Why Does the Catholic Church Baptize Infants? And Shouldn’t Baptism Be Full Immersion?

Many non-Catholics criticize the Catholic Church’s practice of baptizing infants because, according to them, baptism is to be administered only after one is “born again”—that is, after one has “accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior.” At that moment, they claim, the adult becomes a Christian, and his salvation is assured forever. Then he is baptized, although it is merely a symbolic act that has no actual salvific value. In fact, they believe, one who dies before being baptized, but after “being saved,” goes to heaven anyway.

As they see it, baptism is not a sacrament, but an ordinance. It does not in any way convey the grace it symbolizes, but it is merely a public manifestation of the person’s conversion. Moreover, baptism is inappropriate for infants or for children who have not yet reached the age of reason (generally considered to be age seven), since children are automatically saved. Only once a person reaches the age of reason does he need to “accept Jesus” in order to reach heaven.

But the Catholic Church since Apostolic times has always understood baptism differently, teaching that it is a sacrament which accomplishes several things, the first of which is the remission of sin, both original sin and actual sin (only original sin in the case of infants and young children, since they are incapable of actual sin; and both original and actual sin in the case of older persons).

Peter explained what happens at baptism when he said, at Acts 2:38 “Do penance, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins: and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” But he did not restrict this teaching to adults. He added, “For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are far off, whomsoever the Lord our God shall call.” We also read, “Rise up, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, invoking his name.” These commands are universal, not restricted to adults. Further, these commands make clear the necessary connection between baptism and salvation, a connection explicitly stated in 1 Peter 3:21: “Baptism … now saveth you also: not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the examination of a good conscience towards God by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Although Fundamentalists are the most recent critics of infant baptism, opposition to infant baptism is not a new phenomenon. In the Middle Ages, some groups emerged that rejected infant baptism, e.g., the Waldenses and Catharists. Later, the Anabaptists (“re-baptizers”) echoed them, claiming that infants are incapable of being baptized validly. But the historic Christian Church has always held that Christ’s law applies to infants as well as adults, because Jesus said that no one can enter heaven unless he has been born again of water and the Holy Ghost. His words can be taken to apply to anyone capable of belonging to his kingdom. He asserted such even for children: “Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come to me: for the kingdom of heaven is for such.”

More detail is given in Luke’s account of this event, which reads: “And they brought unto him also infants, that he might touch them. Which when the disciples saw, they rebuked them. But Jesus, calling them together, said: Suffer children to come to me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”

Now, Fundamentalists say this event does not apply to young children or infants since it implies that the children to whom Christ was referring were able to approach him on their own, that the passage refers only to children old enough to walk and, presumably, capable of sinning. But again, Luke 18:15 says, “they brought unto him also infants” (in the original Greek, “Prosepheron de auto kai ta brepha;” Προσέφερον δέ αύτϖ καί τά βρέφη ίνα αύτϖν άπτηται). The Greek word brepha (βρέφη) means “infants”—children who are quite unable to approach Christ on their own and who could not possibly make a conscious decision to “accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.” And that is precisely the problem. Fundamentalists refuse to permit the baptism of infants and young children, because they are not yet capable of making such a conscious act. But notice what Jesus said: “to such as these [referring to the infants and children who had been brought to him by their mothers] belongs the kingdom of heaven.” The Lord did not require them to make a conscious decision. He says that they are precisely the kind of people who can come to him and receive the kingdom. So on what basis can infants and young children be excluded from the sacrament of baptism? If Jesus said “let them come unto me,” who are we to deny it to them?

It is interesting to note that in Colossions 2:11-12, St. Paul says that baptism has replaced circumcision. In that passage, he refers to baptism as “the circumcision of Christ” and the “circumcision not made by hand.” Of course, usually only infants were circumcised under the Old Law; circumcision of adults was rare, since there were so few converts to Judaism. If Paul meant to exclude infants, he would not have chosen circumcision as a parallel for baptism.

