Can an adult be validly baptized against his will?

An infant can be baptized, even though any express willing, one way or the other, by the infant is lacking. Original sin is contracted without consent and so it can be remitted without consent. It is not contrary to the teaching of the Faith for original sin to be remitted without any act of the free will (consent) by the human person. But this point pertains to the absence of an act of the will.

Baptism of an adult can be similarly performed without any express willing by the adult, in certain extraordinary circumstances. For example, suppose that an adult was studying Catholicism, and was considering Baptism, without yet reaching a decision. Then he falls ill or injured and unconscious. A priest who is aware of his situation may baptize him without his express consent, without an act of his will. This type of valid Baptism is based on the implicit (or to some extent explicit) desire of the adult for Baptism, expressed by the adult and known to the priest.

A similar case occurs with older children, capable of understanding Baptism, who show some general desire or interest in conversion to Christianity, and who are in danger of death. “…shortly after 820 in Lyons, where as part of his campaign to convert the Jews (described in his Epistola de baptismo Judaicorum), Archbishop Agobard of Lyons assembled the children who had not been sent into safety by their parents and baptized all those who to his mind appeared to show some desire for conversion.” (Jewish Virtual Library, Baptism, forced)

The above two types of cases are not, strictly-speaking, forced Baptism, since the persons who are baptized, at a time of danger of death, have showed implicit desire for Baptism, or even some type of limited explicit desire. Canon law permits this type of Baptism:

“Can. 865 §2. An adult in danger of death can be baptized if, having some knowledge of the principal truths of the faith, the person has manifested in any way at all the intention to receive baptism and promises to observe the commandments of the Christian religion.”

The phrasing ‘in any way at all’ extends Baptism even to those who have not previously expressed a firm explicit decision to be baptized. And, of course, an adult can validly receive Baptism, after proper preparation, with his own express consent.

But what if an adult specifically refuses an offer to be Baptized? What if Baptism is against his firmly-expressed decision concerning his own soul and his own life? The question here is not, ‘Should he be baptized against his will’, but rather ‘Would such a baptism against his will be valid?’

On the question of ‘should he be baptized against his will’, Canon law says ‘No.’

“Can. 865 §1. For an adult to be baptized, the person must have manifested the intention to receive baptism, have been instructed sufficiently about the truths of the faith and Christian obligations, and have been tested in the Christian life through the catechumenate. The adult is also to be urged to have sorrow for personal sins.”

But the above Canon does not imply that such a Baptism would be invalid, only at worst illicit.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has nothing specific to forced baptism, but does have a general teaching on freedom of religion that certainly can be applied to the question:

“To be human, ‘man’s response to God by faith must be free, and … therefore nobody is to be forced to embrace the faith against his will. the act of faith is of its very nature a free act.’ ‘God calls men to serve him in spirit and in truth. Consequently they are bound to him in conscience, but not coerced…. This fact received its fullest manifestation in Christ Jesus.’ Indeed, Christ invited people to faith and conversion, but never coerced them. ‘For he bore witness to the truth but refused to use force to impose it on those who spoke against it. His kingdom … grows by the love with which Christ, lifted up on the cross, draws men to himself.’ ” (CCC, n. 160).

Although forced Baptism is not mentioned, the implication of the above teaching is clear. Forced Baptism of an adult, or of a child old enough to understand the Sacrament, against the express will of the person, is a violation of the teachings of Christ and His Church.

The Second Vatican Council declared that all human persons have a right to religious freedom:

“This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.” (Dignitatis Humanae, n. 2)

“It is one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free: no one therefore is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will. This doctrine is contained in the word of God and it was constantly proclaimed by the Fathers of the Church. The act of faith is of its very nature a free act. Man, redeemed by Christ the Savior and through Christ Jesus called to be God’s adopted son, cannot give his adherence to God revealing Himself unless, under the drawing of the Father, he offers to God the reasonable and free submission of faith. It is therefore completely in accord with the nature of faith that in matters religious every manner of coercion on the part of men should be excluded. In consequence, the principle of religious freedom makes no small contribution to the creation of an environment in which men can without hindrance be invited to the Christian faith, embrace it of their own free will, and profess it effectively in their whole manner of life.” (Dignitatis Humanae, n. 10)

The Second Vatican Council declared that this religious freedom is taught by the Word of God (Sacred Scripture) and was “constantly proclaimed by the Fathers of the Church” — which is a phrasing used to indicate the teachings of Sacred Tradition. Then, too, the Council was exercising the Magisterium by its teaching. Therefore, Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium all teach that no one is to be forced to embrace the Christian Faith against his will.

But Baptism is the first and most fundamental Sacrament of initiation in the Church. The validly-baptized human person is a member of the Church (although apostasy or other grave sin remain possible). Is it possible that any Sacrament established by Christ, especially one that transforms the human person to become more like Christ, can be valid when forced against the will of the person? Certainly not.

The unwilling adult does not validly receive Baptism, as St. Thomas implies when he states: “If an adult lack the intention of receiving the sacrament, he must be rebaptized.” (Summa Theologica)

Therefore, my answer is that the forced baptism of an adult against his express will is not valid as a Sacrament.

“If the adult receives the Sacrament of Baptism unwillingly, if either it is forced upon him, or if he has no sincere intention to receive a Sacrament (but perhaps just to attend a ceremony to please a friend or loved one), then he does not receive the Sacrament validly. For every Sacrament requires he who dispenses the Sacrament to intend to do what the Church does. But when a Sacrament requires the participation of an adult, such as in Marriage, or in Confession, the recipient of the Sacrament must also intend to do what the Church does. A couple who do not intend to bind themselves in a lifelong commitment, in a marriage as a Sacrament, not merely as a human custom, do not receive the Sacrament validly. A man who goes to Confession unrepentant does not receive the Sacrament validly, for he does not intend to do what the Church does: contrition and Confession. Thus, an adult who accepts the water of Baptism without intending to do what the Church does, in that he is insincere and does not truly consent to the Sacrament, does not receive Baptism validly, and he is not forgiven.” (Conte, Catechism of Catholic Ethics, n. 533)

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

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