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?