. Self righteousness is a sin. 

  • LocutusOP

    There is no place in the Catholic church for anyone who does not believe in God (and follow the teachings of the Church).

    I always thought this was a rather self-evident point since the Catholic church is a community of “believers” first and foremost. Sadly, I find that whenever I raise this point I seem to be on the defensive.

    I was baptised into the Catholic church yet I can hardly remember ever being to a Catholic church as a child – apart from the baptism ceremony. I am of the firm opinion that children of non-believing parents should not be baptised.

    During baptism the parents take a vow to raise the child in accordance to the teachings of the church. If the priest has good reason (and non-attendance is as good as any) then the priest ought not to agree to the baptism. If he does – and he knows the parents are lying – then surely he’ll be actively involved in their sin. He’ll also be actively involved in breaking 1 or 2 of the 10 commandments (the 9th for sure, and possibly the 3rd).

    By all means we should encourage all faithful Catholics to reach out to those who have wandered off. But that is only possible if we recognise they’ve wandered off in the first place. Surely we’re complicit in their sins if we do not?

    I’ll agree with the one of the posters that all Catholics – especially priests – should preach the full gospel.

    Conclusion: Those who do not believe should be honest enough either
    to submit to God or to leave the Church. Those who serve God should be
    honest enough to tell the non-believers that.

  • Nmartin1994

    I think first and foremost welcome these children into God’s True Church.  I don’t know that this is as much social as some would believe – I think it’s the Holy Spirit calling to these new parents on behalf of their child, and they just don’t get it yet. Here in Canada we still have some provinces left that allow for either a Catholic or Public school choice.  Where we are failing these kids is in Catholic school.  I’ve had some teacher friends tell me that there is such a crunch to get in all the provincial curriculum expectations, that they will push aside their religion classes to focus on math, science and reading.  From my experience, these kids have NO idea of the basics of their faith, let alone anything to do with the sacraments.  My daughter was reprimanded once in class for answering a question from a fellow student about hell.  This child asked my daughter if she thought it was real.  When teacher listened to my daughter’s truthful answer, she yelled at her to stop “scaring” her peer, and that she didn’t know what she was talking about.  Yes, this was a Catholic school.  

  • LocutusOP

    By that logic we ought to be open to baptising just about anyone who shows up on the door on the probability that God’s grace might enter them at one point in their lives. Baptism would then have to be open to everyone, regardless of whether they were Muslims, Hindus or atheists bitterly opposed to God.

    The flaw in your logic  lies in that although God’s grace is given freely to everyone, we have to co-operate (or at least not work against it). Furthermore, baptism welcomes (or ought to anyway) us into a faith community committed to following Jesus Christ and his ways…Surely this should not be open to those who deny the very reality of Christ.

    “Do you reject the devil and ALL his ways?”….”Do you BELIEVE in God, The Father, Jesus Christ, his Son, The Holy Spirit AND the holy Catholic church?”
    Unless you can accept that without flinching, and believe that the Catholic church is the way to the “Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” then your answer should be a simple and honest “No, I don’t”.  

    Case solved.

  • Dissenting

    “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.’”

    Perhaps they do believe in God, and perhaps receiving the sacraments without regular attendance at Sunday Mass will one day bring them back to the practice of their faith.Certainly, no priest should ever refuse infant baptism: Jesus commanded that the little ones should be brough to Him.

  • Nat_ons

    Yes, of course; but priests – especially those in pastoral oversight, as with the bishops – must start with themselves. That, rather than addressing the many and various faults of their flock, is the greatest .. and seemingly the hardest .. obstacle to be overcome in ministering to souls. For when one’s elders in Christ live as they ought – and know perfectly well how they ought to act – then their charges can begin to see this good in action, even if imperfectly; when bishops in the Roman communion try (without too much effort being needed) to be as un-orthodox, non-traditional and anti-popish as they can get away with, well, showing up lapsed, mediocre and struggling Christian souls is worse than hypocrisy it is downright crucifixion of the Truth.

    The Sacraments of Church, however, are not a priest’s gift they are Christ at work in his body .. sick as it may well be. It is the Holy Ghost, not grandparents nor bishops, to whom one looks for meaning in Baptism as in the other words of the Word at work in power. God, Father, Son and Spirit who – according to orthodox catholic understanding – calls us, up-lifts us, and enlivens us; this is so irrespective of the sinner’s sin .. firm evangelism, good catechesis and sincere leadership remain the answer to the faithless or faint when seeking admission of their family to the Faith.

    Yet for the priest to be able to tell his more or less unfaithful charges that the Sacraments are not a social right which they may claim but a divine favour to which they are personally invited, he must first be able to look the sinner in the eye. How many priests today are able to look themselves eye-to-eye in the mirror, and say to themselves that they do understand, most firmly accept and dutifully witness with joy to the Faith is moot (for the Faith, it seems, all too often, could not have been high up on any crowded seminary agenda). The cafeteria Catholic is no more of a sinner than the cafeteria priest or bishop, and they are no less sinning in their neglect of the Faith than the occasional pew-filler; the ephemeral Age of Aquarius life of choice is the cultural ethos still permeating the Catholic Church, so confronting something as obdurate as sin has become next to impossible; thus, where once even a wicked priest might point to the discipline of being a disciple and the sinner recognise it, now even the woe-begotten faithful are thrown on a D-I-Y sense of faith – or the rule of what they had thought the Faith once was meant to mean – and the self-sacrificing priest also is cast adrift on the same currents of as-it-pleases spirituality.

  • Dissenter

    Where in the Bible does it mention ‘Catholic’?

