The very first sacrament a Catholic receives is baptism. The sacrament flows from the teachings of Christ wherein he commanded his disciples to go and “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It is the sacrament by which one becomes a member of the Body of Christ — his church on earth.
Thus, news of a widespread decline in infant baptisms is met with a certain level of uneasiness among some Catholics.
For decades, one out of every four U.S. babies was baptized into the Catholic Church. Around 2004 though, this balance of babies was disrupted. A recent report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University compares statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control with overall numbers of infant baptisms. The research shows that infant baptisms in the U.S. Catholic Church are on the decline.
Whereas in 2004, 22.6 percent of all infants received the sacrament of baptism, in 2014 that number shrunk to 17.4 percent — a significant drop when taking into account the millions of U.S. births each year. It’s no coincidence the Archdiocese of Anchorage celebrated 103 fewer baptisms over about the same time period, or a 20 percent reduction.
The exact reason for the decline is unclear, but a 2016 nationwide survey by CARA indicates that younger Catholics are not being baptized as frequently as older generations. And when the younger generations are baptized, they do so at an increasingly older age. According to CARA, 23 percent of millennials reported they entered the church either as children or teens. Only 13 percent of the Pre-Vatican II generation (born before 1943) reported childhood or teen baptisms.
Despite the drop in infant baptisms, the practice remains inextricably tied to the traditional Catholic understanding of how the faithful enter into the life of the church.
According to the Catholic Catechism, baptism is “the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door which gives access to the other sacraments.”
The Catechism also states: “Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called.”
In this light, baptism is seen as a gift from God, through his church, to infuse the life of an infant with the grace to grow in holiness and love of God as he or she matures into adulthood.
This stands in contrast with an approach common among many Protestant denominations which maintain that baptism should be withheld until a child reaches the age of reason and can fully assent and comprehend the meaning of baptism.
Father Arthur Roraff, who serves as assistant pastor at St. Andrew Church in Eagle River, sees infants brought in for baptism about every other week and strongly affirms the practice.
“One is born into this world through natural birth, but one is born into a supernatural world through baptism,” Father Roraff explained. “So what happens at baptism is essentially greater than what happened at the creation of the universe because a new life is being brought into the life of Christ himself.”
Baptisms are often performed at Sunday Mass. Father Roraff believes that helps reaffirm its importance.
“I try to use it as an opportunity to bring this to the forefront of people’s minds, because what a great gift this is,” he noted. “The baptism is not just a ritual we go through, it’s effective, it does something, it changes the soul.”
“The person who is being baptized, what are they being baptized into?” Father Roraff asked. “Well, they are being baptized into the Body of Christ which are their brothers and sisters who are standing around them and so it’s really fitting that it would be done in the context of a Mass.”
For his part, Pope Francis has emphasized the importance of the sacrament, repeatedly urging Catholics to find out on what day they were baptized and then to celebrate it annually.
“It is an act that touches the depths of our existence,” Pope Francis said in a 2014 talk at the Vatican. “A baptized child and an unbaptized child are not the same. We, by baptism, are immersed in that inexhaustible source of life which is the death of Jesus, the greatest act of love in all of history; and thanks to this love we can live a new life, no longer at the mercy of evil, of sin and of death, but in communion with God and with our brothers and sisters.”`