Infant baptism has been a fundamental Christian practice since the first days of the early Church. Still today in the Catholic Church, the baptizing of newborns is not only performed but preferred. But what’s the rush? The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains that “the Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth” (CCC 1250).
To delay unnecessarily — or worse — deny a child the sacramental graces of baptism would be to withhold that which Christ desires to freely give. The early Church understood this. In fact the only reported dispute regarding infant baptism in the early Church is noted in the third century when it was debated whether baptism should be delayed until the eighth day after birth as it was with circumcision in the Jewish tradition (Gen 17:12).
Early Church father, St. Cyprian, and some of his fellow bishops responded concisely to those clinging to the old Mosaic law (requiring circumcision to be performed on the eighth day after birth) by stating in their decree: “For no one agreed with the course you thought should be taken; rather we all judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to anyone born of man” (Letters 58:2 [A.D. 253]). They asserted that baptism should not be delayed unnecessarily for any person of any age, including newborns. These early apostolic fathers understood with profound clarity what Jesus meant when he commanded his disciples: “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Mt 19:14).
Infant baptism is not practiced by all Christians. In fact it is condemned by some. Why? Largely because it is not found explicitly in Sacred Scripture. There are no explicit accounts of infant baptism in the New Testament, but there is also a total absence of biblical passages condemning the baptism of infants. There are certainly accounts of adult baptisms in the New Testament but these occur only after the same adults convert to Christianity. In fact these biblical accounts of adult conversion also do well to illustrate the urgency of baptism as in the cases of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:38) and the jailer and his household at Phillippi (Acts 16:33). So the New Testament shows the baptism of adults but only after adult conversions and often with much urgency.
The Scriptural passages on baptism even causes disagreement in the Protestant circle. Lutherans baptize infants, as do Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and the United Church of Christ, for example. Most Evangelical churches do not.
We may not have explicit mentioning of infant baptism in Sacred Scripture but we certainly have implied evidence. Peter proclaims in Acts that the promises of the Sacrament of Baptism are available to adults and their children (Acts 2:38). St. Luke writes about the baptism of the household of Lydia (Acts 16:15) and the baptism of the jailer and his household at Phillippi (Acts 16:33). St. Paul affirms that he baptized the household of Stephanas (1 Cor 1:16). There is no mention of exclusion of infants or children. This is why the question remains unsettled even within the Protestant denominations. It has been settled, however, in the Catholic Church for two thousand years.
We see several “households” baptized in the New Testament. What did these households consist of? Households in the time of the apostles may have included not only parents and children, but grandparents, servants or slaves (and their families as well!). We can also confidently assume that families were generally larger in biblical times than today’s “modern” families. It is likely that these households included children; and since there is no mention of children and infants being excluded from these mass baptisms, we can reasonably assume that they were among the baptized.
Babies are not old enough to accept Jesus as their personal Saviour for themselves. But this is not a problem. It might have been if baptism is merely a symbolic gesture — but it is so much more than a symbol. In fact it is infinitely more than that! The Church since its foundation has always taught that baptism is necessary for salvation. This explains the urgency in the New Testament accounts. Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one can enter heaven without “being born of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:5). St. Peter pointedly proclaims a “baptism, which saves…” (1 Pet 3:21). In fact he draws us into recollection of the waters which cleansed the world of wickedness in Noah’s time, and uses this point of reference to reveal with conviction the new waters of baptism which now cleanse and save us from sin (1 Pet 3:20). You can just hear St. Peter’s passion and urgency in proclaiming the saving power of baptism in his sermon at Pentecost (see Acts 2, especially verse 38).
The grace of salvation is available to us because of Jesus’ sacrifice, is free. The “sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism” (CCC 1250). For this reason parents joyfully seek God’s saving grace on their child’s behalf. This reality has its origin in the New Testament. The Scriptures clearly show that God happily bestows His graces upon children through the faith of their parents, as is illustrated in the raising of Jairus’ daughter and other such occasions in the Gospels (Mk 5:41; Mk 7:29; Mk 9:25; Mt 9:25).
With all these things considered and remembering that “the faith required for baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop (CCC 1253), we return to the original question regarding the baptism of infants and reply with gentleness and reverence: What’s the the delay?