God parenting, church officials said, had fallen to earth as a secular custom between relatives or neighbors — many deficient in faith or living in sin, and was now a mere method of strengthening family ties. And sometimes mob ties, too.
From The New York Times:
The mother had prepared everything for the baptism. She dressed her infant son Antonio in a handmade satin suit with tails and a matching cream-colored top hat glittering with rhinestones. She hired the photographers and bought the baby a gold cross. She booked a big buffet lunch for the whole clan at the Copacabana.
But as the parish priest in the Sicilian city of Catania went through the usual liturgy, calling on the family to renounce Satan and ladling holy water on the squirming baby’s head, one major part of the ritual went missing.
There was no godfather.
“It’s not right,” said Agata Peri, 68, little Antonio’s great-grandmother. “I definitely didn’t make this decision.”
The church did. That weekend in October, the Roman Catholic diocese of Catania enacted a three-year ban on the ancient tradition of naming godparents at baptisms and christenings. Church officials argue that the once-essential figure in a child’s Catholic education has lost all spiritual significance. Instead, they say, it has become a networking opportunity for families looking to improve their fortunes, secure endowments of gold necklaces and make advantageous connections, sometimes with local power brokers who have dozens of godchildren.
God parenting, church officials said, had fallen to earth as a secular custom between relatives or neighbors — many deficient in faith or living in sin, and was now a mere method of strengthening family ties.
And sometimes mob ties, too.
Italian prosecutors have tracked baptisms to map out how underworld bosses spread influence, and mob widows in court have saved their most poisonous spite for “the real Judases” who betray the baptismal bond. It is a transgression most associated with, well, “The Godfather,” especially the baptism scene when Michael Corleone renounces Satan in church as his henchmen whack all of his enemies.
But church officials warn that secularization more than anything led them to rub out the godparents, a Sicilian thing that’s been going on for 2,000 years, or at least since the church’s dicey first days, when sponsors known to bishops vouched for converts to prevent pagan infiltration.
“It’s an experiment,” said Msgr. Salvatore Genchi, the vicar general of Catania, as he held a copy of the ban in his office behind the city’s basilica. A godfather to at least 15 godchildren, the monsignor said he was well qualified for the role, but he estimated that 99 percent of the diocese’s godparents were not.
Can the local Church just do that? In some cases — say, if a newborn is near death and in the hospital — the sacrament doesn’t require godparents. (And in that circumstance, even a non-Catholic or non-Christian, with the proper words and formula, can baptize. This recent piece in America gives one poignant example of that.)
UPDATE: This has happened before in Italy. A reader with a good memory pointed out this item from last year over at the blog Pray Tell:
Bishop Michele Fusco of Diocese of Sulmona-Valva, Italy, has recently published a decree where he abolishes Godparents in Baptism and Confirmation for a three year ad experimentum period (this article translates most of the decree into English).
The short decree starts from the premise that in many case the godparents are chosen in a manner that “is a kind of formal fulfillment in which the dimension of faith is hardly visible.” He reflects on the lack of this dimension of faith and the fact that often people proposed as Godparents do not meet the requirements for the role as expressed in canon law.
The bishop’s goal is not to abolish godparents indefinitely and admits that the decision will cause disappointment on the parish level, but he invites his pastors to reflect on the reasons for his decision with their parishioners in the hope that this three year break “may give new vigor to the role that all are called to play regarding the witness of faith and to the education of those who receive the Sacraments.”
Canon law has this to say on the subject of godparents:
Can. 872 Insofar as possible, a person to be baptized is to be given a sponsor who assists an adult in Christian initiation or together with the parents presents an infant for baptism. A sponsor also helps the baptized person to lead a Christian life in keeping with baptism and to fulfill faithfully the obligations inherent in it.
Can. 873 There is to be only one male sponsor or one female sponsor or one of each.
Can. 874 §1. To be permitted to take on the function of sponsor a person must:
1/ be designated by the one to be baptized, by the parents or the person who takes their place, or in their absence by the pastor or minister and have the aptitude and intention of fulfilling this function;
2/ have completed the sixteenth year of age, unless the diocesan bishop has established another age, or the pastor or minister has granted an exception for a just cause;
3/ be a Catholic who has been confirmed and has already received the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist and who leads a life of faith in keeping with the function to be taken on;
4/ not be bound by any canonical penalty legitimately imposed or declared;
5/ not be the father or mother of the one to be baptized.
§2. A baptized person who belongs to a non-Catholic ecclesial community is not to participate except together with a Catholic sponsor and then only as a witness of the baptism.