This comparison between who could receive baptism and circumcision is an appropriate one. In the Old Testament, if a man wanted to become a Jew, he had to believe in the God of Israel and be circumcised. In the New Testament, if one wants to become a Christian, one must believe in God and Jesus and be baptized. In the Old Testament, those born into Jewish households could be circumcised in anticipation of the Jewish faith in which they would be raised. Thus in the New Testament, those born in Christian households can be baptized in anticipation of the Christian faith in which they will be raised. The pattern is the same: If one is an adult, one must have faith before receiving the rite of membership; if one is a child too young to have faith, one may be given the rite of membership in the knowledge that one will be raised in the faith. This is the basis of Paul’s reference to baptism as “the circumcision of Christ”—that is, the Christian equivalent of circumcision.

Nowhere in the Bible is it said that baptism should be restricted to adults, but when cornered, most critics will insist that it does. They just conclude that that is how it should be understood, even if the text does not explicitly say so. Of course, the people whose baptisms we read about in Scripture (and a few are individually identified) are adults, because they were converted as adults. After all, Christianity was just beginning—there were no “cradle Christians,” people brought up from childhood in Christian homes.

Even in the books of the New Testament that were written later in the first century, during the time when children were raised in the first Christian homes, we never—not even once—find an example of a child raised in a Christian home who is baptized only upon making a decision to “accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.” Instead, it is always assumed that the children of Christian homes are already Christians, and that they have already been “baptized in Christ Jesus.” If infant baptism were not common practice at the time, then we should have references to the children of Christian parents joining the Church only after they had come to the age of reason, and there are no such records in the Bible.

Does the Bible ever say that infants or young children can be baptized? Yes! Lydia was converted by Paul’s preaching and “She was baptized, and her household.” The Philippian jailer whom Paul and Silas had converted to the faith was baptized that night along with his household. Acts 16:33 says that “the same hour of the night … he was baptized, and all his house immediately.” And in his greetings to the Corinthians, Paul recalled that, “I baptized also the household of Stephanas.”

In all these cases, whole households or families were baptized. That means the children were included, not just the spouse. If that passage in Acts referred only to the Philippian jailer and his wife, then we would read that “he and his wife were baptized,” but we do not. Thus his children must have been baptized as well. This also applies to the other cases of “household” baptism in Scripture.

Granted, we do not know the exact age of the children; they may have been past the age of reason, rather than infants. Then again, they could have been babes in arms. More probably, there were both younger and older children. Certainly there were children younger than the age of reason in some of the households that were baptized, especially if one considers that society at this time had no reliable form of birth control even if they had attempted to practice some primitive form of it. What’s, given the New Testament pattern of household baptism, if there were exceptions to this rule (such as infants), they would be explicit.

The present Catholic attitude accords perfectly with early Christian practices. Origen, for instance, wrote in A.D. 244 (Homilies on Leviticus, 8:3:11) that “according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants.” The Council of Carthage, in 253, condemned the opinion that baptism should be withheld from infants until the eighth day after birth. In 408, Augustine wrote, in Literal Interpretation of Genesis (book 10, chapter 23, section 39), “The custom of our mother the Church in the matter of infant baptism is by no means to be scorned, nor to be considered at all superfluous, nor to be believed except on the ground that it is a tradition from the apostles.”

None of the Fathers or councils of the Church was claiming that the practice was contrary to Scripture or tradition. They agreed that the practice of baptizing infants was the customary and appropriate practice since the days of the early Church; the only uncertainty seemed to be when—exactly—an infant should be baptized. Further evidence that infant baptism was the accepted practice in the early Church is the fact that if infant baptism had been opposed to the religious practices of the first believers, why do we have no record of early Christian writers condemning it?

