September 24, 2009

Godparents and Marriage Poll

One of the real surprises of my experience of priesthood is the ministry of infant baptism. I had imagined that this would be an enjoyable and lighthearted part of the job. Instead, it is one of the aspects of the parish ministry that I look forward to the least and contains the most headaches. Mostly it's about trying to help parents choose appropriate sponsors, i.e. godparents. Many parents seem to try to elect godparents based on their personal and familial allegiances, rather than on the criteria held up by the Church. This wouldn't be a problem in a world where the average Catholic practiced the faith, but unfortunately we find ourselves in the opposite situation.

So one of my routine and most dreaded jobs is the disqualification of proposed godparents, because they have not received Confirmation, are not even Christians ("...but Father, Muslims love Jesus and Mary!" or, "but Father, we Jews know a lot about keeping tradition!") or are simply not practicing the faith and have no intention of taking it up. The canned line I have developed is, "You can't sponsor someone for a journey that are not making yourself."

Nevertheless, I have encountered gray areas. One of them is marital status. What about someone who is otherwise eligible to be a godparent, but who has failed in their obligation to marry according to canonical form, i.e. someone who is married, but "outside the church." Canon law does not address this explicitly, but just says that an eligible sponsor should be living a life of faith in harmony with the sacraments they have received, and be able to give good example. Does this "harmony" and "good example" extend to marrying according to canonical form, i.e. "in church"?

I think that many priests practice a kind of 'don't ask, don't tell' with this sort of thing, and maybe that's why it seems like a gray area: "..but Father, my wife was a godparent for so-and-so, so why am I disqualified?"

So what do you think?

Can a Catholic who is married, but not according to canonical form (and not actively seeking convalidation) be admitted to the role of sponsor for baptism?


Anonymous said...

If the proposed sponsor is interested in regularizing the marital situation and it is his or her spouse who is vehemently opposed to doing so(and the proposed sponsor is otherwise a faithful, practicing Catholic), I believe it may be appropriate for him or her to be sponsor.

Br. James, O.F.M.,Cap.

Brother Charles said...

An excellent distinction from my faithful canonical counselor!

Qui bene distinguit, bene docet.

Tina aka Snupnjake said...

Fr. Charles,
I'm the godparent of two little girls :). The amount of hassle I've gone through is enough to drive someone away. The first little girl is a twin and I was supposed to be her twin's godmother as well, but Father insisted they couldn't have the same godparents, which led to all sorts of problems.

The second little girl, a different Father told me I couldn't be a godmother because I wasn't registered in a territorial parish. I had the required paperwork from the priest that runs the campus ministry where I go to school and he said that wasn't good enough. We landed up going to a different parish. We are also short of males in my family. So my sister and I were chosen to be the godparents. The pastoral assistant threw a fit because she's like it gives the appearance of a lesbian relationship.

I have no problem with there being rules and requirements for the Sacrament of Baptism. What I have a problem with is when the rules are different for each priest or parish. I've seen one priest allow something and another priest in the parish next door refuse.

Guess I'm a little annoyed still, thought maybe I'd gotten over it.

Brother Charles said...

Thanks for the comment, friend. I also find it frustrating how different pastors apply different rules and have their own versions of the church's practices, laws, and expectations.

This is especially frustrating when conditions not directly supported by Canon law--such as parish registration--are held up as critical, while others that are explicitly defined--such as there being only one sponsor of each sex--are ignored.

On behalf of the parish priesthood, please accept my apologies, and congratulations on your godmotherhood.

ben in denver said...

I don't envy you for having to make these decisions, but it seems obvious to me that the answer would be no.

Living in a canonically invalid marriage is a violation of one of the six precepts of the Church.

The Godparents have to make the baptismal promises don't they? If they are telling the truth when they make these promises, then they have expressed an intention to end their pseudogamy. They may be unwilling to be godparets in the first place if you let them know what they are promising to do.


Canon law is crystal clear on Tina's issue:

Can. 873 There is to be only one male sponsor or one female sponsor or one of each.

ben in denver said...

On more thing on this one.

Nobody in my family is Catholic, and very few in my wife's family practice anymore. It has been extremely difficult finding good godparents--we have failed many times.

One child's godparents now practice native american paganism more than catholicism, one set of godparents became methodists over a tubal ligation, one set got divorced. Out of nine pairs of godparents, we are batting .444, which wouldn't be bad in baseball, but isn't to great for godparents.

In our earlier years, when we had fewer good friendships with serious catholics, it would have been nice to get some guidance from a priest, and maybe even a suggestion for a godparent. I'm sure there are many profoundly pious older people, whose families are far away, who might like to be more involved with a young family. So many times I have wished that my kids could have at least one catholic grandparent or a reasonable substitute.

Tina aka Snupnjake said...

Ah. I know what canon law says on the issue. I looked it up. Father insisted that the baby have 2 godparents. Kept trying to tell Father that we did not have a male that lived his life in accordance with Church practice that was suitable. Father insisted on two godparents. I said I talked to a canonist and he said we only needed one godparent. Father said 2 godparents or no baptism. Well. I made sure my name went on the form first. ;)

PS Fr. Charles Apology Accepted :)

Brother Charles said...

