Question: "What is the Catholic understanding of baptism?"
Answer: According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (or CCC), water baptism is the first sacrament and gives access to the other required sacraments. It is also the act that forgives sins, grants spiritual rebirth, and makes one a member of the church (CCC, 1213). The Catholic Church also believes that Jesus requires one’s baptism in order to receive eternal life.
Catholics view baptism as the means by which one receives the Holy Spirit. The sacrament is called “the gateway to life in the Spirit” (CCC, 1213). The “washing of rebirth” in Titus 3:5 is interpreted as a literal washing by water and is associated with the rite of baptism. The same is true for Jesus’ mention of being “born of water” in John 3:5. Even non-Catholics who have been baptized are considered “justified by faith in baptism” (CCC, 1271) because baptism incorporates all into Christ.
According to Catholicism, a long process precedes any hope for “salvation.” Required are a “proclamation of the Lord, acceptance of the Gospel entailing conversion, profession of faith, baptism itself, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and admission to Eucharistic communion” (CCC, 1229). Baptism is necessary because, according to Catholicism, “By baptism, all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sin” (CCC, 1263).
CCC 1274 teaches, “The Holy Spirit marks us at baptism with the seal of the Lord for the day of redemption.” However, there is no security in this seal, for the baptized Christian must be “faithful” to keep the seal “until the end.” Only then will he “be able to depart this life in the hope of resurrection.”
Catholics practice infant baptism, which they consider a gift of God’s grace. Infants and young children are “baptized in the faith of the Church” (CCC, 1282). So important is baptism in the Catholic faith that they teach that an unbaptized child who dies either goes to hell or to purgatory.
Catholics use verses such as Luke 18:15–16 and 1 Corinthians 1:16 in support of the practice of infant baptism. However, these passages are misused. The Bible does not teach infant baptism. In Luke 18, parents are bringing their children so that Jesus might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them for it. Christ told His disciples, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” The Lord said nothing about baptizing infants here; He only said not to forbid children from following Him. To draw a teaching on baptism from this verse is incorrect.
In 1 Corinthians 1 Paul speaks of a family (a household) that was baptized. He says in verse 16, “I also baptized the household of Stephanas.” Do we know if infants or very young children were in Stephanas’s household? No. We do not know the ages of anyone in the household, and it is unwise to base a doctrine on assumptions.
So, we have some key differences in the Catholic doctrine of baptism compared to Scripture. One is that the Bible says to be baptized once we have faith and repent of our sins (Acts 2:38; Mark 16:15–17); no one should be baptized “in the faith of the Church,” their parent’s faith, etc. The Bible says we receive the Holy Spirit when we have faith in Christ (Ephesians 1:13–14; Galatians 3:2–3). There is no other way to receive Him but by faith. Works, even the work of baptism, are not the reason a person is saved (Titus 3:5).
Catholics teach that a baptized person begins participating in eternal life at the moment of baptism, but they also teach he loses that “eternal” life and the Holy Spirit when he sins. The Bible says that a Christian might “grieve” the Holy Spirit, but the “seal” the Spirit places on us cannot be broken (Ephesians 4:30).
In all instances of baptism in the New Testament, the act always followed a person’s faith in and confession of Christ, along with repentance (e.g., Acts 8:35–38; 16:14–15; 18:8; and 19:4–5). Baptism is not what gives us salvation. Baptism is an act of obedience after faith.