Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On Being a Godparent

Issue: How should a person decide whether to accept the invitation to be a godparent?

Response: There are a number of considerations a person might make when deciding whether to accept the invitation to be a godparent. These fall into two general categories: Church norms and personal considerations.

Discussion: The Church’s norms are the criteria she lays out to establish who may serve as a godparent. The norms exist for the good of all parties concerned: the child’s parents, the child’s potential godparents, and especially the child to be baptized. They point to the important role a godparent plays in the life of a child. A godparent (referred to in the Code of Canon Law as a "sponsor") "helps the baptized person to lead a Christian life in keeping with baptism and to fulfill faithfully the obligations inherent in it" (Code of Canon Law [Canon Law], Can. 872). In short, he helps his godchild get to heaven.

Potential godparents should evaluate themselves in light of the Church’s norms. A godparent for a Catholic baptism must:

  • Be a Catholic
  • Meet the age requirement recognized in the diocese where the baptism takes place
  • Have been confirmed and have received the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist
  • Lead a life of faith in keeping with the role to be undertaken
  • Be eligible to receive the sacraments and not be bound by any ecclesiastical penalty
  • Not be the mother or father of the child to be baptized
    (from Canon Law, Can. 874)

If a person is not Catholic, but is a baptized Christian who belongs to a non-Catholic denomination, he may participate, together with a sponsor (godparent), as a witness of the baptism (Canon Law, Can. 874.2).

Likewise, a Catholic may participate as a witness of a non-Catholic baptism, but not as a godparent. Catholics sometimes wonder why they cannot be godparents at non-Catholic baptisms. It often seems as though the Catholic party could do a great deal of good—up to and including the later conversion of the child to Catholicism. However, the Church has practical reasons for not allowing this. The 1993 Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (Directory on Ecumenism) explains:

It is the Catholic understanding that godparents, in a liturgical and canonical sense, should themselves be members of the Church or ecclesial Community in which the baptism is being celebrated. They do not merely undertake a responsibility for the Christian education of the person being baptized (or confirmed) as a relation or friend; they are also there as representatives of a community of faith, standing as guarantees of the candidate’s faith and desire for ecclesial communion. (no. 98)

A godparent sponsors the child to be baptized; he is a representative of a community of faith. The child is baptized into the Christian faith, but also into a particular denomination. A godparent implicitly or explicitly (depending on the baptismal rite) assents to the beliefs of the denomination into which the child is being baptized. Although other denominations might allow a Catholic to be a godparent, the Catholic must consider what he would be promising or assenting to by fulfilling that role. A Catholic cannot promise to help raise a child in another faith tradition, especially if elements of that faith tradition conflict with the teachings of the Church. Further, it would be a betrayal of the parents’ trust to sponsor their non-Catholic child with the hope (or motivation) of using one’s influence to convert that child to Catholicism. Thus, a Catholic may not serve as a godparent for a non-Catholic baptism, but may serve as a witness.

Similarly, a non-Catholic may serve as a witness to a Catholic baptism, but may not serve in the official capacity of godparent. Just as a Catholic cannot promise to help raise a child in a non-Catholic faith, a non-Catholic cannot assent to the promise to help raise a child in the Catholic faith (with exceptions for Eastern Orthodox communities).

Even if a potential godparent meets the requirements of canon law, personal considerations might discourage him from accepting the invitation. Such considerations include:

  • Whether the potential godparent not only understands what it means to be a godparent, but is willing and able to fulfill the duties of a godparent. For example, godparents help provide for a child’s upbringing in the Catholic faith. If the parents were to die or be incapacitated in some way, would the godparent be able to properly fulfill these responsibilities in the absence of the parents?
  • Whether he or she is already a godparent. A person who is already godparent to one or more children may find it difficult to remain faithful to the duties of a godparent. It is possible to be overextended.
Being a godparent is more of a calling than an honor. If need be, a person who has been asked to be a godparent can discuss the matter with a spiritual director or confessor before making a decision. Even if a person should decline the invitation to be a godparent, that person can still have an active role in the life of the child.

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