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.