Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
I'm Protestant by upbringing, but my husband is Catholic. We attend a Catholic Church, and our three children were baptized Catholic. I was raised in the United Methodist Church and still feel strongly connected to that belief system, which is why I haven't converted to Catholicism. Several years ago, shortly before my mother passed away, she revealed to me, quite out of the blue, that she didn't think I was ever baptized. I didn't really give it much weight at the time, thinking perhaps my mother was just confused. However, after she died, I was going through my childhood items and records, and I couldn't find any documents indicating I was baptized. The church we belonged to when I was born is long gone, and my father has passed away. Since my mother's death, I've spoken with our priest, and when I asked if I could be baptized, he scoffed and said that if I wasn't willing to be baptized into the Catholic faith, why did I want to be baptized at all? I haven't spoken to him since. If I've lived my entire life under the assumption that I was baptized as a baby, and I've been a faithful Christian throughout my adult life, do I really need to be baptized?
-- I., Carlisle, Pennsylvania
Thank you for writing to a rabbi about baptism. It gives me a warm ecumenical glow underneath my yarmulke. Seriously, my role, as I see it, in answering Christian sacramental questions is first and foremost to recommend that readers consult local Christian clergy for authoritative answers, as well as that they develop a formal connection to a church and community that can sustain them in both their questions and their answers. I also try to use Christian questions as a way of addressing more universal issues of contemporary religious life.
As you've said, your meeting with your local priest didn't go well. While there was no excuse for the priest to be gruff and dismissive, he had a good point. You're an unbaptized Protestant attending a Catholic church, and you're worried that you may never really have been baptized as a Protestant.
Your problem is deeper than finding a baptismal certificate hidden somewhere among your parents' papers. The problem is, you have an interfaith family and you haven't fully worked out the spiritual implications of that fact. You have a Catholic husband and Catholic children. You attend a Catholic church and yet you're not a Catholic.
You say the reason you haven't become Catholic is that you still feel strongly connected to the Methodists. However, as a Methodist, you're not entitled to receive the sacrament of Communion in a Catholic church. Baptism in any Christian faith doesn't act as an entry pass to every other Christian sacrament in every other Christian church.
Baptism is an act of belief and affiliation, not to Christianity in general, but to one or another particular version of the Christian faith.
You might have felt close to Methodist beliefs when you were younger, but you have a family now. For the sake of having a single religion in your home, I think it's time for you to revisit the possibility of converting to Catholicism and being baptized in the Catholic Church.
When I speak to interfaith couples, I try to explain that they would not want two sets of moral values, two sets of disciplinary values, or two sets of sexual morals in their home. For the sake of family unity, it's always better (though not always possible) for there to be one set of values in the home.
It's popular for families and individuals to treat religion like a cafeteria line, where they can pick and choose which rituals and beliefs from widely varied faiths to assemble on the plate of their spiritual life. To some degree, this practice is fine. Yoga and meditation are Eastern religious practices that have migrated without much fuss into the spiritual life of many Western faiths.
However, when the issue is a sacrament like baptism or Communion that defines your basic religious identity, you can't pick and choose. You need to consider making a conversionary choice for your family and for your God, as you now understand God in your life.