The Vatican Monarchy

Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith

by William F. Buckley Jr.
Doubleday, 313 pp., $24.95

The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara

by David I. Kertzer
Random House, 350 pp., $26.00

Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture

by Jaroslav Pelikan
Yale University Press, 267 pp., $25.00

Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II

by Jonathan Kwitny
Henry Holt, 754 pp., $30.00

Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes

by Eamon Duffy
Yale University Press, 326 pp., $35.00

Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from Saint Peter to John Paul II

by Richard P. McBrien
HarperSanFrancisco, 520 pp., $29.50

The Smoke of Satan: Conservative and Traditionalist Dissent in Contemporary American Catholicism

by Michael W. Cuneo
Oxford University Press, 214 pp., $27.50

1. Imperial Papalism

William Buckley, in a book that mixes Catholic polemic, a survey of religious opinions, and personal reminiscence, tells us how, as children, he and his sister baptized unsuspecting adult visitors to their parents’ house:

Pope Pius IX
Pope Pius IX; drawing by David Levine

I knocked [at the guest bedroom] and told them that Trish and I were looking for my dog. They welcomed us in to search the room. I knelt down to see if he was under the first bed, and, a drop of water on my forefinger, touched it on Arlie’s forehead as if to maintain my balance, silently inducting her into the Christian community, while Trish, emerging from under the other bed in search of the dog, did as much for her older sister.

When the children boasted of their missionary activity to their mother, she did nothing to discourage them: “Perhaps she permitted herself to believe that her friends’ two grown-up daughters, neither one of them at death’s door, had in fact been baptized.”

At the time of Buckley’s boyhood it was easy to get the idea that baptism was a magic act that performed its wonders if you just got the words and water right—like saying “Open, Sesame” while rubbing a door. Catholic children were told admiring stories of the Jesuit missionary Frances Xavier, who baptized uninstructed Asians by the thousands.

There were complex historical reasons for the simple-minded view that baptism produces an automatic (ex opere operato) effect. In the fourth century, Donatists said that bad Christians could not validly baptize. Orthodox Christians responded that the merits of Christ brought salvation, not the merits of the human baptizer. In the later Scholastic tag, baptism “results from what is performed, not who performs it” (ex opere operato, non ex opere operantis).

Of course, the performer of the act does matter, in the sense that he or she must intend to baptize. And the recipient must intend to be baptized. The Buckley children neglected that last point, perhaps because baptism is customarily given to infants, who clearly cannot have an intention in the matter. Theologians argued that children, before the age of reason, must obey God in His natural representative to them, the parents. That is why Saint Thomas Aquinas said that children should never be baptized without their parents’ consent. He was especially harsh on those who said that Jewish or other infidel children can be baptized and taken from parents who do not worship the true God.

Man is structured toward God through reason, which is capable of knowing God. So a child, before the exercise of its own reason, is structured by nature’s own structure toward God through the parents’ reason, so it must perform its religious duty to God at the parents’ direction. (Summa Theologica 3g.68 a.10 ad 3.)

The supernatural order does not contravene natural law. It does not destroy parents’ rights in the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.