Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The pope on children's names

No, the pope didn’t “rail” against giving un-Christian names to babies, but he did point out, calmly and correctly, that names are important, and that the choice of a child’s name should not be left to whim or fancy. There is, though—as is so often the case with news stories about the Church—a canonical aspect to this issue.

Canon 855 of the 1983 Code states that “Parents, sponsors, and the pastor are to take care that a name foreign to Christian sensibility is not given.” The obligation here is “negative” in that there is a duty to avoid names antithetical to Christian values.

The 1917 Code, however, read differently. Canon 761 thereof stated that “Pastors should take care that a Christian name is given to those whom they baptize; but if they are not able to bring this about, they will add to the name given by the parents the name of some Saint and record both names in the book of baptisms.” The obligation there was “positive” in that a name consistent with Christian tradition needed to be sought.

The law was taken at face value. My mother, named Nancy, loved telling how for one day in her life she was called Mary in deference to the pastor who, baptizing her in 1923, insisted that “Nancy” was not a Christian name, but that Mary surely was. Interestingly, though called Nancy all her life, my mom’s devotion to Mary was a hallmark of her spiritual life. Hmmm.

Personally, I think that either formulation of the law provides sufficient guidance in the choice of names for Christians of good will, and that neither formulation is adequate to prevent parents from abusing their responsibilities in the naming of their children. But I will say this: more than once over the years, when people hear the names of our children (Thomas, Charles, Catherine, Robert, Margaret, and Theresa) they can’t help but to say, “Gee, what lovely Catholic names they have!”

And they do.