QUESTION: My son and daughter-in-law belong to a church with different beliefs from mine, and thus my new grandchildren, a few months old, were not going to be baptized. My 1950s Catholic background would not let me sleep, so I snuck them off to the laundry and performed private rites. Do I get eternal reward or damnation? — NAME WITHHELD
If you hadn’t guessed, this query arrives via The Ethicist, aka Randy Cohen of The New York Times Magazine. We’ve had an interesting discussion of this issue and what it means–if anything–over at dotCommonweal.
Read on to see Cohen’s answer–and I’d be interested to see if you know of any similar cases. And if you think it “took.”
ANSWER: By convening in the laundry you may have taken too literally the idea of baptism as the washing away of sin. I only hope your “private rites” did not include the spin cycle.
You will receive neither eternal reward nor eternal damnation but might face eternal resentment if your son and daughter-in-law discover what you’ve been up to. They may well consider the religious guidance of their children to be a parental prerogative, reasonably enough. For anyone to intervene, even a well-intentioned family member, might confuse the kids (if they are old enough to recall your idiosyncratic ritual) and undermine their relationship with their parents. One ethical guideline: a description of conduct that begins with “I snuck” is apt to raise doubts.
To a secular person, an incantation whispered over an infant is harmless nonsense. But as a believer, you should be aware that Catholicism regards baptism as a sacrament to be performed by a priest except in an emergency, when anyone may step in. But “emergency” is generally held to mean the imminent death of the child, not a doctrinal dispute with the parents.