catholic baptism file photo

Pictured here is a baptism inside St. Christopher Cathedral in Havana, Cuba, in an undated photo.

AP Photo

The Madison Catholic Diocese is altering the way it handles requests for the baptisms of children of same-sex couples, though the significance of the change is not entirely clear.

The process now will be centralized, with requests coordinated through the office of the vicar general, the bishop’s second in command, in consultation with parish priests. Previously, such decisions were left largely to priestly discretion and sensitivity.

Priests were notified of the change in a memo in early May from Monsignor James Bartylla, the diocese’s vicar general. A copy of Bartylla’s memo was given to the State Journal, though by a third party, not a priest.

The new approach comes as the Roman Catholic Church grapples with the issue internationally. An April 5 baptism in Argentina of a baby being raised by her biological mother and the woman’s lesbian partner kicked up a controversy.

The baptism angered some Catholics, who saw it as the church’s tacit endorsement of gay relationships. The two women were photographed kissing in the cathedral following the ceremony. The diocese’s archbishop said the church was not endorsing the gay lifestyle, saying, “Baptism is the right of every human person.”

The change in the Madison diocese appears unconnected to recent court action on gay marriage in the state. A federal judge ruled Wisconsin’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional on June 6, weeks after the memo was sent to priests.

Diocesan spokesman Brent King declined to make Bartylla available for an interview to discuss how the new approach would work. Bartylla issued the memo to priests with an expectation of confidentiality, King said. For Bartylla to then discuss the issue publicly “would be a poor precedent to set,” King said.

But on the central question of whether the change would alter the number of babies baptized, King responded in an email, “If a parent is sincere in presenting a child for baptism, no. We believe that baptism is the entrance into a new life in Christ and His Church, open to all.”

In the memo, Bartylla says there are “a plethora of difficulties, challenges, and considerations associated with these unnatural unions (including scandal) linked with the baptism of a child, and such considerations touch upon theology, canon law, pastoral approach, liturgical adaptation, and sacramental recording.”

Thus, he concludes, “please seek consultation and coordination with the office of the vicar general, since each case must be evaluated individually.”

Priests I spoke with wondered what criteria would be used to evaluate such cases. One priest did not think the memo was newsworthy, reasoning that very few same-sex couples with children attend Catholic parishes in the diocese. Other priests told me such baptisms, while infrequent, have occurred.

In the Catholic faith, baptism is a sacrament of immense significance, the “basis of the whole Christian life,” according to the church’s official teachings. Catholics are taught that the baptism of infants removes original sin, or the inclination toward evil.

“In general, the Catholic church does not punish the child for the sins of the parents,” Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, told me. “As archbishop of Buenos Aires, (Pope) Francis got angry at priests who would not baptize children born out of wedlock. I would presume the same principle applies here.”

In a May homily, the pope seemed to take the argument to its logical extreme, suggesting lightheartedly that the church should baptize a Martian if one asked.

King, in his email, said each request would be handled on a case-by-case basis, yet the overall tone of his comments seemed to suggest the diocese would be more inclined to baptize than not.

“As is the case with any child, outside the situation of danger of death, when a parent, or the person who lawfully holds their place, gives consent to and presents the child for baptism, and where there is reasonable hope that the child will be brought up in the Catholic faith, that child will be baptized,” King said. “If such hope is truly lacking, the baptism is to be deferred.”

The diocese wants “everyone to receive this most important sacrament,” King said, “and we are dealing with this sensitive matter prudently, for the child’s sake and the integrity of this most sacred sacrament.”

You can reach reporter Doug Erickson at derickson@madison.com or 608-252-6149.

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