Valid, but illicit
“Anon” wrote the following: “I have a question. Consider two young people who were raised Catholic and marry but decide they have become agnostic. They have a child and decide not to have the child baptized. If a grandparent privately performs a baptism, fully intending to be responsible for the Catholic education of the child, maybe even together with the three other grandparents, is the baptism valid? Has the grandparent committed a sin by doing this without the consent of the parents?”
I found an online Q&A in which Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university, addresses a similar situation. A woman baptized her grandchild because her non-practicing Catholic son and Jewish daughter-in-law never had the baby baptized. After Mass one day she baptized the baby with holy water, saying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”.
In Anon's scenario, the baptism would be valid (provided that the grandmother in Anon's scenario baptized the baby with water and said the Trinitarian formula) but not licit, as Fr. McNamara indicates below. To view the full text which includes follow-up questions, please click on today's title.
A: The question must be answered on two levels: If baptizing the child was the right thing to do; if the woman's actions constituted a valid baptism.
The first question is rather delicate because although the grandmother deeply desired the child's baptism, the education of children usually falls upon the parents who are called to be the primary educators of children.
Canon law (Canon 868) also requires that for an infant to be baptized licitly:
"1. the parents or at least one of them or the person who legitimately takes their place must consent.
"2. there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic Religion; if such hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be delayed according to the prescripts of particular law after the parents have been advised about the reason."
At the same time the canon specifies that "An infant of Catholic parents or even of non-Catholic parents is baptized licitly in danger of death even against the will of the parents." Even though there are clear historical examples of grandmothers who secretly baptized children under atheistic Communist regimes, this does not appear to be the present case. The baptism should not have been done without the parents' consent.
Also, only the priest and deacons are ordinary ministers of the sacrament of baptism and can perform all of the rites. In some extreme conditions where there are no ordained ministers available, lay people have been authorized to perform the essential rites. An unauthorized lay person should not perform a baptism except in cases of imminent danger of death or other dire situations where not even an authorized lay minister is available.
With respect to the second question regarding the validity of the baptism. As we have seen, the grandmother, no matter how sincere her motives, acted against Church law and should not be imitated. From the description of what she did, however, it would appear to have been a valid baptism and the child is truly baptized.
All the same, in order to be certain, it would be necessary for her to give a detailed description of what she did to a priest in case she committed an error regarding matter or form that would cast doubt on the baptism's validity.
What to do? It depends on many factors, but sooner or later the parents should be informed. The grandmother could perhaps avoid having to reveal what she has done by asking permission from the parents to allow her to have the child baptized in a private ceremony, with just herself and the priest, and then take charge of its religious upbringing. If the parents consent, then she could have a priest or deacon complete the baptismal rites and formally register the baptism.
If the parents are very much opposed, then there is little to be done other than to await a suitable moment to inform them that their child is already baptized. In all cases she should do all in her power to transmit the faith to the child, above all though her living witness to the Catholic faith.