Baptism of convenience


Far fewer of us are practising Catholics, yet baptism rates have held up. So what drives parents to induct their children into a religion they have rejected?

MY FIRST BAPTISM was conditional: I was three weeks old. This was because I was about to go under anaesthetic, and the ceremony was to free me from the stain of original sin in case something went wrong with the procedure. The ceremony was performed by a hospital chaplain.

My second baptism, or christening – the latter word once had more specific ties with the naming element of the ceremony, though has become interchangeable with baptism in more recent years – took place later, with my family and godparents present, all of whom rejected Satan and professed their own faiths, at the local church. I was one of 79,363 infants who were baptised that year, according to the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae, the Catholic Church’s statistics yearbook.

Thirty-three years later, in 2007, the most recent year for which figures are available, this number stood at 69,445, a drop of almost 10,000, but this was in a year when the total number of births recorded stood at 70,620. It’s safe to assume, then, that despite predictions of the fall-off of numbers, the Catholic Church is receiving almost as many new recruits as ever.

Yet the numbers attending weekly Mass continue to drop, and fewer than ever would describe themselves as practising Roman Catholics. So why are they baptising their children? Eimear Vize has three children, all of whom have been baptised. “I don’t believe that there is a God,” she says, though adds that “neither do I think there’s nothing afterwards, and I believe very much in the power and strength of the human mind.” So why did she choose to induct her own children into a faith that she no longer holds?

“Our parents both are very solid in their beliefs, so a certain proportion of our decision was because this was something that you did,” she admits. And even though she no longer believes, the strong religious upbringing she received has left its mark. “I can’t ignore the fact that I was raised as a Catholic. I can’t turn my back on that belief structure that was ingrained from the word go.”

Despite this, she waited a year before getting her youngest child christened, and was chastised for the delay by the priest who performed the ceremony. “He did mention to us that we had put her mortal soul in jeopardy, keeping her un-christened for so long.” Yet the priest’s warning held no water with Vize. “We don’t actually believe in this whole idea that this child is born with an impure soul, that they have to be christened because they are born with original sin,” she says firmly. “I’m sorry, no they’re not.”

Tara Heavey and her husband waited even longer to have their two children baptised, eventually deciding to have the ceremony performed when they were six and four years old. “The main reason we did was a pragmatic one,” she explains. “I decided I was going to send them to the local school, a State-run school that is Catholic.”

While the children could have been denied a place in the school if they couldn’t produce a baptismal cert – under the Equal Status Act of 2000, a school may refuse to admit a child who is not of the relevant religious denomination, despite the fact that an alternative is not always available – Heavey was more bothered by the idea of her children being ostracised during the various Catholic ceremonies that are part of the school curriculum.

“It was more the thought of the whole class doing their Communion or Confirmation. I didn’t want them to miss out on the rites of passage that other children had. It was not wanting them to feel like outsiders when there was no need to feel like outsiders.”

There was another reason why Heavey was eager to baptise her children, however. “I was vaguely uneasy,” she admits. “I did always want them to be baptised, and I think it’s because growing up in the Catholic tradition, we learned about limbo.”

Catholic teachings on limbo are unclear, given that the concept has never been part of official church teaching, with the state of limbo offered instead as a “hypothesis” for what happens to unbaptised children. Though recent church doctrine has more or less abolished limbo, calling it an “unduly restrictive view of salvation”, many Irish people grew up with the concept as a tenet of their faith. “I suppose I had it in my head, that slight niggle, and I don’t believe in limbo, but there’s still a niggle in my head: ‘What if? Why take the risk?’ It made me uneasy.”

OTHERS, SUCH AS BARRY GRANT, have not only rejected the faith they themselves were baptised into, but also refuse to pass it on to their children. Grant was determined not to send his daughter to a Catholic school. “We would have home schooled, because there was no way we were putting her through the Catholic school system.”

How does he answer the inevitable questions when his daughter asks about life and death? “She was obsessed with death for a while,” he remembers. “We said: ‘Some people believe that you got to heaven, and some people believe that you just finish up, and some people believe that you come back as a plant or a butterfly’.” He laughs. “She liked the reincarnation idea, but she wanted to come back as herself.”

Anita Murphy is facing similar questions from her five-year-old daughter, the eldest of three daughters who she and her husband decided not to baptise.

“In a way, it would be nice to have the definitive ‘This is the way it is’ and tell her ‘Yes, there is a grand plan and God knows what he’s doing,’ rather than tell her ‘Life is completely random and I don’t know where you go to when you die.’ ” Murphy resolves it by explaining to her daughters the various different belief systems out there, allowing her to choose whichever appeals.

Yet the decision not to baptise their children did not mean the three girls missed out on a celebration to welcome them to the world. “They had a welcome ceremony,” explains Anita. “It was just to mark it as a ceremony, not even as a spiritual thing, but just as a welcoming thing. Ceremonies and parties are fun, they’re about community and bringing people together, which is essentially what many of the religious ceremonies are. In every culture, there is a ceremony when a child is born.”

So why did she decide not to baptise her children? “It’s more out of respect for the church,” she says. “I don’t think it’s fair to just do the births, deaths and marriages in the church if you’re not willing to be an active member. We were definitely never going to do it because we’re not prepared to raise our kids Catholic and bring them to Mass every Sunday, so it was a no-brainer.”

Conor Horgan took a similar decision 21 years ago, when his son Sam was born. “Neither myself or his mum are believers in any sense of the word, and we were lucky in that the grannies weren’t coming down on us hard and heavy either.”

Now that Sam is 21, does he himself wish things had been different? “He said the only drawback that he could possibly think of was that he was poorer than any of the kids in his class when it came to his First Communion.” Horgan does not feel Sam suffered in any way from being brought up without religion. “He is a very principled, very ethical, very upstanding young man – I admire him hugely – and none of it comes from religion.”

And though Sam may have been in the minority growing up in a predominantly Catholic society, Horgan says he was never ostracised for being different.

“He’s an example of how you can get by so well without paying heed to the symbols and ceremonies that other people count as being rather important. If it had been me, 20 years earlier, it would have been a different story. He sailed through and I’m really glad for him and Irish society that he was able to do that.”