If you’re Catholic, you’ve probably heard quite a bit about the licitness of certain baptisms in the past few weeks. I thought I’d jump on the train of “hot takes regarding baptism” and state my own: if you’re Catholic, you should know how to administer a baptism in an emergency.
(I wish they had covered this in my CCD class or in my confirmation class. If they did, I don’t remember it.)
As a Catholic birth and bereavement doula, this is a skill that I keep up on. I’m sharing this info with you in case you want to do the same.
Two quick side notes: first, this article is going to cover how to do this in the case of a baby. There are different rules that apply to older children; to learn more, check out this article.
Second, I AM NOT A THEOLOGIAN. When I called my diocese to see if they would read this post and approve it through the nihil obstat or imprimatur process, they (first were very confused about what I wanted and then) told me that was only for books and my blog post didn’t need one. So no authority representing the Catholic Church has looked at this post; you’ve been warned! As always, I’ve cited all my sources so you can look at them and determine for yourself whether I’m on the right track. (If you don’t think I am, message me and help me figure out how to write a book on this so I can get someone from my diocese to make sure I know what I’m talking about!)
When can I (a layperson) baptize someone?
Canon Law says that, “in a case of necessity any person with the right intention, confers baptism licitly” (Can 861).
There are a few elements to this that might seem fuzzy, so let me show you where the Church clarifies this – and where She doesn’t.
First, what is “the right intention”? The Catechism clarifies that the right intention is “to will to do what the Church does when she baptizes” (CCC 1256). My interpretation of that is, you have to be doing your best to follow Church teaching and to administer the Sacrament on the little one like She does.
Second, what is “a case of necessity”? It seems that there’s some discretion left up to us to determine that, but the Code does go on to give a few clarifications about specific situations:
“An infant in danger of death is to be baptized without delay.” (Can 862)
“An infant of Catholic parents or even of non-Catholic parents is baptized licitly in danger of death even against the will of the parents.” (Cann 868)
Yet even this phrase – “in danger of death” – is pretty broad. There are some cases where it’s very clear that a baby is in danger of death (if you’re receiving CPR, for example, it’s probably safe to assume that you’re in danger of death), but a lot of the time with birth, it’s actually hard to know whether the danger counts as “enough” for a baptism.
Birth is, to some extent, dangerous.
For example, did you know that up to 10% of newborns require resuscitation in order to breathe? (for more info, see this source and this source.) Needing help in order to breathe might count as being in danger of death; it might not. If left unchecked, it will probably lead to death; but there are very standard interventions that can prevent that outcome. So is a baby who isn’t breathing actually in danger of death? Once again, your discernment and discretion come into play.
On a personal note, I pray for that discernment and discretion. I ask regularly that God give me the clarity and confidence to step in if someday I need to. Please pray for me in that as well.
Basically, in necessity, as long as you have the right intention to baptize, you can do it. And if an infant is in danger of death, there’s no need for your discretion as to whether it’s a state of necessity; you can definitely do it.
So, to baptize a baby, what do I do?
First of all, you don’t need to do the whole beautiful ceremony with the naming of the child or the other normal things you see at a typical baptism. Given that this is a “case of urgent necessity,” you only need to do what makes the sacrament valid (Can. 850).
No holy water on hand? That’s fine; just use water (Can. 853).
Can’t get to a church? That’s okay, just use the space you’re in (Can. 857), even if that’s the hospital (Cann. 860).
What you do need to do is baptize the child with the Trinitarian baptismal formula (CCC 1256). This means you pour water over the infant’s head three times as you say (assuming you’re Roman Catholic), “N., I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” You should pour water at each name of a Member of the Trinity. (CCC 1240)
Sometime after you administer the Sacrament, you need to go talk to your priest. He will help you sort out the right place (meaning the right parish) and way to record the baptism (Can. 878).
While I’m at it, should I confer any other sacraments?
First, there aren’t any that you can actually confer in this situation. The only other sacrament that is conferred by a lay person is the Sacrament of Matrimony (which is conferred by the two people getting married, on each other – CCC 1623), and that’s clearly not something you can licitly do with an infant or that an infant could in any way do themselves.
Second, and this may surprise you (it certainly surprised only to be me when I learned it): the one sacrament that you might think you should confer IS NOT one you can confer on an infant. Specifically, the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick can only be administered to “a member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age” (Can. 1004). If an administer isn’t sure whether someone has reached the age of reason, they can go ahead and administer the Sacrament (Can. 1005). Since no theologians that I know of say infants have reached the age of reason (and I know myriad parents who would claim otherwise), infants can’t actually receive the Anointing of the Sick.
The Church, in Her wisdom, proclaims that lay people can administer the Sacrament of Baptism in situations where an unbaptized person is in danger. If you find yourself in that position, follow the instructions on this graphic, and then go talk to a priest.