Gov. Sarah Palin was baptized in the Catholic Church but later joined a Pentecostal church as a teenager, the Wasilla Assembly of God. Her new church requires baptism by immersion, so at age 12, Palin and her mother and sisters were "re-baptized" in Beaver Lake, according to the Los Angeles Times. My colleague, Father Jim Martin, S.J., has already noted this fact in an earlier post entitled "Palin is an ex-Catholic."
One searches the Code of Canon Law in vain for the term "ex-Catholic." Similarly, the Catholic Church does not recognize the ritual the Times called "re-baptism." More importantly, it is difficult to see how submitting oneself to a "re-baptism" would not be a renunciation of your prior baptism. And the technical term for renouncing one’s baptism is apostasy.
The Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law is very nuanced. Canon 751 deals with heresy, apostasy and schism. It recognizes that in a situation like Palin’s, the severity of the crime could be mitigated by diminished personal freedom: Even a precocious teenager who commits an act of apostasy might be so strongly influenced by familial considerations that the perpetrator’s guilt is diminished. As well, while the Canon speaks of the "Catholic faith" as regards both heresy and schism, it calls apostasy a repudiation of the "Christian faith." The distinction may be literary: Through much of the Code, "Catholic" and "Christian" are used interchangeably.
Curiously, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who was on John McCain’s shortlist for the vice-presidency as well, was also "re-baptized" when he got married and joined his wife’s evangelical church, the Wooddale Church in Eden Prarie, Minnesota.
In this pluralistic society of ours, we are free to join or un-join any church we wish. There are no guards at the airport or inquisitors in the courtrooms. No one is suggesting that Palin’s apostasy should prevent her from being elected to high office. But, while many Catholics may warm to Palin’s moral views, for example, her opposition to abortion, the cavalier way she evidently treats an act of severe sacramental and canonical significance should give pause to those who take their religion seriously.
No penalty attaches latae sententiae to apostasy as it does with some other severe acts. There will not be a canonical trial for Palin. And, unless she subsequently seeks to get married or buried in a Catholic Church, the issue will not be raised by any ecclesiastical authorities. Palin could show her respect for the Catholic Church and its canons by requesting a formal separation from the Church from her local bishop. This might not be good politics but it would be good for her soul.
For the rest of us, it is beyond hypocritical for certain conservative Catholics to denounce Joe Biden because he is Catholic and does not support making abortion illegal while applauding a self-described "hockey Mom" who is skating close to apostasy. The Church’s sacramental traditions and beliefs are as worthy of respect and defense as our moral traditions and beliefs.
Michael Sean Winters