From a reader:
I’d like to know your opinion on a matter troubling my husband and me. Years ago, we asked a close friend to be a godparent of our child. At the time, he was a faithful practicing Catholic, attending mass regularly. Since that time, he has “relaxed” in his faith. He still says he’s Catholic, but rarely attends mass and supports things not inline with Church teachings such as same-sex marriage. How do I handle this situation when my child looks up to and admires his Godparent?
By being baptized, we communicate to God our first “yes” to a relationship with Him, which is in response to His great communication of love and desire for relationship with us. Godparents speak the “yes” by proxy for the godchild and as witnesses to the joy of a relationship with God.
For faithful Catholic parents, choosing suitable godparents is often a difficult decision. And there are many competing factors that play into the decision: the desire to forge family bonds or deepen friendships; wishing to avoid hurt feelings for someone who may expect to be asked, or may feel it’s their turn to be a godparent; trying to satisfy the opinions of others.
However, ultimately these factors should not be what determines who we choose as a godparent, because the decision should fundamentally be about whether the person can actually perform the job, which requires (at a minimum) a baptized Catholic adult who is actively practicing the faith. A godparent is supposed to pray for and support by word and example the Catholic formation of his or her godchild.
The Rituale Romanum states that it is the duty of godparents “…by reason of their position ever to regard their godchild as a personal charge, and in all that pertains to his Christian upbringing to watch over him faithfully, so that in his whole life he may prove herself true to the promises which they once solemnly spoke for him.” (Holy Baptism – General Rules, para. 38).
In the Rite of Baptism itself, godparents and parents who indicate that they are prepared to accept responsibility for the religious upbringing of a child are asked to “…renew now the vows of your own baptism. Reject sin; profess your faith in Christ Jesus. This is the faith of the Church. This is the faith in which this child is about to be baptized.”
That means that when your child goes to her godparent and asks if she should go to mass, he is supposed to say, “Yes”, and also put this into practice by being a good example of a Catholic who regularly attends mass.
It also means that when your child goes to her godparent and asks what he thinks about abortion, or sex outside of marriage, or some other moral issue, the godparent is supposed to support (in words and deeds) the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Parents (and by extension, the godchild) have the right to expect these things from the godparent, who should not accept the esteem and title of being a godparent if he is unprepared to carry out the obligations associated with the role.
Children are very observant, and the fact that a godparent (who the child understands the parents have chosen for the child) does not respect the teachings of the Church or follow her precepts can lead to questions and challenges that can undermine spiritual formation.
Not that this is an excuse, but it may not have even occurred to the godparent that long ago he took a vow to pray for and spiritually support the Catholic formation of his godchild. Vows are made to be broken (or forgotten), so to speak. I suppose that if your relationship permits it, you could inquire if he forgot the solemn promises he made.
If you’re wondering, I don’t think there is any way to “remove” a godparent. According to the Rituale Romanum (Id., para. 37), only the minister and the godparent contract a spiritual relationship from baptism with the one baptized. If a spiritual relationship is contracted, it does not seem likely that it could be removed because of poor-quality godparenting. I am not aware of any kind of “godparent annulment” procedure in the Church, however, I am not a canonist and could be wrong on this point.
That said, in light of the spiritual relationship that has already been contracted, and in light of the teaching of the Church that the parents are the primary teachers of the Faith to their children, I suggest the following:
1. Pray for your child’s godparent. Ask God to use the special spiritual relationship between the godparent and your child to work in both directions; ask God to strengthen the godparent through the spiritual graces that you request for them both.
2. When your child is old enough to understand, and begins asking questions like, “Why doesn’t so-and-so go to mass?” encourage your child to also pray for her godparent. Remind your child that God wants us all to pray for each other and help each other to be better Catholics.
3. Do not defer to the godparent. As long as you are aware of a situation in which the godparent is manifesting something that is contrary to the teachings of the Church, protect your child. Do not permit statements of dissent or actions that your child observes to go unanswered. You need not go into any detail in explaining the situation to your child, but do not deny that something is amiss in the life of your child’s godparent. In confession one time, a beloved priest pointed out that we’re all healing at different rates, which is the approach I’d take in explaining things to one of my kids.
4. Invite the child to learn more about her patron saint, or if she does not yet have one, invite her to read about a few different saints and pick one. Remind your child that we can cultivate strong relationships with the saints, and ask them to pray for us and even spiritually adopt us in the same way that a godparent does.
5. Don’t stop inviting the godparent to be a part of the life of your child (as long as there are no indications that the child might be harmed from this), and don’t stop warmly welcoming him to return to the practice of the faith. Ask him to pray for your child, especially around the time of the first reception of the sacraments and throughout religious education. Reiterate to the godparent his important place and role in the life of your child.
6. Be as charitable as you possibly can. Your feelings matter the least. You might feel disappointed, trespassed, hurt, angry, or even proud. Ask God to remove these feelings. Concentrate on what’s best for the other person: in this case, your first priority is your child, and your secondary priority is the good of the godparent.
More than anything else, give thanks to God for the great gift of Baptism, through which His mercy is poured out for us all. By Baptism we are saved! And, just as the validity of the Eucharist is not diminished if the priest who consecrates is living in mortal sin, so too is Baptism always valid even if the godparents (or parents) are really unsuitable in their role. It is Christ who saves, and Christ who is our ultimate model for how to live.