“My Non-Christian Godfather”?

by Jimmy Akin

in Sacraments

A reader writes:

My wife and I are committed practicing Catholics, and we are soon to be blessed with a baby.

We do not want to delay in baptizing our child, and therefore have put our thought to Godparents.

However, I have a somewhat unusual dilemma.

Whilst we have most probably fixed on a godmother who is close to us, an experienced parent, and practicing Catholic, there is someone I would very much like to have as a godfather who is a man of principles, integrity, honesty, and many virtues Catholics highly regard. He is in many ways someone I hope my child will look up to. He towers above other possibilities as an individual. However, he is neither Catholic nor Christian. He believes in God, and has respect for the Catholic faith (as an architect, he does a lot of work for the Church, including the recent design of a major Chapel), but is not Christian. His origins are in fact Jewish. I however, whilst a committed Catholic, believe at the end of the day that what is important is how we live our lives. That said, I understand the importance and significance of baptism  – thus I am torn.

May I ask your advice in regards to where do I stand in terms of Canon Law, and practice, therefore, in considering him as a candidate for godfather (bearing in mind of course that the godmother would be a practicing catholic)?

While it sounds as though the gentleman in question has numerous positive qualities, the fact that he is not Catholic would prevent him from serving as godfather. The Code of Canon Law provides:

Can.  874 §1. To be permitted to take on the function of sponsor [i.e., godparent] 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 reason for the requirement in blue is that the function of a godparent is to serve an auxiliary role to the parents in seeing to the child’s religious education as a Catholic. That means helping the child understand and accept the teachings of the Catholic faith not just in a general way but, when called upon, in their details.

For example, at some point in his life the child may have questions about transubstantiation (or any other Catholic teaching), and it would be very difficult for a godfather who does not believe in transubstantiation–who thinks that it is false–to tell his godson that he should believe in it.

Most such godfathers would not send the kind of message that the godson needs to hear and thus would undermine their faith.

Those godfathers who did tell their godson to believe in transubstantiation (or whatever doctrine is in question) would be violating their own consciences by telling another to believe what they themselves believe to be false.

To prevent this kind of situation–where either the child’s faith will be undermined or the godfather will be forced to violate his conscience–the Church has determined that in order to be a godparent for a Catholic child one needs to be Catholic.

(At least in the vast majority of cases, though occasionally an exception is made for Eastern Orthodox because of their doctrinal closeness to the Catholic faith; SEE HERE.)

This practice says nothing at all about the personal quality of non-Catholics who would otherwise be considered for the role of godparent. They may be outstanding individuals and may in fact be better role models than other available people, but because they do not share the faith that they would be expected to foster in the child, they are not canonically permitted to play this role.

I would therefore urge you to look to other individuals to find candidates for the role of godfather, though the gentleman you have been considering could still potentially play an unofficial mentoring role for your child.

Incidentally, you should be aware that there is not a requirement that there even be a godfather. The Code provides:

Can.  873 There is to be only one male sponsor or one female sponsor or one of each.

So if you truly cannot find a suitable Catholic man to serve as godfather, the fact you already have a suitable Catholic godmother would be sufficient.

Hope this helps!

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Anonymous July 10, 2006 at 12:38 pm

Was Michael Corleone a good godfather?

Ed Peters July 10, 2006 at 12:48 pm

Was Adolf Hitler a good Catholic? What’s your point, anon?

SDG July 10, 2006 at 1:22 pm

Zing, zang, zung. Next!

Anonymous July 10, 2006 at 1:44 pm

So, let me get this clear…you need to have one practicing Catholic godparent, male or female. And if you want a non-Catholic on top of that as a second godparent, they would be a witness, not an actual godparent.
Is that right?

Anonymous July 10, 2006 at 1:49 pm

NO, Adolph Hitler was NOT a good Catholic. In fact, while he was baptized and raised Catholic, and even supposedly a seminarian, Adolph Hitler was a PAGAN or neo-pagan, look into Nazi occult or Thule etc.. He thought the desert religion of Christianity was semitic and Jewish and weak and the FOREST religion of the mighty Germanic peoples was superior. He loved Wagner and the Nordic (and Germanic) mythic tales of Odin/Wotan and Thor and Vallahalla and warriors of a pre-Christian Germanica and Scandanavian peoples. He did not like Catholics protection of the unborn or sick or retarded etc. Survival of the fittest, he was a Darwinian believer both in the evolutionary sense as well as social Darwinism.
The occultic influences of Hitler and Nazism were known in the 40’s. He really was looking for the Ark, and in Tibet (the swastika was a symbol of Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism) and Hindu myscitism. Hitler was not a good Catholic. He was not Catholic at all.

francis 03 July 10, 2006 at 1:55 pm

So what difference is there between being one of two godparents and being a “witness” in conjunction with another godparent?

