Q: Is it OK for a consecrated woman to become godmother to a newborn? Would her missionary vocation preclude her from fulfilling the role of a godparent? Or would it preclude her because of the traditional role of godparents as guardians of a child in the event of the parents' death? Canon law doesn't seem to prohibit consecrated people from becoming godparents. -- C.L., Potomac, Maryland
A: There was a general restriction on priests, religious and other consecrated souls acting as godparents that stemmed from the 1917 Code of Canon Law.
Canon 766, Nos. 4 and 5, specified that for a religious to be a godparent, it required an urgent necessity and the approval of the superiors. A deacon or priest also required the authorization of the bishop.
The reasons behind this were, effectively, that religious life and the clerical state were considered broadly incompatible with the responsibility of being a godparent.
Canon law did consider this as a very strong spiritual bond, so much so that it created an impediment for marriage between godparent and godchild and eventual guardianship in the case of the parents' demise. In some countries of strong Catholic tradition this priority of the "patria potestas" of godparents over next of kin was even enshrined in civil law.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law removed most of these restrictions. The new, far briefer canons say the following regarding godparents or sponsors:
"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.
"873. There is to be only one male sponsor or one female sponsor or one of each.
"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."
It can be presumed that a priest, religious or consecrated soul fulfills these essential conditions to be a sponsor and therefore may freely accept such an invitation.
The old rules were quite suitable in a society with far less mobility than today, and when it was not rare that a godparent would have to assist or substitute the parents in their tasks. Thus the former exclusion of priests and religious made sense.
Today, when people move with relative frequency, the task of the godparent is often more spiritual assistance from a distance than direct help to the parents. In this way, a religious can be just as much help in the spiritual upbringing of a child as a close relative or friend who lives thousands of miles away.
* * *
Readers may send questions to email@example.com. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.