Michael Sean Winters has just posted about Sarah Palin and her possible “apostasy” by being baptized twice, first as an infant in the Catholic Church and later as an adult in the Assembly of God church. But what Winters may not realize is that the Catholic Church did for a very long time re-baptize Protestants who sought to join the Catholic communion, particularly those who come from Christian groups that do not have a sacramental tradition. In this country, the largest such group is the Southern Baptists.
I know this because I myself had to be baptized “conditionally,” when I was received into the Catholic Church. Since I was a Southern Baptist, the thinking went, and was baptized by immersion in a church that does not believe in sacraments, but rather has “ordinances”—baptism and Eucharist are the two ordinances they recognize—the Catholic Church felt it necessary to give me the real sacraments, understood fully as such. It was on condition, in case my baptism had not “worked,” so to speak.
At the time I was in my 20s and living at Koinonia Partners, Inc. near Americus, Ga., an ecumenical Christian community that included many Protestants, including some ministers (Methodist, Presbyterian, Mennonite) and former missionaries. When I announced to the community that I intended to become a Catholic, and invited my brothers and sisters there to celebrate my initiation with me, some of the strongest critics were the Protestant ministers and missionaries. They felt insulted by the Catholic dismissal of my baptism: Who were the Catholics to re-baptize me? I called a meeting and most of the adult members of Koinonia attended it, perhaps 40 people, and we discussed at length what each person felt, and how, as a matter of conscience not out of any disrespect for me or my decision, some told me directly that they could not attend. Ultimately, only a few people came to support me, but I understood their feelings.
My “conversion”—now also an obsolete term for such a change within the Christian family--took place just as the new rite of Christian initiation of adults was becoming typical in Catholic parishes. Because ours was a mission parish in the deep South it was a bit behind the times. Had I sought initiation in a more Catholic region, chances are that I would not have had to submit myself to “conditional baptism,” as rebaptism was then called. Since then, the practice has gone out of favor. Today those who are already baptized need not be rebaptized at all. Throughout the initiation process, they have their own rites, sometimes their own instruction, which is different from that for the catechumens who undergo all of the initiation sacraments, beginning with baptism.
Karen Sue Smith