For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be
circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner
those who are not your offspring.
Genesis 17, 12
Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of
Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the
Lord our God will call.”
Acts 2, 38-39
In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off
the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism,
in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised
Him from the dead.
Colossians 2, 11-12
Since the earliest time, the Catholic Church has stressed the importance of infant baptism. As members of the human family and being descendants of Adam, we are all born with a fallen nature that is tainted with original sin. Even as infants, we have need of the rebirth given in the sacrament of Baptism to be liberated from the powers of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all human beings are called (Col 12:1-4). Baptism (Gk. Βάπτισμα / baptisma) is a Christian rite of not only admission into Christianity but also adoption with the use of water.
The sacrament is administered by sprinkling or pouring water on the head, or by immersing the recipient in water either partially or completely. The essential thing, however, is the use of water which purifies and cleanses the soul of the stain of original sin. The person who is baptized regains the state of justice and sanctity which Adam had forfeited for all his offspring. Thus, baptized infants receive the privileged washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit by being reborn of water and the Spirit, without which no soul can enter the kingdom of heaven.
Original sin is a sin that is contracted rather than personally committed. It’s the state of having fallen short of the glory of God. Since this sin isn’t one that any human being is morally culpable of having committed, it’s imperative that infants be baptized as much as adults should. After all, they, too, must suffer and die by being associated with fallen Adam, although the pride of life and concupiscence haven’t yet manifested themselves in their lives.
St. Paul tells us that through Baptism the soul enters into communion with Christ’s death, is buried with him, and rises with him (Rom 6:3-4). Baptism is a gift of gratuitous grace from God that is offered to every human soul despite their age. Infants mustn’t be denied the gift of Baptism for they, too, must be “incorporated into Christ” and “configured to Christ.” They need to be sealed with the indelible spiritual mark or character of belonging to Christ albeit any conscious awareness.
Since the grace of Baptism doesn’t presuppose any human merit for its conferral, there is no just reason for excluding infants from being consecrated to God. No personal sin can erase the indelible mark that is sealed through Baptism even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation, so it makes no difference whether the infant is consciously aware of being baptized and making personal commitments of faith that are connected with the sacrament. Once a child attains the age of moral reasoning, while having been nurtured in the Christian faith at home and in the Church, they can decide for themselves whether to live up to their baptismal commitments and persevere in faith. These life-long baptismal commitments also apply to people who have been baptized in adulthood. One isn’t automatically and irrevocably saved just by being baptized and making an initial profession of faith. The important thing for the infant or any human being is that they receive the initial grace of justification and forgiveness for being implicated in the sin of Adam, and becoming a partaker of the divine nature through the water of cleansing and regeneration in the Spirit.
In Judaism, the ritual of circumcision ( Heb. בְּרִית מִילָה / brit milah) is a symbol of one’s partnership with God. This partnership with YWHW is a mysterious covenant that surpasses human comprehension. It is a pledge of unconditional devotion, no matter what may transpire between God and an individual. It is a bond that is absolute and immutable. For this reason, a Jew is circumcised as an infant, although it hasn’t yet developed its capacity for reasoning or making moral judgments since the covenant of circumcision is not an intellectual or calculated partnership. The circumcision of an infant demonstrates that the connection between the Jews and YHWH is beyond human rationale. Moreover, God chose the very organ that is the reproductive source of life, which can also be chosen to use for the basest acts, as the point to be sanctified with circumcision. The message here is that we can and must use every physical drive for holy purposes.
In Genesis 17, God gives no reason for circumcision other than it shall be a sign of the eternal covenant between God and Abraham and all of his descendants. God clearly commands that circumcision must occur on the eighth day of life for every Jewish male. Since Biblical times, male infants have been circumcised on the eighth day of life for it had been given since the time of Abraham and Isaac that each newly born son should be brought into the Covenant just as their fathers, grandfathers, and so on, had been before them. Ritual circumcision was originally a defining act for the young Israelite nation and continued to distinguish the Israelites (including infants) from other peoples.
