The Trouble With Baptism

The valedictorian of my high school was a Saint. I can’t say I’ve known many other people who are Mormons. I have long chats with them when they visit me at my house while I’m out edging the walk or discerning my home can wait another year for a fresh coat of paint. The last time that happened, I think my friends were alarmed they had bumbled into a Catholic lay person with a theology degree who could quote Scripture a little more deeply than they were prepared. I invited them to my church office, gave them my card, but I’ve never seen them again. In fact, it’s been about a year or more since I’ve had a Mormon visit. Coincidence?

Philip Cunningham offers a brief examination of the Mormon “baptism” of professed Jew and martyr, Daniel Pearl. Maybe I could research the theology behind this practice of baptizing people not in this life. But the idea is so off-putting, I’m sure I might do better to reflect on my baptism while I apply a coat of primer to my home’s outside walls.

Professor Cunningham:

Pearl’s Mormon “baptism” through a proxy “stand-in” on June 1, 2011 can seem laughable to non-Mormons who find such rituals meaningless. To others, such secretive rituals seem arrogant. For Jews who understand that Jewishness is communal and that the loss of any member is a loss for all Jews, the LDS practice of posthumously baptizing Jews _ especially Jews who were murdered while proclaiming their Jewishness _ feels like liturgical grave robbing.

I was thinking the utilization of a cross by early Christians must have seemed not only laughable but creepy. The Christian witness was initially one of love and sacrifice. Other people caught on to the notion that believers take up their cross and follow their God to sacrifice and death, but for a virtue, love, and for an eternal reward, heaven.

No doubt that Saints offer an exemplary life for their witness in the world. My school chum was intelligent, thoughtful, diligent, and well-respected by his peers. Some of us that knew him well found it curious he was going off to serve in mission work for two years of his college-age life. But there was a glimmer of understanding. Baptizing people from afar–in Anne Frank’s case supposedly multiple times–one has to ask what’s the point.

Beyond death, human existence is a mystery. Baptism involves a committed choice to follow Jesus Christ in the context of a Christian community. It is not a magic ritual by which clergy and the Church control who is saved and who is not. We are not the proxies of Christ, determining sheep or goat, wheat or chaff, heaven or hell. The power of the keys, or any other human institution, does not extend to being appointed Judge in God’s seeming absence.

Prof. Cunningham again:

Indeed, the practice of posthumous baptism, along with other distinctive beliefs and practices, lead many to conclude that Mormonism should not be considered a Christian community per se but a separate (though related) religious tradition.

This sums up my thinking on the matter. If Saints were indeed another phase or branch on the Judeo-Christian tree, it wouldn’t lower my personal regard for the witness of Mormon believers. It would clarify exactly where we all stand. And clarity is good.

As a Catholic minister, I cannot represent to other people something that my Church is not. Wouldn’t dream of it. Suppose I knew a Protestant candidate for Full Communion who was seriously discerning, let’s say, serving the Church as a deacon. If I really liked this person and really wanted her to be at my parish, I wouldn’t be doing anyone a favor by saying something I couldn’t back up, like: “Oh, the Church is pretty firm on priests, but I think they might loosen up a bit on women deacons in another decade or two.” Catholic young women comment about misogyny in the hierarchy. I don’t deny it. Chant geeks wring their hands about the looseness of liturgical regulations. Not only do I tell them Rome will not act like anal Americans and legislate every dot and tittle, but I’m glad, in this instance, that they don’t.

These Mormon baptisms are not Christian baptisms. And they call into question the Christian validity of any Mormon baptism. As a Mormon sacrament, I’m sure the rituals are conducted with appropriate exactness and validity. For Saints, these baptisms are really baptisms, just like an Anglican or Protestant woman can be ordained a priest. For those particular branches of the tree of faith, this system works.

Personally, I think it’s fine to honor the memory and sacrifice of Holocause victims and other martyrs to the violence of evil. We can remember the dead. We can hope. We can learn about them. We can pray for them. We can inscribe their names in metal or stone, set up museum displays, and even raise a glass of cheer in our living celebrations.

But if we’re talking about how God regards them, the only thing I can say is that I have no blessed idea, and that whatever it is, they sure don’t need anything I can possibly offer–except perhaps, for a prayer. Maybe that prayer is assisted by a lit candle, a touch on a gravestone, or a song. But ultimately, God is in charge. Not a post-Christian ritual that attempts to let him out of a magic genie bottle to do our bidding.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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3 Responses to The Trouble With Baptism

  1. Sheila says:

    I agree with you 100 per cent. These proxy baptisms do not rob any Jewish grave. They are not valid. One has to give consent to be baptized, or to have a minor baptized. Without the consent, the baptism means nothing. As to the eternal destination of any soul, we cannot say for certain, with the exception of Catholics who believe a declared Saint in the Catholic faith has been raised to the altars of glory when canonized by the Pope.

  2. Jettboy says:

    “I agree with you 100 per cent. These proxy baptisms do not rob any Jewish grave. They are not valid. One has to give consent to be baptized, or to have a minor baptized. Without the consent, the baptism means nothing.”

    As a Mormon I have to totally agree with you. A true understanding of what baptism for the dead is supposed to be is in line with, “[the Person's ultimate judgement of G-d] the only thing I can say is that I have no blessed idea, and that whatever it is, they sure don’t need anything I can possibly offer–except perhaps, for a prayer. Maybe that prayer is assisted by a lit candle, a touch on a gravestone, or a song.” In a Mormon’s case, it would be a baptism by proxy in place of a lit candle or a touch on the grave to assist the prayer of hope. Is it more complicated than this? Yes, a bit, but essentially the same.

    • Todd says:

      If I read you right, baptism is just another form of prayer. I can accept prayer for the dead, even a ritualized form of it, assuming there is respect for the individual and her or his community.

      For Christians, baptism implies membership as well as salvation and hope–there is no single meaning. For a Christian, one can’t disentangle the notion of salvation and hope and say, “Well, this baptism is just about that–not the membership part.” This is probably where the Mormon practice strays over the line into offensive.

      So at best, we’re talking about a miscommunication. Any way to remedy that?

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