Anonymous July 10, 2006 at 2:03 pm

They could be given a cultural or other protective post to be involved with the family other than Godfather(mother) per se.

Mike July 10, 2006 at 2:07 pm

Ann, you are correct in your summary of canon law on that issue.
As my wife and I recently found out that we are to be parents for the first time, we have given quite a bit of thought to the Godparent question.
Really, in my opinion, the choice should come down to who you think will most greatly assist your child in living the faith. This does not mean that the person always has to be physically present (there is no barrier to selecting someone elderly or far away), however through prayer, advice, and example, this person should be deeply committed to the faith of your child.
Many Catholic parents unwisely insist on a strict “one from mine, one from yours” system, picking one person from each family in order to avoid hurt feelings, bruised egos, etc., but with a disregard for exactly how religious the people actually are.
In addition, by picking a non-Catholic as a Godparent, while it sends a message that “at the end of the day that what is important is how we live our lives;” it also sends a message that, “therefore it is not important that you remain a Catholic.”
Non-Catholics can be excellent role models, teachers, mentors, etc. We admire many non-Catholics from history as great examples of how to live out moral and decent lives. However, when we look for spiritual role models, we look to the Catholic saints, because they share our faith in addition to living exemplary lives. Similarly, when chosing a godparent, one should look for a person who shares our faith, as well as being an good and decent person.

paul zummo July 10, 2006 at 3:02 pm

I have been at baptisms where one Godparent was non-Catholic, and I am not aware that they made a distinction as to said person being a witness and not a Godparent. This is probably due to the laxness of some parishes.

Anonymous July 10, 2006 at 3:05 pm

Some priests in the churches that are not in keeping with Mel Gibson would allow pagans, Brahmans and even witches as God parents

Deacon Joe July 10, 2006 at 3:38 pm

I am a Roman Catholic Deacon, and responsible for Baptism Prep (for parents and godparents) in my parish.
We are not lax. We do follow the Church’s laws pertaining to sponsors and Christan witnesses.
However, during the Ceremony is not the time to highlight that distinction. The Ritual does not call for such a distinction in the externals of the ceremony itself.

LarryD July 10, 2006 at 4:29 pm

If I’m reading Can 873 correctly, then a child cannot have two Godmothers or two Godfathers. Is that correct?

Dan E. July 11, 2006 at 4:54 am

Deacon Joe,
In my diocese it is required that the godparents-to-be send a letter of recommendation from a priest in their home parish before they are rceognized as suitable godparents. This would be well before the ceremony. I believe if the officiating minister at the baptism is unaware of the Catholicity of one of the godparents, he IS being lax.
Larry, you are correct. If you have two godparents, one must be male and the other female.

LarryD July 11, 2006 at 5:18 am

Thanks, Dan.

Deacon Joe July 11, 2006 at 9:53 am

Respectfully, I never suggested that the minister did not know the status of the sponsors and witnesses. In fact, I said that we do follow the Church’s law. I was only responding to paul zummo’s suggestion that, given that he saw no overt distinction during the ceremony, that such was due to laxness.
Not so; at least, not necessarily so. The Ritual does not call for an overt distinction during the ceremony. It is enough that we receive the proper attestations, and note the correct status in the baptismal register.

Dan E. July 11, 2006 at 12:02 pm

Deacon Joe,
Sorry for my misunderstanding. It’s good to know that others (especially the clergy) take the role of the godparents seriously.

J. R. Stoodley July 11, 2006 at 11:09 pm

To the anon. who posted about Hitler and paganism, I would just like to say I hope people won’t associate the great Nodic/Germanic myths with Nazism too much. They were written down by Christians (from old pagan [or I should say “heathen”] stories) and are an important ancestral heritage to many of us. We Germanic forest people also tend not to like Christianity being called a desert religion. Perhaps Judaism is a desert religion (or better a Mediterranean climate religion) but Christianity is a religion for people of ALL biomes.
Also, the swastika is actually found on much ancient Germanic art, and Celtic too I think. From what I hear it was also used by Asian Buddhists and early Christians. It is a simple and interesting symbol whose cyclical nature can be given many symbolic meanings. Of course once the Nazis got a hold of it it was ruined. Unfortuatly it is much the same with the old Germanic/Norse mythology and culture, to the detriment of Western civilization. After all, was not to origin of Western culture the fusion of the Germanic and Roman cultures, with a little Celtic seasoning and Christianity to hold it all together and make it great? Did it not start falling (from the Christian or at least my Christian perspective) about the time it tried to abandon its noble barbarian side and focus on all things Roman (or Greek)?
Naturally, those like Martin Luther or Adolf Hitler (not to imply the one was as bad as the other) who tried to distill the Germanic side of the West from the whole did great evil as well. I think we need to keep and honor both the civilization and order of the old Romans and the freedom and spirit of the old Germans to have a sane, moral, vigorous, free West.
About Godparents, unfortunately, many in our society have a secular idea of Godparents that does not include God. I find it interesting that there are godparents in both the Harry Potter world and Ann McCaffery/Todd McCaffery’s Pern (dragon) world but no sign of God. That is how our culture is getting. A godparent is now some close friend that you connect in a particular way to the child, sort of bringing them into the extended family if they weren’t already. In how many families today is does the Godparent actully fulfill a practical religious function? Not mine at least. I’m not even sure who my godparents are.