When God told Israel, " Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer " ( Deuteronomy 10:16 ), it meant that they were to remove their obstinate sinful thoughts from their minds. In other words, they were to purge sin from their lives and be obedient to the laws of God. The covenant God established between Him and the Israelites was essentially meant to be a relationship of reciprocal love and fidelity. The Israelites were to have no false gods before YHWH. This covenantal relationship contributed to a communal self-understanding and encouraged the Israelites to examine who they were as a consecrated people in relation to God and how they ought to behave towards each other in their common relation to God as children of Abraham.
The Old Covenant served to remind the nation of how God desired the people should live in relation to God and each other: compassionately, generously, and righteously. The eight-year-old infants were consecrated to God by their circumcision to enter this covenant of holiness. The ritual marked their separation from the sinfulness of the surrounding pagan nations. Now, the infant boys of the covenant were to be circumcised on the eighth day of their birth because this is the day of newness in Judaic tradition. If there are seven days in a week, the eighth day is the first day of a new week. The performance of circumcision on the eighth day represents God’s promise of newness to His covenant children who had formerly lived profane lives among the pagan nations. This rite ultimately points forward to the eighth day (the first day of a new week) on which Christ arose from the dead in newness of life.
Baptism proceeds from the rite of circumcision, as to how God intended that a spiritual circumcision must take place which the physical aspect of circumcision represented in the Old Covenant. Baptism, therefore, is a sign of inward, spiritual “circumcision.” Baptism is a rebirth to a new life with God and being reborn from above. Although circumcision isn’t a sacrament but a symbolic ritual in Judaism, there are significant parallels between the two that show how baptism fulfills circumcision, as the Old Covenant finds its fulfillment in the New that has been established by Christ through the outpouring of his blood.
By baptism, we gain entry into the kingdom of God. Infants must be included as members of the body of Christ just as infants and young children were members of God’s chosen people in the Old Covenant. “We are members one of another.” Baptism not only purifies us from all sins but makes the neophyte a “new creature” and adopted child of God. “From the baptismal fonts is born the one people of God of the New Covenant (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1265). The Old Covenant was designed as a means to impart holiness on a newly restored people who were chosen to serve God by observing His statutes. It served as an instrument of grace. In the New Covenant, we become God’s own people, “a chosen race,” and “a holy nation” by our common baptism. We “become living stones to be built up into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood” (1 Pet 2:5; 9) through the graces and spiritual gifts we receive by being baptized.
Thus, the key benefits of baptism demand that infants should be baptized but not simply as an act of defining what it means to be God’s chosen people of the New Covenant. Infants are baptized in water to reap the spiritual benefits that have been merited for all of us by the blood of Christ. Blood and water flowed from our Savior’s side as he hung upon the cross. Infants should be baptized because through the sacrament they, too, receive the “grace of sanctification or justification” to have eternal life with God. This grace shall “enable them [as members of God’s kingdom] to believe in God, to hope in Him, and to love Him through the theological virtues [Faith, Hope, and Charity].” This grace will give them “the power to live and act under the prompting of the Holy Spirit through the gifts of the Holy Spirit” allowing them to “grow in goodness through the moral virtues” (CCC, 1266). The infant itself is separated from all the people who haven’t yet been reborn from above or from heaven.
St. Paul points out that baptism has replaced circumcision. He refers to the sacrament as “the circumcision of Christ” and “the circumcision made without hands” (Col 2:11-12). The latter reference recalls the passage above taken from the Book of Deuteronomy which refers to the physical ritual as essentially being a circumcision of the heart of all the Israelites including the circumcised male infants who will eventually grow into manhood expected to abide by God’s covenant. When a Jewish boy reaches the age of thirteen, the family celebrates his Bar Mitzvah, on which occasion he is regarded as ready to observe religious moral precepts and eligible to participate in public worship at the synagogue. The boy’s father offers a prayer of thanksgiving to God for relieving him of being morally responsible for his son’s actions. He was primarily held accountable for the boy’s religious and spiritual nurturing. This same principle applies in the Catholic faith with respect to baptizing infants. Infant baptism has its roots in Judaism and is an ecclesial tradition handed down to us from the apostles who themselves were Jewish.
