When the word “godfather” is mentioned in casual conversation, the image that sometimes comes to people’s minds is that of the Italian mobster serving as a baptismal sponsor. This is most unfortunate, because, whether fictional or real, such a scenario disregards the Church’s serious requirements for valid and lawful (i.e. licit) sponsorship in Baptism. The Church lays down these conditions because of the vital importance of the sponsors: they are obliged to look after the Catholic upbringing of the child. They do not replace the parents in this regard, but are to supplement the parents’ efforts to raise the child in the Faith. Should the parents of the child become incapacitated, the entire obligation of Christian education (to the extent possible) devolves upon the godparents.
Since the laity generally do not have access to Canon Law books, it is primarily for their benefit that these requirements are listed, as contained in The Practical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, Vol. I, by Rev. Stanislaus Woywod, O.F.M., LL.B., Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.: New York, 1948. The words of the 1917 Code of Canon Law are italicized; words in bold italic are my own emphasis.
In order that a person may act validly as sponsor, the following rules apply:
1. Commentary on #1 & 5: Obviously, an unbaptized person cannot be sponsor at someone else’s baptism. The sponsor must be able and willing to look after the (traditional) Catholic upbringing of the child. This would exclude Novus Ordo Catholics from being sponsors, because they themselves have not resolved to practice the traditional Catholic faith, and cannot be expected to encourage the same in their godchild. Also, in cases where a sponsor acts by proxy, the sponsor himself or herself must designate the “stand in.” The parents cannot designate the proxy! Fr. Woywod notes (p. 392):
“If the appointed sponsor cannot or does not wish to attend at the baptism in person, he may appoint a representative (proxy) to take his place. The Sacred Congregation of the Sacraments has declared that the sponsor himself must appoint his representative (proxy), because the custom of leaving the appointment to the parents of the infant or to the baptizing priest, the sponsor being unconcerned in the matter, makes the sponsorship doubtful. It has further ruled that such custom must be abolished (July 25, 1925, Acta Apostolicae Sedis, XVIII, 43-47). The Code does not lay down any restrictions as to the persons who may be appointed as proxies. Therefore, the only requisite is that he is capable of accepting the mandate and performing the material acts in the place of the sponsor. Though it is not becoming to appoint as proxies non-Catholics, excommunicated persons or others whom the Code excludes from sponsorship, still the Code does not forbid it. The name of the proxy is not entered into the baptismal record, but the name of the sponsor represented by the proxy.”
2. Commentary on #2: Again, another very obvious requirement: those outside the Church cannot fulfill the office of sponsor for someone within it. Fr. Woywod declares (p. 391):
“Protestants or schismatics cannot be sponsors, and, if the priest cannot prevent the intervention of non-Catholics, the Holy Office demands that the priest inform the non-Catholic that he cannot be a sponsor properly so called, but can assist at most as a witness (Collectanea de Prop. Fide, I, n. 447). The Holy Office has declared that, if suitable sponsors are not available, it is preferable to have none at all, rather than admit a person belonging to an heretical sect (Ibid., II, n. 1831). The Holy See has declared that, even where one of the parents was a Catholic and the other a non-Catholic and they were married outside the Church, a Protestant sponsor should not be admitted in the baptism of their child” (Holy Office, June 27, 1900; Acta Apostolicae Sedis, XXXIII, 372).
If a Catholic has been punished for an ecclesiastical crime by sentence or declaration of excommunication, he cannot be sponsor until the penalty is lifted. Infamy of law is attached to certain crimes, as outlined in Canons 2293, 2320 (desecration of the Blessed Sacrament), 2328 (violating bodies or graves of deceased), 2343 (laying violent hands on the Roman Pontiff, his legates, or on Cardinals), 2351 (participating in dueling), 2356 (attempting a second marriage without seeking annulment first), and 2357 (crimes against the sixth commandment with minors under 16 years old, or rape, sodomy, incest or traffic in vice). Fr. Woywod notes that this infamy of law, though automatic in some cases, would still have to be juridically declared to prevent one from validly serving as a sponsor (pp. 390-391):
The crimes to which infamy of law is attached are specified in various Canons of the Code. It can be incurred only in the cases specifically enumerated in the Code (Canons). Furthermore, the infamy of law and the exclusion from legal acts in question must have been inflicted by the ecclesiastical court. The disability to act as sponsor is not incurred ipso facto by the crimes to which the law attaches an ipso facto infamia juris or ipso facto exclusion from legal acts, as is to be inferred from the following Canon 766.
A couple of other observations of Fr. Woywod would be well worth to note (pp. 391-392):
If the parents or the guardian appoint a sponsor who by the law of the Code cannot validly or licitly act as such, the minister of baptism is obliged to reject him, and, if the parents or the guardian refuse to appoint another, the minister of baptism must appoint a sponsor. A person who without a proper designation assumes to act as sponsor, does not become a sponsor, for, as stated in Canon 765, §4, the designation is one of the requisites for validity of sponsorship.
The Catholic Church is not satisfied with laying down conditions for valid sponsorship. There are requirements of lawfulness as well. We turn again to Canon Law:
For licit admission as sponsor, the following conditions must be observed:
In case of doubt whether one can validly or licitly be admitted as sponsor, the pastor shall, if time permits, consult the Ordinary (Canon 767).
1. Commentary on #1: Those under the age of fourteen are less likely to understand the duties of sponsorship; hence, a justifying cause is needed to allow a younger person to act as sponsor.
2. Commentary on #2: To be a lawful sponsor, one should be free of ipso facto excommunication, i.e. the penalty automatically incurred for certain crimes (such as procuring an abortion, or getting married before a non-Catholic minister). In other words, although the person has not been declared excommunicated by an ecclesiastical court, that person is still excommunicated, and needs to be absolved from that penalty before he can licitly act as a sponsor. Otherwise, a serious sin is committed.
Besides freedom from excommunication, the Code also demands for lawful sponsorship that the sponsor not be guilty of notorious crime, be free from sentence of interdict, not be a public criminal, and be free from infamy of fact (as opposed to “infamy of law” described earlier). Fr. Woywod elucidates (p. 393):
Canon 2197, §3, declares that an offense is notorious by notoriety of fact if it is publicly known and committed under such circumstances that it cannot be concealed by any artifice nor excused by any extenuating circumstances admitted in law. In general, the Code in Canon 766, §2, excludes from sponsorship persons who are guilty of a grave public offense which in the common estimation of respectable Catholic men makes them so unworthy of the office of sponsor that their admission would cause scandal. The Holy See ruled that Freemasons who are publicly known as such cannot be admitted as sponsors (Holy Office, July 5, 1878; Collectanea de Prop. Fide, II, n. 1495). The same holds good of Catholics who belong to any other forbidden society, and are notoriously known as members; likewise Catholics whose life is unchristian and scandalous.
3. Commentary on #3: One can hardly fulfill the duties of godparent if he doesn’t know the basics of the Catholic Faith.
4. Commentary on #4 & 5: The reason that clergy and religious are prohibited, as a rule, from acting as sponsors is that the duties of godparents are likely to be a distraction from their clerical and religious obligations. Clergy are already involved in the salvation of souls, and religious are limited by rules of cloister and common life from the care and attention that should be given to godchildren.