The Fruits of Baptism: Do Catholics and Anabaptists Agree on What They Are, Even if We Disagree on Who Should Partake?

When I was a young child, my mother (who was raised Catholic in the most nominal way and walked away from the Church as an adult), decided to attend a local Congregational church here in central Massachusetts.  Her stint as a Protestant lasted less than a decade, and eventually fizzled into non-practice.  While it lasted, though, there was a moment when she had my sister, brother and I baptized.  It all happened on a Sunday when I was 9, my sister 6, and my brother a year old.  For me, that baptism certainly took, as I was a believing sort of child, and even when my mother ceased to go to church, I still did.  I certainly never stopped praying.  But later, as a teenager, I fell in among non-denominational Christians in a home church.   It was explained to me that my 9 year-old baptism wasn’t really a believer’s baptism, and that now that I was old enough to choose faith for myself, it was best that I be baptized again.  This one didn’t take place in a church and didn’t involve a pretty dress, but rather an above ground swimming pool and a bathing suit.

Later, when my husband and I converted to Catholicism, a naive part of me wondered if I was going to have to be baptized again!  It was a great relief to hear that my first baptism would certainly suffice (and the swimming pool was just…extra?).  My friends in the home church apparently did not know the Roman Catholic answer to the question “Who can be baptized?”  The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “Every person not yet baptized and only such a person is able to be baptized.”  Whoops.  

I find it interesting that for all of the precision, pomp and circumstance that can be part of the Roman Catholic Church, any Christian baptism done under the correct form (‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’) with water ‘counts’ as ‘real.’  Even the question “Who can baptize?” in the Catechism might surprise some: “The ordinary ministers of Baptism are the bishop and priest and, in the Latin Church, also the deacon. In case of necessity, anyone, even a non-baptized person, with the required intention, can baptize, by using the Trinitarian baptismal formula. The intention required is to will to do what the Church does when she baptizes. The Church finds the reason for this possibility in the universal saving will of God and the necessity of Baptism for salvation” (CCC 1256). Because Christ spoke so clearly on the need to be baptized as a part of the normal path of salvation (making room here for Baptism by desire or by blood), Holy Mother Church flings out her arms with this sacrament, in a sense, and accepts Christian Baptism broadly.

I was interested to read Mr. King’s articulation of the shape baptism takes for folks in his tradition.  He puts it: “As radicals reforming the Reformers, the Anabaptists concluded Jesus taught that infant baptism doesn’t make you Christian. Rather, to be Christian is to make an adult decision to follow Jesus.”  For Catholics, baptism is more of a first step on the path of the salvation Christ offers us.  We read in the Catechism: “Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments (CCC 1213).  Keeping this door barred to those who aren’t yet decision-making adults makes less sense in our understanding of how the sacrament works.  As regards infants, Catholics teach: “Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called.  The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth” (CCC 1250).The lovely children’s hymn “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” perhaps speaks to this innocent desire of the child to be brought out of the natural darkness of sin into Christ’s supernatural light.  How is this handled for Anabaptist children?

I can, however, appreciate heartily the spirit of what King holds regarding what it means for an adult “to be a Christian.”  While Catholics might reserve that moment of adult decision-making to follow Christ for the sacrament of Confirmation, there is surely a critique to be made of cultural Catholics who don’t practice the faith much beyond having their babies baptized.  The critique could extend to treating the sacrament of Confirmation as a ‘graduation’ from church, with no more need to go to Mass! I suppose because of my convert-status, I find this reduction of the sacraments to cultural rites of passage extremely vexing.  I have not mastered enough humility and charity here!  Mr. King, can there be ‘cultural Anabaptists’ in this regard, or does this conception of baptism-as-decision safeguard against general lukewarm practice?  I understand that is the aim, but how does it work out for families, in general?  When do young adults being raised in Anabaptist families tend to be baptized?  Has deferring baptism borne good fruit in the way it has intended, or is the kind of cultural practice of religion that I describe inevitable in all denominations because of human nature?

