In a homily on May 12th, Pope Francis commented that he would not deny baptism to an extra-terrestrial alien, if that creature requested to receive that sacrament. Although his spirit of hospitality and compassion are quite admirable, his comments could be easily construed as a distortion of the sacramental theology and discipline of the Church.
Traditionally, the Church has consistently taught that the valid conferral of a sacrament requires proper matter, form and intention. Baptism is to be conferred only on those of the human species, which God originally formed in His image and likeness. When this image was perverted by sin, He graciously restored it through the sacrifice
of His Son, Jesus Christ. Thus it is that, while we do bless religious objects, animals, homes, fields and machinery, we do not baptize them. Only human beings were originally formed in God's Image. And thus only human beings can be restored to that image by Baptism.
The comment of Our Holy Father, however, opens the way to examine a more pressing issue facing the Church today. That issue is whether it is possible to "baptize" what is in complete alienation from the very nature of integral humanity. Is it possible for the Church to remain faithful to the most basic mysteries and truths entrusted to her as the pillar and foundation of truth (I Tim 3:15) by validating realities and practices, which are intrinsically inimical to the very nature and dynamics of integral humanity?
Is she to welcome sinners, or is she to invite them to join with the rest of her children in a sanctifying dynamic of repentance, faith and humble immersion into the deeper dimensions of God's merciful and sanctifying graciousness? For example, in the Gospel account of the call of St. Matthew (Matt 9:9-13), it is difficult to envision Jesus laughing at crude comments, obscene jokes or racial slurs of sinners in the house of Matthew, much less contributing to the degeneration of such conversations.
Yet some would have us believe that Jesus, in order to make the sinners feel "welcome" and "accepted", would have of necessity joined in such crude conversation, so that the people present would not feel like they were being judged or condemned. It would seem to be more likely, however, that these were poor souls, who had been labeled and put on the shelf as "those beyond redemption". But here, in the presence of Jesus, they could now rejoice that they had finally encountered Someone, Who actually took them seriously, reverenced them as being sacred and could offer them the opportunity to break from the degrading perversions of sin through the mystery of life-giving repentance.
So it is that the Church has been entrusted with the ministry of forgiveness, deliverance, healing and reconciliation to those suffering from the alienation of sin and its consequences. She is sent into the world to sanctify the alienated, not to sanctify the alienation of sin. The Gospel invites all to be regularly immersed, through the graciousness of the Holy Spirit, into both the mystery and ministries of repentance and reconciliation. And the Church proclaims that, in His great love, Christ has revealed to us an important spiritual truth - repentance is one of the greatest acts of hospitality possible for humanity. Thus it is also one of the primary avenues of access to authentic reconciliation.
After all, Jesus reveals to us that God graciously relates to us as incarnate integrity, compassion and mercy. Sadly, our first parents rejected that basic truth. When He, Who is pure gracious Mercy, came into the Garden of Eden after they sinned, they refused to humbly offer Him the hospitality of repentance. Instead, they chose to hide from Him - first of all in the bushes, and then in a thicket of excuses and resentments. Having thus closed themselves off from access to the healing graciousness of His mercy, they found themselves trapped in alienation from the sanctifying mystery of covenantal love. The quest for dominion aborted the commitment to communion, a functional expediency eclipsed respect for integrity, and "having" relations with each other eviscerated their ability to "be" in reverent relationship with each other.
The same mystery is being dramatically revealed to us in our own age. Immersed in the septic quagmire of sin, many people continue to seek salvation through excuses and resentment, as well as from new technologies, which are so often used either to inure them to sin or to redefine salvation as the ability to think that, since sin is normal, it should also be considered as normative. Thus blinded to the reality and splendor of truth, their moral lives are guided by seriously sin-seared consciences. Sadly, this diabolical dynamic of deception is further ratified by distorted interpretations of Vatican II's teaching on the supremacy of conscience. Thus, those who have carefully formed a sincere conscience based on eternal moral truths continue to be scandalized by Church practices, which, instead of challenging people to appreciate and accept the integrity of moral truths, seem to regularly give a certain legitimacy to the allegations of those habitually guided by sin-seared consciences.
The alienated are able, through God's gracious gifts of sincere repentance and faith, to be redemptively immersed in the mystery and ministries of Divine Mercy in ways that transcend and transform even their greatest hopes. But that perverse mystery of degenerative alienation, which is sin, cannot be redeemed. The Good News is that, even in the midst of the worst degradations of sin, the redemptive mystery and ministries of Divine Mercy Himself are still being faithfully and gracious offered to all who are willing to offer Him the hospitality of sincere repentance.
Spero columnist Rev. Thomas Collins is a Catholic priest in the service of the people of Virginia.