Anyway, if the nascent Church didn’t practice infant baptism, we should doubt that Paul would have used the rite of circumcision as a parallel for the sacrament. Of course, most of the new Jewish converts to Christianity were adults in Apostolic time, but adult males who converted to Judaism had to be circumcised, too, though such conversions were rare.
Further, we read in the New Testament that Lydia was baptized with her “household” after she converted (Acts 16:15). The Philippian jailer who was converted by Paul and Silas was baptized that same night along with his household. In fact, he was baptized “with all his family” (Acts 16:33). And in his greetings to the church in Corinth, Paul writes, “I did baptize also the household of Stephanus” (1 Cor 1:16).
In the above passages, Paul uses the Greek word oikon (οἶκον) for the English word “household.” This accusative masculine singular noun literally means “a dwelling” and by implication “a family.” If children weren’t part of these families, Paul would have probably written that “she and her husband” or “he and his wife” were baptized. Now, evangelical Christians contend that if there were children in these families, they could have been much older than infants or been adolescents. But Paul doesn’t draw a parallel between the rite of circumcision and the sacrament of baptism because Jewish boys are circumcised at the age of thirteen. Still, there must surely have been young children below the age of reason who belonged to at least one or two of these households. Though they might not have been infants, they could still be like newborn babes by being below this morally accountable age.
Early sacred tradition
“And many, both men and women, who have been Christ’s disciples from
childhood, remain pure and at the age of sixty or seventy years…”
St. Justin Martyr, First Apology, 15:6
“For He came to save all through means of Himself–all, I say, who through Him
are born again to God–infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men.”
St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2,22:4
“And they shall baptise the little children first. And if they can answer for themselves, let
them answer. But if they cannot, let their parents answer or someone from their family.”
St. Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 21
(c. A.D. 215)
“For this reason, moreover, the Church received from the apostles
the tradition of baptizing infants too.”
Origen, Homily on Romans, V:9
“But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the
second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be
regarded, so that you think one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within
the eighth day…And therefore, dearest brother, this was our opinion in council, that by us no
one ought to be hindered from baptism…we think is to be even more observed in respect of
infants and newly-born persons…”
St. Cyprian, To Fidus, Epistle 58(64):2, 6
“Be it so, some will say, in the case of those who ask for Baptism; what have you to say about
those who are still children, and conscious neither of the loss nor of the grace? Are we to
baptize them too? Certainly, if any danger presses. For it is better that they should be
unconsciously sanctified than that they should depart unsealed and uninitiated.”
St. Gregory Nazianzen, Oration on Holy Baptism, 40:28
“‘Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of
God.’ No one is expected: not the infant, not the one prevented by necessity.”
St. Ambrose, Abraham, 2,11:79
“We do baptize infants, although they are not guilty of any sins.”
St. John Chrysostom, Ad Neophytos
“And if any one seek for divine authority in this matter, though what is held by the whole
Church, and that not as instituted by Councils, but as a matter of invariable custom, is rightly
held to have been handed down by apostolical authority, still we can form a true conjecture
of the value of the sacrament of baptism in the case of infants, from the parallel of
circumcision, which was received by God’s earlier people, and before receiving which
Abraham was justified, as Cornelius also was enriched with the gift of the Holy Spirit before
he was baptized.”
St. Augustine, On Baptism against the Donatist, 4:24:31
“While the son is a child and thinks as a child and until he comes to years of discretion to
choose between the two roads to which the letter of Pythagoras points, his parents are
responsible for his actions whether these be good or bad. But perhaps you imagine that, if
they are not baptized, the children of Christians are liable for their own sins; and that no
guilt attaches to parents who withhold from baptism those who by reason of their tender age
can offer no objection to it. The truth is that, as baptism ensures the salvation of the child,
this in turn brings advantage to the parents. Whether you would offer your child or not lay
within your choice, but now that you have offered her, you neglect her at your peril.”
St. Jerome, To Laeta, Epistle 107:6
But Jesus said to them:
Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come to me:
for the kingdom of heaven is for such.
Matthew 19, 14