I am also curious to know if Mr. King and I, as stand-ins for Anabaptists and Roman Catholics, could agree on this statement in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation. Given once for all, Baptism cannot be repeated” (CCC 1272).I suppose that last line might pose a problem for an Anabaptist convert who had been baptized as a baby…but what about the rest?  I’m generally curious about how Anabaptists see baptism playing out in the lives of believers.  

Our catechism certainly teaches that while baptism is an important first step in the life of Christians of any age, it is a long, long way from being the last step.  In no way does it guarantee salvation.   It is a seal that demands upkeep: “The Holy Spirit has marked us with the seal of the Lord (“Dominicus character”) ‘for the day of redemption.’ ‘Baptism indeed is the seal of eternal life.’ The faithful Christian who has ‘kept the seal’ until the end, remaining faithful to the demands of his Baptism, will be able to depart this life ‘marked with the sign of faith,’ with his baptismal faith, in expectation of the blessed vision of God – the consummation of faith – and in the hope of resurrection (CCC 1274).Is the Anabaptist understanding of how baptism relates to salvation similar?  

I confess I am rather perplexed at the conception of a ‘believers’ church.’  Mr. King reports that at least historically Anabaptists assert: “An Anabaptist-Mennonite church is a believers church. A believers church is made up not of people born into it but who have consciously decided to follow Jesus…That decision is momentous. Only those who grasp the meaning and cost of following Jesus should be baptized, Anabaptists claimed.”

The thing is, isn’t belief a long kind of road?  When I think back to what I believed when I converted in 2010, for example, it seems so bare bones, so basic.  And yet, it was all I needed to continue down the narrow way of belief in Christ.  My grasp of ‘the meaning and cost of following Jesus’ has certainly grown and matured since 2010, and Lord willing, it will continue to do so.  But what about my 9 year old baptism?  The Catholic Church would have considered me at ‘the age of reason,’ and so while I was not yet an adult, didn’t I know enough to choose, by God’s grace, to continue down the path of belief?  Could that have been considered a valid baptism for Anabaptists?  When I think about the Latin rite baptism of our 7th son, Wilfred, I can so clearly picture his wide eyes when the water poured over his tiny head, and the determined look as he rolled around the salt the priest placed on his tongue (to whet his appetite for the wisdom of God).  Babies are learning at every touch, every shift of light and shadow, and every sensation.  While no baby can articulate the faith, or count the cost, isn’t that baptism like setting the child down on that path of belief, even if the strong hands of the family and the Church will need to hold that baby up for a long while as they toddle down that road?  Wilfred cannot yet say the Rosary with us each night, but he settles in and experiences it, which is surely a part of what God will later mature in him as belief.  For me, it seems difficult to appoint a moment when one knows he has ‘arrived’ at enough belief, or enough ability to count the cost to say, “Ah, now I’m ready for baptism.”  It seems only a gratuitous gift.

While infant baptism vs. believer’s baptism has been one of the primary disagreements between the traditions we each represent in this conversation, I suspect there is much we agree on as to the nature of what baptism actually does for believers (even if for Anabaptists this is only undertaken as adults).  I would love to understand more about how faith takes shape in families in the Anabaptist tradition, and about how folks know when to take that momentous step.  I hear an earnestness in Mr. King’s posting on what it means to follow Jesus that resonates.  I think that earnestness is likely a big part of the doctrine of believers baptism, and while I can’t affirm the doctrine, I can appreciate the earnestness.  I will end with a truly lovely statement from the Catechism that I hope sums up Baptism for all Christians:  “Baptism is God’s most beautiful and magnificent gift. . . .We call it gift, grace, anointing, enlightenment, garment of immortality, bath of rebirth, seal, and most precious gift. It is called gift because it is conferred on those who bring nothing of their own; grace since it is given even to the guilty; Baptism because sin is buried in the water; anointing for it is priestly and royal as are those who are anointed; enlightenment because it radiates light; clothing since it veils our shame; bath because it washes; and seal as it is our guard and the sign of God’s Lordship” (CCC 1216).

All citations from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, article numbers noted.

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