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TH 302 06 Week 5

Discussing the Catholic doctrine of Baptism

By reading this excerpt from The Catechism of the Catholic Church, we see an example of a clearly-laid-out theology of Baptism, complete with references to Scripture, and an order similar to the questions we asked a few weeks ago in class. Who can be baptized, when and how? It is all here, in this example. While it is by no means necessary for you to agree with Catholic doctrine on these points, analyzing and understanding their approach to such question can help you become clearer about the traditions and practices of your own faith family.

Over the past few weeks, we have discussed several aspects of the analysis of Baptism. We will go through them here step by step.

Worldview: Time, Space, and Events

Starting with your own experience, what is time to you? From our discussion, our worldview includes urgency and finitude. Time is limited, and there is much to be done. Space is differentiated. It is arranged into what we might call 'sacred' and 'profane' space. Some types of space are considered more holy than others. If we just think of our churches, we can see this at work. The uproar that occurs when a church is turned into a bar, for example. Hallowed ground is not meant, in this worldview, to be used for 'unholy' things. Is there something special about where we worship? Our answer to this question points to the kind of theology that underlies our worldview.

Is every event of equal value? Not in this worldview. Some events will profit us, some will destroy us. Just by standing in a place, we already are beginning to see that our worldview is indicating our theology. Our thoughts about time, space, and events deeply affect, and are affected by, our theology.

Now, in turning to the Catholic doctrine, we can ask the same questions. Their sense of tim eis deeply shaped by their sense of the past. They look backwards to tradititions in a way that Protestant churches sometimes don't. They are urgent - urgent about baptism and about the work of the church in the world. This urgency points to theological issues, as well. They baptize infants to remove the stain of 'original sin,' though they also claim that baptism will not be complete until the child has gone through Confirmation.

Space for the Catholics is very complex. The word 'catholic' itself means 'universal' - they consider themselves (for better or worse) 'the church of the world.' This can have good and bad consequences, as our discussion showed. Also, the differentiation between 'sacred' and 'profane' space extends both to the opulence of their churches (something that Protestant churches can also be called to account for) and the sense that 'salvation is only found in the church' (which, with some adjustment, many Protestants might also be willing to say).

Likewise in events. Obviously, Catholics take a strong stand that certain events (baptism, Eucharist, participation in virtuous living) are not only important, but absolutely vital for the believer. This again is not a place where Protestants disagree, except perhaps in the scope and exact nature of these events.

For the Catholics, the fact that baptism is a sacrament is also very telling. Baptism is spiritually and metaphysically effectual, in their worldview.

Humanity: What is the Essence of the person? What is Community? Where are we? Where are we going?

In our discussion, the essence of the 'human being' was developed to be, after multiple revisions, a creature, created in the image of God, that has an outer self and an inner soul, on a journey, struggling, and not yet home, and not meant to be alone. This human being is with other human beings, in community. We defined the community as imperfect, yet we must be in it, working out the struggles we are born into. The community is marked by forgiveness, love, sharing, charity, broken-ness, also on a journey.

From the readings of the Catechism, what can we surmise about the Catholic notion of the human? "Born with a fallen nature... in need of the new birth" [para. 1250]. In the Catholic view, the soul itself is already on a journey, a nature that has fallen from what it was created to be. We can see in this a theological reason for baptising as soon as possible. This contrasts with many Protestant notions that our sin is largely the refelction of our own choices, not the stain we inheret.

The community we see refelcted in Catholicism finds its best example in the 'monastic community' - a place where all members, the new and the old, are helping each other and supporting each other on their spiritual journeys (this example was raised in contrast to many Protestant communities that stress individualism). The notion of the 'Godparents' is also refelctive of this approach to community: there are those committed to making sure the child is instructed in the ways of Christianity, both in the family itself and (in the remote event that the parents both die) beyond the family. The community has the responsibility to instruct the children.

We can push these notions also to matters of grace and redemption in the Catholic tradition. Our relationship to sin and the church can affect our relation to sin and atonement in this view. Now, the downside to this is that it becomes very hierarchical, with different levels of being and different levels of perfection possible (the priests are 'higher' than laypeople, etc.) The danger of this of course is ecclesial and social abuse. However, in its proper context, we can see that the Catholic notions of hierarchy are consistent with their other theological positions and history. Baptism, in this view, seals one's soul with an 'indelible mark' - though they will also add that recieving this mark alone does not guarantee salvation.

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Theology 302 SPRING 2006