Infant Baptism and Disparity of Cult

As anyone knows who has much experience doing the paperwork involved in a Catholic wedding, when a Catholic marries a non-Christian, one must receive a dispensation from the impediment of “disparity of cult.” These are routinely granted and I have presided at a number of such weddings, for which the Church provides a special rite that for the most part takes into account the situation of the couple (the non-Christian is still supposed to give the ring “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” but other than that does not have to pretend to be a Christian).

Today I celebrated the baptism of the child of a couple whom I married a few years ago; he is Catholic and she is Jewish. As I prepared for the baptism, I was struck by the fact that while the Church provided an appropriate rite for their marriage, there was no similar rite for their child’s baptism.

Prior to the Council, parents had no role to play in the rite of baptism; it was all about the child and the godparents. In the post-conciliar revision of the rite of infant baptism, a prominent role was given to the parents of the child. They are now asked to commit themselves to bringing up their child in the faith, they trace the cross on the child’s forehead, they renounce evil and profess their faith, and they each receive a special blessing at the end. Many of the prayers presume that they will together be nurturing their child in the faith. This obviously raises issues when one of the parents does not hold the Christian faith.

In such cases, we adapt as best we can. So, for example, I alone marked the child with the sign of the cross, rather than have only her father join me in this ritual. Rather than use the separate blessing prayers provided for the couple at the end, which presume the Christian faith of the parents, I blessed them both together using the priestly blessing from the book of Numbers. At some points where the rite addresses both parents I addressed the father alone. I dropped a phrase here and there that referred to the parent’s faith. Still, the event felt slightly awkward and patched-together, and I found myself thinking that maybe the old way, which ignores the parents entirely, would have been better in this situation.

The revision of the ritual of infant baptism to include and acknowledge the important role of the parents in transmitting the faith is in most circumstances salutary; in this case it was awkward because it didn’t reflect the complexities of their lives. My adaptations seem to me justified by necessity, but still not ideal, because they run counter to the overall impression that the rite gives of parents who are committed to the Christian faith and ready and willing to pass that faith along to their child. Of course one might ask how realistic that is in many cases where both parents are baptized Catholics, but at least in those cases one can see the rite as expressing a hope and aspiration. In this case, it seemed to me that what was needed was a quite different sort of rite, one that acknowledged the mother’s role in raising and nurturing her child, both physically and spiritually, without perpetrating the fiction that she was a Christian.


  1. Fritz – I agree that there is a need for a variation in the rite that substitutes the singular for the plural in various places where only one of the parents is Catholic. The profession of faith by the parents, followed by the question to the parents, “Is it your will that n should be baptized in the faith of the church which we have all professed with you?” must seem particularly awkward. The question should be reworded to acknowledge that (presumably) not all professed that faith and yet it is still the will of the non-professing parent that the child be baptized into that faith.

  2. On the other hand, if you ignore the parents, you face the same problem with the godparents. I can see things getting dicey especially in parts of the world where the canonical idea of “godparent” doesn’t match up with the secular understanding of the term, which is then reflected in the people chosen. And what does one do if there is a “Christian witness”, as there often commonly is?

    Just an aside: hopefully the situation you mention in the marriage rite will be rectified in the near future- the second edition of the Latin book restricts “in the name of the father, etc.” to the Christian party (who may omit it).

  3. Although I don’t do the baptisms, I help prepare the parents, do the paperwork, etc. When we have this situation I try to mention it to the priest or deacon. Where it gets really complicated is that almost all our baptisms take place with several babies and families. How do you adapt to “disparity of cult” when it affects only one of the eight or so couples? I always find this awkward.

  4. Sounds like a very good pastoral adaptation, but you are right there needs to be an additional Rite developed along the lines of what you did. It is a shame the American bishops couldn’t have spent time doing this rather than the new translation of the mass. Alas.

  5. You know, in a far-fetched way, this post is related to what happened to me today. This morning, I attended a funeral (not a memorial service) of a 93-year-old man who had left the Catholic Church to become an Episcopalian around the age of 40. The funeral was in Kent, Conn., with so many famous people who have second houses being there, all wearing black. Here is the text of the third stanza of a hymn we sang, at the request of the deceased:

    Fling out the banner! heathen lands
    Shall see from far the glorious sight,
    And nations, crowding to be born,
    Baptize their spirits in its light.

    Everyone sang with gusto, and the retired organist from Kent School played it with verve and authority. (Incidentally, those words were written by Episcopal Bishop Doane, one of the founders of Doane-Stuart School in Albany, NY, which is still going–the Stuart part of the name is from the Catholic Bishop–the school was founded by the two of them WAY before Vatican II.)

    I won’t draw any conclusions, other than to ask where does missionary spirit stop and where does politeness begin?

  6. In the specific case mentioned by Fritz, where the parents are Catholic and Jewish, we could look to find expression for the richness of the Jewish tradition to which we owe so much. The Christian tradition does not abolish the Jewish foundations, and Baptism itself has direct origins in Jewish life. It would be good to see some work done on the options which could be used here.

  7. Terri – great point, and we would have the same difficulties. Joshua, regarding godparents: it is extremely common for us that parents have non-Catholics already lined up as godparents before they come to baptism prep class. We review the canonical requirements with them and try to be creative in suggesting solutions but it does put the parents in a sensitive and awkward family/social situation. It’s a real problem.

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