  • Merton Rodger

    Those who want the sacraments but don’t live thye life are living
    a lie…. Jesus knows your heart, he’;s not fooled by social graces.
    Eternity is a long time to be wrong….(why don’t they believe?)

  • John

    Who is worse, the Catholic who does not practice, or the one who does and publicly defies church teaching. First the bishops need to get tough on the “publicly defient”, and then the priest can his non-active flock. The non-active can easily become active by some act of God in his life, but the outwordly defient is a far greater scandle that causes people to become non-active. So the bishop needs to first excommunicate those who are publicly practicing and at the same time publicly opposing the church, such as many Catholic public figures in politics and entertainment.

  • Pesqueira

    It was against Jewish law to touch a leper, they were ritually “unclean.”
    I hope this answers your question.

  • Pesqueira

    Christ many a time addressed the hierarchy of His times. It was often in regards to the adherance to the letter of the Law as opposed to the “Spirit of the Law”. Honestly, belief in G-d, is not limited to Christians or Catholics. I have witnessed acts of Love and Compassion, hallmarks of Christianity performed by non-christians.  When preaching  to the choir, a closed minded attitude creeps in, until what is certainly believed becomes a hard cold reality. As Catholics, we have be taught over the ages to believe many things. Belief is fine but it is not a substitute Faith. Belief is probably best thought of as a stepping stone to Faith, it is not the final leap.

  • Francis

    In the Gospel Jesus tells us not to prevent children coming to Him. Refusing to baptize a child means preventing that child from becoming a child of God. God in His own way brings closer to Him those whom He wishes. We humans should not judge people. Administering of sacraments should not be a monopoly of the priests.   

  • Pesqueira

    I would like to know what the Archbishop thinks about the excommunication of the SSPX and  their refusal to become a signatory to the professions of Faith after being un-excommunicated by Pope Benedict XVl ? There are also the Austrian priests who have vocally disagreed with the Pope’s policy to return to a more conservative chuch? These are just two examples of the Church being deeply divided. There are many many more.The entire world finds itself deeply divided.  To further rejection anyone or drive anyone away is the wrong policy at the wrong time. It gives ammunition to the Church’s critics and I for one will not say they’re wrong.
    I am almost certain those wishing Baptizism for their children can find a Protestant sect to Baptize them and God Bless them for it.

    Being a hardnose has it’s value but not in this argument.

  • geoffreysmith1

    It doesn’t.  So what?

  • geoffreysmith1

    Name and shame that school.  Otherwise, keep your allegations to yourself.

  • Cyndiana

    There is such a place as hell and it needs to be taught in Catholic schools and Churches. The greatest miracle of the devil is having people think hell does not exist and that it is not taught in Catholic schools or from the pulpit in the Catholic Church.

  • Anonymous

    What far distant planet do you orbit? If you read your Holy Bible, and I am looking at mine as I type (Douay-Rheims Version— older than dirt and proud of it), it says “many” as Bob (see his remark, thank you) stated to you.
    I prefer to be wheat vs chaff (thanks aearon); the grain of wheat that falls on good ground and starts anew.

  • Anonymous

    In the mean time, Baptism + wasted time doing nothing to acknowledge the presence of God Almighty, nor practicing the faith that was to be taught to you by parents & Godparents =0 (zero). Was the Holy Spirit allowed to work in this equation? The answer is No because of free will. Christianity is not a religion, it is a way of life– as taught by Jesus Christ Himself.

  • Msvickitee

    I came very close to leaving the Church when my parish priest refused to baptize my grandchild because the parents were non-practicing.  I personally intended to see to the child’s religious education and Church life.  Luckily another priest agreed to baptize the child, stating the child should not be refused Catholicism if someone wanted to help them be raised in a state of belief.  Due to the request of the child the mother did eventually renew her ties with the Church.  I cannot understand the right of a priest to make any refusal of admittance to the Church when only God knows what the future holds. (And sometimes the Grandparent is wise enough to make a good decision)

  • Msvickitee

    I might state the reason I was going to leave the Church is I felt the priest was telling me God’s blessings were selective, I could not endorse that belief.

  • Pesqueira

    You sound like someone who likes to tell people what to do.

  • Anonymous

    Say the Nicene Creed:  I Believe in God….. Amen.
    Now, what are the 3 legs of the stool (that’s the way I learned it) that make up the Catholic Church?  Sacred Scripture, Catholic Tradition and Authority (Pope)– somebody will give the right words, I just know it! Feel free to charitably do so.
    No priest, no Mass. No Mass, no Church of Jesus Christ.
    I don’t like it any more than you in regard to lousy clergy. Believe you, me, I could write a very thick book on what my family went through when dealing with lousy, luke-warm priests, out of which one did leave because he had no vocattion.
    By the same token, where is the fraternal correction, love and forgiveness?
    Try a 54-Day Rosary Novena for vocations (3 novenas of petition and 3 of thanksgiving); it takes a lot of discipline to do the part in thanksgiving without belly-aching. Try it.

  • Pesqueira

    So what? You sound like someone who parrot’s. So what! So what!
    Geoffrey wants a cracker!

  • Anonymous

    You’re judging….. (ie, who should and shouldn”t or who can and cannot be baptised).
    It sounds like you are a protestor?

  • Pesqueira

    “Name and shame that school.” That would be the advice I would expect from the devil. Tempting someone, are we? Now, I would expect you to twist my words.

  • geoffreysmith1

    I like to tell people to do as I do, not as you say.

  • geoffreysmith1

    I am heartily sick of these comments from people who make one allegation after another against some aspect of the Church’s life and teaching.  If they are not prepared to give names, dates and places of any alleged abuse of Church teaching, they should put a sock in it and stop sowing doubt and discord in the ranks of the laity.