Welcoming -- the sacrament of Baptism in the Catholic Church is the sacrament of welcoming. The child is presented to the Church, the community of believers, usually by the parents. The priest calls upon the parents, the godparents, and the entire congregation, to assume the solemn obligation of raising the child in the faith. And then the child is baptized, water poured over her head, as the priest pronounces the time-honored formula -- "in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit."
Baptism can be performed privately, of course, especially in danger of death. But it makes most sense when it is done as part of a community celebration. Everyone shares in the delight and the warmth.
On April 5, there took place in Cordoba, Argentina, a baptism that augurs coming change in the Catholic Church. A little baby, two-month old Umma Azul, was baptized into the Catholic faith. That may seem unremarkable until one realizes that the parents were a recently married lesbian couple.
The baptism is in keeping with the spirit of inclusiveness set by Pope Francis. In January, 2014, the Advocate, America's leading gay newspaper, asked the question: "Is Pope Francis Reaching Out to Gay Parents?"
The Advocate left little doubt that he was. The article quoted a speech he delivered before a gathering of religious orders: "Gay unions raise challenges for us today which for us are sometimes difficult to understand." He went on: "I remember a case in which a sad little girl confessed to her teacher: 'My mother's girlfriend doesn't love me.'"
The Italian text of the Pope's speech used the feminine "fiancee," indicating that the Pope was specifically talking about a gay, engaged couple. He advised his listeners to reach out to couples like these, always bearing in mind the children: "We must be careful not to administer a vaccine against the faith to them." These may look like small steps, but in a Church whose leadership just two or three years ago would have struck a much harsher note, this is progress.
And this brings us to Umma Azul. Two young women approached Archbishop Carlos Nanez of Cordoba, Argentina, requesting baptism for their daughter. They were directed to a parish priest who assisted them in preparing for baptism. Archbishop Nanez also made sure to contact the Holy See. While the Holy See did not publicly authorize the baptism, it clearly must have sent a clear "go-ahead" signal.
The Archbishop defended the decision to perform the baptism by referring to the rights of the infant involved: "The Church... demonstrates that she is a merciful and wide-reaching mother, in order to open the doors of salvation." "Baptism is the right of every human person." The Pope, the Archbishop reminded his listeners, believed this himself.
The right wing, it goes without saying, has been in an uproar over this action. Rorate Caeli, the traditionalist website, is probably as good a thermometer as there is for taking the measure of the right wing's fever pitch. Rorate reminded its readers that this baptism seemed to violate canon law: "There must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion," reads canon 868 sec. 1. Rorate harrumphed that this was impossible in little Umma's case.
Clearly, Pope Francis and Archbishop Nanez disagree. They certainly know the canon law and they must believe that, in fact, there is a "founded hope" the child will be raised Catholic.
So what does this mean? On the purely personal level, it means a baby has been brought into the Church. Two young women who, judging by the photographs of the event, must love each other and their child very dearly, have been brought closer to the faith. The community of believers in Cordoba has been enriched by this experience.
On a larger level, it means that the Catholic Church has taken a small (dare I say "baby?") step toward becoming more inclusive. As I have written before, our scientific knowledge of human sexuality has evolved substantially in just the last three or four decades. We recognize now, what we did not fully appreciate in the 1970's -- that being gay is part of the natural range of human sexuality. And civilly, legally, we have come to give effect to this understanding by expanding our institutional structures -- marriage, the family -- to accommodate gay people.
Pope Francis is cautiously moving the Church in the direction of greater accommodation. He does not wish to split the Church. A glance at the right-wing blogs indicates real anger at even these limited steps. So we should not expect abrupt, revolutionary action from Pope Francis.
Still, those are worries for another day. Right now, I just want to say to Umma and her parents -- Welcome to the Catholic Church. I am delighted to be in community with you. And have a wonderful, blessed Easter!