But Fundamentalists try to ignore the historical writings from the early Church which clearly indicate the legitimacy of infant baptism. They attempt to sidestep appeals to history by saying baptism requires faith and, since children are incapable of having faith, they cannot be baptized. It is true that Christ prescribed instruction and actual faith for adult converts (Matt. 28:19-20), but his general law on the necessity of baptism (John 3:5) puts no restriction on the subjects of baptism. Although infants are included in the law he establishes, requirements of that law that are impossible to meet because of their age are not applicable to them. They cannot be expected to be instructed and have faith when they are incapable of receiving instruction or manifesting faith. The same was true of circumcision; faith in the Lord was necessary for an adult convert to receive it, but it was not necessary for the children of believers.

Furthermore, the Bible never says, “Faith in Christ is necessary for salvation except for infants”; it simply says, “Faith in Christ is necessary for salvation.” Yet Fundamentalists must admit there is an exception for infants unless they wish to condemn instantaneously all infants to hell. Therefore, the Fundamentalist himself makes an exception for infants regarding the necessity of faith for salvation. He can thus scarcely criticize the Catholic for making the exact same exception for baptism, especially if, as Catholics believe, baptism is an instrument of salvation.

It becomes apparent, then, that the Fundamentalist position on infant baptism is not really a consequence of the Bible’s strictures, but of the demands of Fundamentalism’s idea of salvation. In reality, the Bible indicates that infants are to be baptized, that they too are meant to inherit the kingdom of heaven. Further, the witness of the earliest Christian practices and writings must once and for all silence those who criticize the Catholic Church’s teaching on infant baptism. The Catholic Church is merely continuing the tradition established by the first Christians, who heeded the words of Christ: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”

Although Latin-rite Catholics are usually baptized by infusion (pouring), they know that immersion (dunking) and sprinkling are also valid ways to baptize. Fundamentalists, however, regard only baptism by immersion as true baptism, concluding that most Catholics are not validly baptized at all.

Although the New Testament contains no explicit instructions on how physically to administer the water of baptism, Fundamentalists argue that the Greek word baptizo found in the New Testament means “to immerse.” They also maintain that only immersion reflects the symbolic significance of being “buried” and “raised” with Christ (see Romans 6:3-4).

It is true that baptizo often means immersion. For example, the Greek version of the Old Testament tells us that Naaman, at Eliseus’s direction, “went down and dipped himself (the Greek word here is baptizo) seven times in the Jordan” (4 Kgs. 5:14, Septuagint, emphasis added).

But immersion is not the only meaning of baptizo. Sometimes it just means washing up. Thus Luke 11:38 reports that, when Jesus ate at a Pharisee’s house, “[t]he Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash [baptizo] before dinner.” They did not practice immersion before dinner, but, according to Mark 7:3-4, the Pharisees “eat not without often washing [nipto] their hands, holding the tradition of the ancients: And when they come from the market, unless they be washed, they eat not [baptizo].” So baptizo can mean cleansing or ritual washing as well as immersion.

That the early Church permitted pouring instead of immersion is demonstrated by the Didache, a Syrian liturgical manual that was widely circulated among the churches in the first few centuries of Christianity, perhaps the earliest Christian writing outside the New Testament.

The Didache was written around A.D. 70 and, though not inspired, is a strong witness to the sacramental practice of Christians in the apostolic age. In its seventh chapter, the Didache reads, “But concerning baptism, thus baptize ye: having first recited all these precepts, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in running water; but if thou hast not running water, baptize in some other water, and if thou canst not baptize in cold, in warm water; but if thou hast neither, pour water three times on the head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” These instructions were composed either while some of the apostles and disciples were still alive or during the next generation of Christians, and they represent an already established custom.

The testimony of the Didache is seconded by other early Christian writings. In chapter 21 of The Apostolic Tradition (A.D. 215), Hippolytus of Rome wrote, “If water is scarce, whether as a constant condition or on occasion, then use whatever water is available.” Also, in 251, Pope Cornelius I wrote in a letter to Fabius of Antioch that as Novatian was about to die, “he received baptism by affusion, on the bed where he lay” (cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 6:43:14).