On Godparents, the Guardians of the Life of Grace

Source: District of Great Britain

Originally published in the Voice of the Family Digest (nº 129, 22 November 2023)

The recent document issued by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) on the participation of transgender persons and practising homosexuals in the sacraments of Baptism and Matrimony has caused shock and dismay. Despite the claim that the DDF substantially confirmed its previous pronouncements, the document appears to permit people living in same-sex relationships or suffering from gender dysphoria to be sponsors at Baptisms and witnesses at weddings when a pastor deems it appropriate.

In July 2023, the Most Reverend José Negri, Bishop of Santo Amaro, Brazil, sent six questions to the DDF:

  1. Can a transsexual be baptised?
  2. Can a transsexual be a Baptismal sponsor?
  3. Can a transsexual be a witness to a wedding?
  4. Can two persons with same-sex attraction serve as parents of a child to be baptised that was adopted or conceived by other means, such as a surrogate?
  5. Can a person with same-sex attraction who cohabits be a baptismal sponsor?
  6. Can a person with same-sex attraction who cohabits be a witness to a wedding?

The answers that were published by the Dicastery on 3 November 2023, had been approved by Pope Francis on 31 October.

In all these scenarios, the crucial issue is whether the individual in question has shown true contrition and a genuine conversion or persists in a state of habitual sin. Nevertheless, some distinctions need to be made. Baptism is necessary for salvation and is therefore different from being a godparent or a witness to a wedding. In turn, witnessing a wedding is an isolated event; it does not contract a spiritual affinity with the couple or entail the ongoing duties required of a godparent.

Being a sponsor at baptism, as the DDF statement points out, is not a right, nor is it necessary for salvation. But, while they are often forgotten, the duties it confers are serious. The Roman Catechism teaches: 

The faithful are also to be taught the duty of sponsors; for such is the negligence with which this office is treated in the Church that only the bare name of the function remains, while none seem to have the least idea of its sanctity. Let all sponsors, then, at all times recollect that they are strictly bound by this law to exercise a constant vigilance over their spiritual children, and carefully to instruct them in the maxims of a Christian life; so that these may show themselves throughout life to be what their sponsors promised in the solemn ceremony.

The Catechism of 1992, the Vatican standard today, however, merely states in paragraph 1255: 

For the grace of Baptism to unfold, the parents’ help is important. So too is the role of the godfather and godmother, who must be firm believers, able and ready to help the newly baptised — child or adult on the road of Christian life. Their task is a truly ecclesial function (officium). The whole ecclesial community bears some responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at Baptism.

And the 1983 Code of Canon Law states (in can. 874 §1) that to be a baptismal sponsor one must “have the aptitude and intention of fulfilling this function” (i.e. “help the baptised person to lead a Christian life in keeping with baptism and to fulfil faithfully the obligations inherent in it”, as clarified in can. 872).

Spiritual life is life. And it is in this fact that the role of the godparent is rooted. Just as a child needs proper care and nourishment for his well-being and physical development, he needs proper care and nourishment for his spiritual development. And that is the primary duty of a godparent — to nourish growth in the life of grace.

When it comes to the life of grace, the Catholic Church draws a sharp distinction between “living members” and “dead members” of the Church. The Catechism approved by Pope St. Pius X in 1908 gives clear definitions of these terms (25–26):

Q. Who are the living members of the Church?

A. The living members of the Church are the just, and the just alone, that is, those who are actually in the grace of God.

Q. And who are the dead members?

A. The dead members of the Church are the faithful in mortal sin.

St. Thomas Aquinas explained the nature of the spiritual death wrought by mortal sin (II-I q.88 a.2):

For sin, being a sickness of the soul, as stated above, is said to be mortal by comparison with a disease, which is said to be mortal, through causing an irreparable defect consisting in the corruption of a principle… Now the principle of the spiritual life, which is a life in accord with virtue, is the order to the last end… and if this order be corrupted, it cannot be repaired by any intrinsic principle, but by the power of God alone…

In other words, mortal sin leads to the destruction of the life of grace in the soul. It causes the termination of “a life in accord with virtue” and, as St. Thomas says elsewhere, the sinner “forfeits the lustre of grace through the deformity of sin” (II-I q.9 a.7). An individual in the state of mortal sin cannot “rise by his own powers” (II-I q.9 a.7) but only by cooperating with the unmerited gift of divine grace which leads him to repentance and reconciliation with God and the Church, ordinarily through the sacrament of penance. God’s mercy is freely available in this sacrament to all who seek it with true repentance and the intention to amend their lives.

