Why Don’t They Baptize Fetuses?

Photo by sumners / 123RF

Like most men, I do some of my most important thinking while shaving in the morning. In front of the steamy mirror, with razor in hand and face lathered up, my thoughts flow freely. What are the odds that the Cubs will finally win a World Series? Does the car need an oil change? The scale says I gained five pounds—must be broken. So goes the mind in the early morning.

Today, however, my thoughts gravitated toward religion and, more specifically, the religion of my upbringing. The question came to me out of nowhere: Why don’t Catholics baptize their fetuses?

The thinking goes like this: the Vatican insists that life begins at conception, while it also insists that salvation is impossible without baptism. This latter point—that entry into heaven hinges on the sacrament of baptism—is not a meaningless theological technicality but a central tenet of the church. As such, the conclusion here for believers is inescapable. For nine months, from conception to birth, fetuses are at risk of falling into an eternal abyss should they suffer the misfortune of miscarriage, complications in delivery, or some other fatal outcome.

Given this conclusion, it’s hard to find the logic in waiting until after birth for baptism. If Mom and Dad get loose after the Knights of Columbus Christmas party and conceive a baby, how does the church justify giving the fetus no chance at paradise until Father O’Malley baptizes it as a newborn the following autumn? Those nine months in the womb are extremely volatile, ending with a trip down the birth canal that statistically might be the child’s most dangerous journey until he or she turns sixteen and starts driving.

Indeed, if eternity’s at stake, it’s difficult to understand why any believing Catholic would wait, as most do, even a few weeks after birth to baptize their baby. At a minimum, one would expect Catholic parents—even in an uncomplicated pregnancy with an apparently healthy infant—to have a priest waiting in the delivery room to secure the eventual passage to heaven. The risk is too great otherwise.

But even a delivery room priest would leave the gestating fetus vulnerable for nine months, so baptism upon conception really does seem to be the only solution. If the church would allow it, expectant mothers could be knocking on Father O’Malley’s rectory door right after taking the early pregnancy test. “Look Father, it’s positive!” the excited new mother would exclaim, waiving the plastic stick. Then, pointing to her tummy: “Please, baptize it!” With some holy water on the belly and a few choice words from the cleric, salvation would be assured.

The church apparently has no such procedure for ensuring the salvation of a fetus, so parents can’t be faulted for not utilizing it. But the fact that Catholics often wait weeks or longer after birth to baptize their babies gives us a sense of how seriously they take church doctrine on the issue. That is, about as seriously as the church’s teachings on birth control, which almost all Catholics use at some point despite the church’s official condemnation.

For the most fervent of believers, however, those weeks without baptism are risky in the extreme, since an unexpected loss of life also amounts to a loss of eternal salvation. Indeed, it says something that ordinary, responsible Catholic parents wouldn’t dream of driving their baby home from the hospital without a child safety seat, but would wait weeks or longer after birth to have the child baptized.

Saint Augustine, considered one of the greatest theologians of the church, assured all believers that unbaptized infants simply went to hell. However, nice guy that he was, he also argued that the innocent babies probably escaped the worst hellfire since they committed no personal sin but carried only original sin. Later theologians, showing perhaps a bit more benevolence, invented the concept of limbo for unbaptized infants, but the church has never officially adopted that doctrine.

Either way, there’s no heaven for innocent babies who suffer the misfortune of dying unbaptized. If the church cares about saving souls and insists that life begins at conception, it should be offering baptism upon conception.

Another shave, another pressing issue of the day resolved before the excess lather is washed away. (Although I must confess, those extra five pounds are nagging me.)