Somewhat regularly we get people who come to the office with a form, asking me to vouch that they are suitable candidates to be godparents (for baptism) or sponsors (for confirmation). Here is what I find in Canon Law about the qualifications of a godparent/sponsor:
can. 872† Insofar as possible, a person to be baptized is to be given a sponsor who assists an adult in Christian initiation or together with the parents presents an infant for baptism. A sponsor also helps the baptized person to lead a Christian life in keeping with baptism and to fulfill faithfully the obligations inherent in it.
can. 873† There is to be only one male sponsor or one female sponsor or one of each.
can. 874 §1.† To be permitted to take on the function of sponsor a person must:
1° be designated by the one to be baptized, by the parents or the person who takes their place, or in their absence by the pastor or minister and have the aptitude and intention of fulfilling this function;
2° have completed the sixteenth year of age, unless the diocesan bishop has established another age, or the pastor or minister has granted an exception for a just cause;
3° be a Catholic who has been confirmed and has already received the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist and who leads a life of faith in keeping with the function to be taken on;
4° not be bound by any canonical penalty legitimately imposed or declared;
5° not be the father or mother of the one to be baptized.
2.† A baptized person who belongs to a non-Catholic ecclesial community is not to participate except together with a Catholic sponsor and then only as a witness of the baptism.
The difficulty comes when families ask people to be sponsors who are not even practicing the Catholic Faith. I have underlined the parts of the canons above that rule out people who are not practicing the Faith, or who are living contrary to the Faith. Imagine a child growing up knowing that his/her godparent never even goes to Mass, or is living in a state of sin!! Or the godparent goes to Mass only at Christmas and Easter. That is hardly a scenario that is going to encourage the child to practice the Faith. (I am grateful that although my godparents lived out of state, whenever we saw them, it was obvious from their conversation that they practiced the Faith. And they sent me cards on my birth and on holidays that were full of faith.) Or sometimes families want to choose somebody who is cohabiting with another person (a couple living together outside of marriage, acting like husband and wife). That's living in a state of mortal sin; and such a person cannot even receive the Eucharist until the situation is regularized and they get to Confession. How can such a person be a godparent? There are also cases where a baptized Catholic has chosen to marry outside the Church. For a Catholic to marry outside the Church without some type of dispensation from a Bishop is to separate oneself from the Eucharist. That person cannot receive the Eucharist until the marriage gets regularized, and Confession happens. (A talk with the local pastor is a great idea to figure out the best way to get back to the Eucharist.) Again, how will a person separated from the Eucharist be an example of living the Faith for a child growing up?
All of this seems pretty obvious, but somehow it is not known. It's actually mind-boggling that Catholic families ask non-practicing Catholics to be godparents. Godparents are supposed to help “parent the life of God” in a child. How can somebody not living for God do this? I think what has happened is that the role of godparent nowadays is considered just an honorific; i.e., we ask somebody whom we want to honor; and we feel obligated to ask certain persons, so as not to offend them.
In other words, we don't care primarily about the good of the child's soul. But baptism and the spiritual benefits it offers are all about the well-being of the child's soul. The “salvation of souls” is the Church's highest concern. The canons about who makes a suitable sponsor are not random rules. They have everything to do with the good of all the souls involved. It's all about the spiritual life, which finds its center in the Church, with the Eucharist at its center. The Church is not trying to make peoples' lives difficult. She is trying to lead them to Christ, and she is trying to help people take our Sacraments seriously. She's asking us truly to put the right value on the Baptism of our precious children. Do what is best for them.
I will usually remind such sponsors (and parents who want such sponsors) that the devil has a plan for the child who is to be baptized. The devil's plan is to ruin the child morally and spiritually and bring the child to hell one day. How are non-practicing godparents (and parents) going to prevent that? The child has to learn to live his/her baptism. Baptism isn't an automatic ticket to heaven. There is a way of life to be lived that will either build the child into holiness, freedom and a capacity for sacrificial love – or not. Who is going to be the moral compass for this child, if not Jesus Christ? And how is the child to learn that Jesus is the model, that he reveals us to ourselves (what we ought to be), if parents and godparents are not even living for Jesus? How will such a child learn to know Jesus and live by His power? The world, the flesh and the devil (the three-fold enemy of the human person) clearly have the upper hand in the battle in such a situation. The request for suitable godparents is a plea to care about the child's soul. Raising the child up to be the saint he/she is meant to be will not be easy; and how will non-practicing godparents be able to stand in the spiritual battle?
I have had irregular (not able to receive the Eucharist) parents tell me that we baptized their other children, so why can't we accept their choice of godparents who are not in right relationship with the Church (with the Lord!)? Well, the only requirement to baptize a child is a “well-founded hope that the child will be raised in the Faith”. It is mercy for the child primarily that we will even baptize the children of parents who themselves are separated from the Eucharist. We look far and wide for anything that we could claim as a “well-founded hope” that the child will be raised in the faith: grand-parents? Siblings? Truth be told, there are many cases where we do not even see the parents again, until it is time for the child's next sacraments. What a pity!: the child and the parents could have been nourished so abundantly during those years, just by showing up at Mass! We have in some cases lost generations for God, and we have to regain them…. For the salvation of the souls of the family members who are falling away from the faith now. Let's stop allowing mass media (sit-coms?, soap operas?) to evangelize us. Let's stop putting sports ahead of God. Let's get to Mass every weekend.
I hope an instruction like this can help us make good choices for godparents. May God help us to love our children – body and soul – choosing mentors for them who will encourage and exemplify a rich spiritual life in Jesus Christ!
Have a blessed week!
In cordibus Iesu et Mariae,