For the first five centuries that the church existed, the norm for initiation was baptism of adults. Infants were probably also baptized, but the New Testament never explicitly mentions that they were. By the second century, there is more firm evidence of the baptism of infants and children, but it is not the norm. Some church leaders, in fact, argue against baptizing infants since they are too young to “know Christ.”
By the time of St. Augustine, at the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth centuries, infant baptism is becoming more common, but still not as dominant a practice as it would soon become.
St. Augustine resets the norm
Augustine was a “normal” Catholic for his time, meaning his mother enrolled him in the catechumenate as an infant, and he was not baptized until he was in his 30s. Once he was baptized, he became a fierce critic of some of the heresies that were popular in his day.
One heresy he fought against was Pelagianism. The Pleagians believed that we are born completely pure and innocent. As we grow, we are corrupted and fall into sin.
That didn’t make sense to Augustine. He reasoned that the church baptizes infants, even if it was not yet the usual practice to do so. And the reason for baptism is to wash away sin. Therefore, infants couldn’t be completely pure. There must be some sin to wash away.
Augustine realized, of course, that no infant can commit a sin. But he concluded there must be something inherent in human nature that is contrary to God’s perfect will. The imperfection of the human condition came to be called “original sin.”
Adult catechumenate dies out
Unfortunately, people who came after Augustine took the notion of original sin to an extreme and concluded that if babies die before being baptized, they will go to limbo or even hell. Since infant mortality rates were high in those days, this was a big concern. The result was a complete shift in initiation practice. Even families with little or no faith began to present their babies for baptism to protect them in the afterlife.
Following Augustine’s era, the widespread convention of infant baptism dominated church practice, and the adult catechumenate died out. Up until the Second Vatican Council, adult baptisms were seen as abnormal, and they were done outside of the view of the parish community.
Recovery of our roots
When the Second Vatican Council issued the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the church immediately recovered the original norm of adult initiation. Infant baptisms, despite the vastly overwhelming number of them in our parishes, became what liturgical theologian Aidan Kavanagh called a “benign abnormality.”
“A norm,” said Kavanagh, “has nothing to do with the number of times a thing is done, but it has everything to do with the standard according to which a thing is done” (The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, p. 108).
The reason adult initiation is important and the reason it is the norm for the church is not simply because it is an older practice or that infant baptism is somehow less worthy. The reason adult initiation is the norm is because the sacrament of baptism-confirmation-eucharist and the faith journey initiation sacrametalizes is the norm for how we exist as a church. The baptism of infants is a pastoral necessity, but it is not the model for Christian life and mission. The preparation and initiation of adults and older children tell both the catechumens and the faithful who we are as church and why we exist.
What do you think?
Please share what you think about adult initiation? Do you think it should be the norm for the whole church?
Check out this webinar recording: “Little-known ways to turn your RCIA into an adult process—even for children “ Click here for more information.
See also these related articles:
- What commitment is your RCIA prioritizing?
- Why children in the RCIA need a community, not a classroom
- Have we actually tried the RCIA?
- Six Keys to Catechesis for Baptized Candidates
- Two keys to RCIA conversion that challenge our existing norms
“Born Out of Water by Виталий Смолыгин | Public domain