What is baptism? Chapter I of the General Introduction to Christian Initiation provides three important responses. First, it says that this is a new life in Christ. Through baptism, Catholicism teaches that one becomes a formal member of the church and receives a new life that is shared by all who are members of the same religious family. Secondly, baptism is a sharing in the kingship of Christ. Jesus' kingship is not of the nature recognized by society, but rather is a formation of God's reign in our world. Through baptism one has the ability to share as a member of the Kingdom of God on earth. Thirdly, baptism washes away the stain of original sin and provides an indelible character upon the recipient.
Baptism and the Bible
The baptism of Jesus is one of only a few events in Christ's life that is narrated by all three Synoptic evangelists. While the accounts vary, they all speak of the presence of the Holy Spirit and the voice of God from the heavens. In the Scriptures, baptism has three important meanings. First, it is a source of enlightenment through the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit enlightens one to a new life. Secondly, baptism brings regeneration or new birth. The story of Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus, John 3:1–21, speaks of the need to be born again in Christ. Baptism provides this new birth. Lastly, baptism is significant in the New Testament as a source of death and resurrection. St. Paul (Romans 6:3–11) speaks of baptism as death to sin and rising to new life.
The Practice of Baptism in Christian History
During the apostolic and early patristic periods of church history, baptism was a sacrament for adults. In his corpus of letters, St. Paul mentions the baptism of individuals and whole households. (See, for example Acts 16:15 or I Corinthians 1:16.) Since it was necessary to express one's faith in Christ in order to receive baptism, only those who had reached the age of reason could properly be baptized. Beyond the apostolic era, converts to Christianity were prepared for baptism through a process known as the catechumenate, a spiritual journey often “walked” by a group rather than individuals. Candidates for baptism were trained in the teachings of the faith over a period of time that varied with locale, opinions of those preparing candidates, and historical time period.
Catholicism teaches that the disobedience of Adam and Eve, as described in Genesis 3:1–24, commonly known as the fall, generated for humanity a common or original sin to which all human beings are subject. Baptism cleanses the recipient's soul of the impurity caused by Adam's fall. Theologians today understand this “sin” in varied ways, many suggesting it is a condition that is common to all humans.
The concept of infant baptism, standard practice for Catholics today, was started by St. Augustine. He believed that it was very important for baptism to be conferred as early as possible for at least two significant reasons. First, what was the status of people who died before receiving baptism? Were such individuals, even if desirous to be Christians, eligible for salvation without removing original sin? Secondly, Augustine argued that baptism formally made one a child of God, a member of the church. There was no need to delay such a privilege. However, Augustine needed to negotiate the stumbling block of personal faith in Christ as a necessity for baptism. His solution was adult sponsors, commonly known today as Godparents, who as members of the church could speak on behalf of the child to be baptized. This same theological principle has been used for close to 1,600 years.
Romans 5:18 reads: “Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” While scholars argue the point, many suggest this passage refers to how Adam's sin was negated by Christ's salvific death and resurrection. Baptism is the symbolic act that brings Christ's saving act to the individual.
Contemporary Catholicism welcomes new members of the faith through baptism both as children and adults. In the traditional way inaugurated by St. Augustine, baptism of children is normative. Generally both parents and Godparents are asked to attend some catechesis in preparation for the baptism of their child. Additionally, the post-Vatican II Church reinstituted the catechumenate for adult converts. Known today as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), this program allows teenagers and those older to journey together in a program of faith formation and catechetical training. Candidates generally begin their training in early fall and conclude it with reception of Sacraments of Initiation (baptism, Eucharist, and confirmation) at the Easter Vigil Mass.