Thanks for accepting it, Snup...

You remind me of another thing...a few times I have baptized a baby with one sponsor, saying that we can save the other, not yet eligible, proposed sponsor for confirmation. So here in the States that usually gives them at least ten years.

Qualis Rex said...

Father Charles, I LOVE the line you used!!! I am sincerely at a loss as to how ANY Catholic, including the brain-dead, could possibly suggest a Mohammedan as a God-parent. This is so inconceivably ludicrous to me that I'm having trouble even wrapping my head around it. The fact that the God-parent is supposed to be there to answer questions on the CATHOLIC faith should be clear and evident enough to anyone that the God-parent must be Catholic. That particular parent is in dire need of some real education and common sense, apparently. I'm curious as to how you handled that particular parishoner. Did you tell her that Mohammedanism is completely incompatible with Catholicism? Does she still attend your parish?

BEN IN DENVER - sorry to hear your situation. I am very much in the same boat, as very few (I can count on one hand) in my family are practicing Catholics anymore. And you give a GREAT suggestion about potential suggestions from the parish priest vis-a-vie "proven" parishoners who might do the job quite well.

Anonymous said...

I'm just surprised to read that there are any qualifications at all given my personal experience being a godmother.

We were never asked whether we were or were not practicing Catholics; no one ever inquired about where or how my husband and I were married, or even IF we were. My sister in law called the church and was asked for the names of the godparents, and that was it. No questions asked.

Given that there were 10 babies lined up that day and baptized factory-style (one right after the other), with one family arriving late and dressed as if they had just come from the beach (I kid you not: t shirts, flip flops on a few and jeans on the new father) I guess I should not have been surprised.

I hope more priests are like you and take it as a serious step in the faith and that our experience was just an odd one!

Paul A. Zalonski said...

unless I missed it in the posts, the minimum for is one godparent (qualifications see below) and one Christian witness. so, you can have a catholic and a practicing Lutheran.

the ideal, however, is two practicing Catholics (attend the sacraments & registered at a parish) who have received all the sacraments of initiation and are right with the Church as far as vocation is concerned: valid marriage, not co-habitating, valid and licit Order, etc. plus, one male, one female.

while pastors have policies all their own, the diocese ought to be following the documents of the Church. the foolishness of some clergy and the lack of obedience to Church teaching is disturbing.

carl said...


All I can offer in response to your question is what I've gleaned from reading about canon law: if there is room for doubt about their eligibility for godparentship, then allow it.

Brother Charles said...

Thanks for the reminder, Carl! That is always a general principle!

Anonymous said...

You have posed a simple, yet complex question Father Charles; which I believe has many complex answers. “Can a Catholic, who is married but not according to canonical form (and not actively seeking convalidation), be admitted to the role of sponsor for baptism?”

Here’s what I believe:

There are various reasons why a couple may have only married in a civil service, but does that make their commitment, or love for each other, less then that of a couple that married in the Catholic Church? I do not believe so.

Canon Law states a sponsor must be a baptized Catholic, have completed the sixteenth year of age, been confirmed, and has already received the holy sacrament of the Eucharist. S/he must also lead a life of faith in keeping with the function to be taken on. Consequently, if the requirements stated in Canon Law are met, and the sponsor is ready and willing to help lead the child in a Christian life in keeping with baptism and to fulfill faithfully the obligations inherent in it, then s/he should be bestowed the honor and duty of Godparent.

Father Charles, if a candidate for godparent meets the requirements as stated in Canon Law, and is a good person, then isn’t the Church, in fact, doing a great injustice to the child by depriving him/her of such a person to be his/her Godparent? The truth is, whether or not the Church allows a candidate to be a godparent, if the candidate has faith, s/he will guide the child with or without the official title of “Godparent.”

I would like to tell you a little story about the man that was my godfather: When I was baptized, my godfather met all the requirements; furthermore, he was married in the Catholic Church. Approximately 5 years later, he and my father both cheated on their wives. Their indiscretions caused two marriages to end, a friendship to end, and me now without a godfather. Obviously, this man that met all the requirements (at least on paper) did not follow God’s will, nor did my father.

It seems like these days people are always looking at what’s listed on a piece of paper. We hear it all the time, “S/he looks good on paper.” It is time to take our eyes away from the paper, and look at the person in front of us, and listen to our hearts.

Father Charles, you stated “I have encountered gray areas.” I believe when we come across gray areas in life, it is when God wants us to prove to Him, as well as ourselves, that we are not just blindly following, but following because we have faith, faith in Jesus, faith in God, faith in ourselves.

Worry not Father Charles; I have faith that God will guide you in making the right decision when approving a person to be a godparent; just listen to your heart.

Brother Charles said...

Thank you, anonymous, for your wise treatment of the question. You bring up two points for which I am already grateful in my own practice, namely that Canon law is only applied strictly when it explicitly says it is meant to be, and that the heart teaches.

Also, fortunately, for me, I am not a pastor and so do not have the burden of making parish policy on these sort of questions.

I will say, however, that though I don't doubt that civilly married Catholic couples love each other any less, if they love their Catholic faith I imagine that they would seek convalidation of their marriage.