Of course, we cannot assume that all those considered “trans” or homosexual are subjectively guilty of mortal sin. We can, however, expect the Church instruction on baptismal sponsors to reflect the objective nature of the sins involved. Any instruction from the DDF should unequivocally affirm that public transsexuals and practising homosexuals cannot serve as godparents. This is the genuinely pastoral approach as it opens up the opportunity for people to transform their lives with the assistance of divine grace. It is not charitable to refuse to speak the truth because it might cause offence. Nor is it merciful to hide from people the truth about their spiritual state when this deprives them of the motivation to turn away from a life of sin that threatens to cut them off from God for all eternity.

In his second question, Bishop Negri asked: “Can a transsexual be a Baptismal sponsor?”

The DDF answered: 

Under certain conditions, an adult transsexual person can be allowed as a baptismal sponsor, even if having already submitted to hormone treatment or gender reassignment surgery. Still, as this function (of being a sponsor) does not constitute a right, pastoral prudence requires that this not be allowed when there is known to be a danger of scandal, of wrongful legitimisation, or of confusion among the church community in the educational aspect.

The vital distinction regarding the issue of repentance is not addressed. Given that gender dysphoria itself is grave confusion, it is also difficult to see how confusion could be avoided in such a situation. If, however, we were to imagine a scenario where there had been contrition, repentance and a genuine conversion, and public scandal were somehow avoided, then the response to the next question would seem to invalidate any positive reading of this answer.

Bishop Negri asked: “Can a person with same-sex attraction who cohabits be a baptismal sponsor?”

The DDF answered: 

According to the norm of can. 874 §1, 1° e 3° CIC, ‘a person can serve as a baptismal sponsor who has the fittingness for it’ (cf. 1°) and ‘who lives a life in accordance with the Faith and with the responsibility he is going to assume’. (3°; cf. can. 685 §2 CCEO). The case is different where the life together of the two persons with same-sex attraction is not simply a together but indeed is a stable and declared relationship, more uxorio, well known by the community.

In any case, the necessary pastoral prudence requires that each situation be considered wisely to safeguard the sacrament of Baptism and especially its reception, which is a precious good to be cared for since it is necessary for salvation.

At the same time, it is necessary to consider the real value that the ecclesial community attributes to the function of the baptismal sponsors, the role that they have in the community and the consideration shown by them in regard to the teachings of the Church. Finally, it is necessary to take into account the possibility also that there is another person in the family circle who can guarantee the correct transmission of the Catholic Faith to the one to be baptised, knowing always how to assist the one to be baptised during the rite not only as a sponsor, but also as witnesses to the Baptism.

Here, we must conclude that people who have not repented, have no true contrition and show no evidence of amendment of an intrinsically disordered way of life can sponsor a child at Baptism when it is deemed pastorally prudent for some unspecified reason. 

St. Augustine sums up, in a few words, the duty of baptismal sponsors and the instruction they are bound to impart to their spiritual children. These are included in the Roman Catechism. “They ought,” he says, “to admonish them to observe chastity, love justice, cling to charity; and above all they should teach them the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the rudiments of the Christian religion.”

But how could anyone living in a same-sex relationship admonish their spiritual children in chastity or convincingly teach the Ten Commandments? It is therefore concluded in the Roman Catechism, with indisputable clarity, those who may not be sponsors: 

It is easy, therefore, to decide who are inadmissible to this holy guardianship, that is, those who are unwilling to discharge its duties with fidelity, or who cannot do so with care and accuracy.

In conclusion, the DDF’s announcement that pastors can decide whether it is prudent for transsexuals and practicing homosexuals to become godparents furthers the normalisation of gravely disordered behaviour in the Church. It also signals to the world that the shepherds of the Church are prepared to abandon their duty to those who have lost the grace of their baptismal robes; they will no longer seek to bring back life to those who are dead in sin.