What’s Behind the Decline in Baptism?

baptismal fontThe baptism of Prince George this past Wednesday got worldwide attention, but the Duke and Dutchess of Cambridge appear to bucking the trend toward skipping the sacrament as baptism rates continue to decline across all Christian denominations.

In an excellent report on the subject by Cathy Lynn Grossman of the Religion News Service, the rate of baptisms has been falling for decades.

For instance, the Southern Baptist Convention reports that they only performed 314,959 baptisms in 2012, a low not seen since 1948 when church membership was only six million compared to today’s 16 million.

The Catholic Church isn’t faring much better with baptism rates falling alongside tumbling marriage rates.

In 1970, there were 426,000 marriages in the Catholic church with baptism rates at a little more than one million. By 2011, there were just 164,000 marriages and just 793,103 baptisms.

Mark Gray, senior research associate at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, told Grossman that the decline in baptism rates is definitely tied to the decline in marriages officiated by a priest.

“If you haven’t been married in a church, you may be less likely to present your child for baptism,” he said, citing a definite disconnect between those who marry “at the beach” and those who feel it’s important to present their child for baptism.

He also cited the rise in out-of-wedlock births. “Single parents may be less apt to bring a child for baptism because of a misapprehension that they won’t be welcome,” he said.

However, he cited Pope Francis’ recent invitation to an unmarried mother to bring her child to him for baptism. We can only hope that his example will prove to others like her that “the church is not going to turn you away,” Gray said.

Grossman cites other reasons for the decline in baptism, such as how one in four U.S. households were multi faith in 2006 – up from 15 percent in 1988. Referencing the book Til Faith Do Us Part by Naomi Schaefer Riley, multi-faith couples often skip rituals such as baptism just to avoid contention in their homes.

Because divorce rates are three times more prevalent in interfaith families than in same-faith households, the children of these broken unions are often left confused about God, which can only lead to more skipped sacraments in their futures.

The rise in secularism is another reason with one in five Americans professing no religious identity. And among those who do claim a denomination, there is a de-emphasis on actually practicing the faith prevalent in today’s culture.

“People want God but they’re not happy with churches,” said Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist’s Convention’s Executive Committee. This means rites such as baptism are victims of an “anti-denominational, anti-institutional, even anti-church era.”

Another reason for the decline could be just an overall misunderstanding of what the sacrament really is.

“It’s become a rite of passage for the family rather than what it really means — an incorporation into the Christian community,” said Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest, author and editor at large at America magazine. “So some parents don’t realize why it takes place during a Mass or why godparents should be Catholics. They are surprised that preparation is involved.”

In spite of this, it remains his favorite sacrament, even more so than weddings. “Everyone is happy at a baptism. No one is worried about the flowers or the reception or what the baby is wearing. It’s a great teachable moment about the church, God and love.”

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