Outside the Catholic Church, there is a wide variety of perspectives on baptism and its effects. A good number of Christians believe that baptism is a mere symbol, perhaps holding enough significance as “obeying Christ.” A common belief is that baptism is an outward symbol of an inward event of spiritual rebirth. Interestingly, the Church agrees on this last point, teaching that the Sacrament of Baptism is a symbol. Yet, she goes further (and the concept applies to other sacraments), teaching that the outward symbol has an inward and real effect of that which is symbolized, by the power of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In this sacrament, the symbol of being submersed in or washed by water effects purification of sin and rebirth in the Holy Spirit (CCC, 1262).
While the Church does believe that God is not limited by his own designs, she also testifies that he has made baptism the ordinary way in which sinners are forgiven, are reborn and enter into covenant with God through Christ in faith. The Church recognizes that the Spirit “goes where it wills,” and so is witness to a “baptism of desire” or “baptism of blood,” the latter being of martyrdom (CCC, 1257-1259). Yet, since the very birth of the Church at Pentecost, it was preached that there is a “baptism for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38). Within thirty years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, St. Paul wrote to Titus, “[God] saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5 NRSVCE).
The Apostles and New Testament authors clearly looked back to the Scriptures of the Old Testament and saw the sacrament of baptism prophesied and foretold as the method by which men and women would be cleansed of their sins and be saved for the gift of eternal life. The priest, Ezekiel, six centuries before Christ, prophesied the following word of God:
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:25-26 NRSVCE)
In parallel, St. Paul would later write in his letter to the Hebrews, “Let us approach [God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:22 NRSVCE). In other places, St. Paul would compare the crossing of the Red Sea with baptism, and St. Peter would write that Noah’s ark in the flood would prefigure baptism “which now saves you” (1 Cor. 10:1-4; 1 Peter 3:21). The Old is in the New, and the New in the Old.
Common Sense Catholicity: Even Infants
“Ah, but wait,” one might say. “What does any of this have to do with babies? Even if baptism causes new birth in the Holy Spirit, and reception of that same Spirit into the soul, faith is obviously required and no infant can have faith.” Well, the Church would certainly agree that faith is required for salvation; no one can deny the faith and keep eternal life within them. Yet, she also knows that salvation comes by grace alone, a free gift and not from our own selves (Eph. 2:8-9). The Spirit of God is given to us by God’s mercy, through water of rebirth, as the above quoted Titus 3:5 emphasizes. Baptism is a work that God does in us, and not that we ourselves do. That same mercy is something God gives to whomever he chooses (Rom. 9:18).
So, the Church has witnessed that God has chosen the little children to be members of his kingdom: “to such belongs the kingdom of God,” Jesus said (Matt. 19:14). The Scriptures themselves cry out this very act of God giving the gift of his Spirit to an infant, and a yet unborn infant at that. At the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. Elizabeth, while Mary was pregnant with Jesus, St. John the Baptist leapt within the womb of his mother upon hearing the Blessed Mother’s voice. Several months prior, an angel of the Lord prophesied about John to his father, Zechariah, that “even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:15 NRSVCE). At hearing the greeting of Mary, John was filled with the Spirit, by the same power of Christ, who was within Mary’s womb.We see, then, that the Spirit of God is not limited to those who are of the age of reason. God invites all of his children to be partakers in the Divine Life, in the life of the Trinity. It is through baptism that we normally receive this wonderful gift. And, so, St. Peter would confidently proclaim on that famous Pentecost day to those he called to faith and baptism, “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:39 NRSVCE).