Michael P. July 13, 2006 at 9:55 pm

Just to get back on point, as the author of the original query, I just wanted to thank Jimmy Akin for his clarification. I must say it is what I expected, and is clearly correct. I suppose I am just looking for a role in my child’s life for this wonderful non-Catholic friend, and clearly there can be another one. Just not that of Godparent, whose core role is to support and assist us in our child’s Catholic upbrining. Thanks for setting this straight in my mind – I probably always realised it, but needed someone else to help me focus!

Anne August 28, 2006 at 4:26 am

Why aren’t the Godparents made to participate in the pre-training classes given for Baptism if their roles and responsibilties are so important? I honestly don’t feel that Godparents understand their roles other then buying the Christening outfit and special gifts for the child over the years.
I would think that parents would want the Godparents to both be Roman Catholics that attend Mass and the Sacaraments faithfully since Baptism is a Sacrament which cleanses us from Original Sin & makes us Christians. The child needs Godparents that will be positive roles models in helping the child avoid sin in their formative years.

Maritimegypsy October 1, 2006 at 8:24 pm

I have a question, I am a god mother and a catholic at the time of baptisim, I was not present at the ceremony as I was overseas, so I don’t even know if I am on the ‘paper work’ so to speak. ANY way… I am considering converting to judaism… will this void my status as a godmother?

Jimmy Akin October 1, 2006 at 9:17 pm

Yes, it most certainly would. You would no longer meet the requirements of a godparent, and–worse–you would be committing the grave sin of apostasy and thus threatening your salvation by turning your back on Christ. Please read the book of Hebrews–which deals specifically with the issue of Christians going back to Judaism–and specifically chapter six in the book. I will be praying for you!

Bronwyn January 20, 2007 at 7:55 pm

Mr. Akin,
I have been trying to look into baptizing my 2 month old son, however, the godfather i have chosen is not catholic. I’ve heard that both godparents MUST be catholic, but i also think i read somewhere that at least one godparent must be catholic. Which is true?

Bronwyn January 20, 2007 at 7:59 pm

Sorry, I just read a previous question on your site, and it read the answer to My question. Thank You.

Kate Karr April 1, 2007 at 12:33 pm

My ex-husband’s (he gave up his catholic faith before we met) sister is my child’s godmother. She’s catholic. The thing is that my ex was very abusive (physically and emotionally) toward me and my child while we were married and living together. His family did nothing to help me. They didn’t even believe that he did all those horrible things. And this hurt a lot. I don’t even bother contacting his family since this AND neither do they. It’s seven years!
My child’s god mother has not even met my child once. She’s never phoned or sent a card or e-mail (I’ve maintained my child’s e-mail id since her birth and replied in cute baby talk to all who sent her messages through her web-site -she does that by herself now.)
I’m worried that should anything happen to me, my child would be all alone in this world. I would very much like to appoint a new god mother for her. How do I go about doing this?
Thank you, for the wonderful advice you give.

Séamas May 11, 2007 at 8:34 pm

Kate (if your still reading…),
As far as I know, you can’t technically/officially choose a new Godparent for you child, but there is nothing to prevent you from finding someone to fulfill a similar role.

hindu mom December 18, 2008 at 1:33 am

i chanced upon your webpage as I was browsing information on god parents.
I am a hindu married to a catholic and we are expecting our first child in a few months.
We are both from india, and our families celebrated our marriage in both the christian and hindu faiths, though neither of us were asked to convert to the other’s religion as a consequence.
We were discussing options for god parents and we have nearly decided on a god father from a third religion altogether – for the personal, philosophical, educational and intellectual guidance he may be able to impart to our child.
Neither of us are overtly zealous in our religions. We want our child to grow up to be tolerant, and most of all be a good person, imbibing the best of all religious/ philosophical teaching from our respective religions.
Will it be technically possible for our sikh friend to be a god parent to our child?

SDG December 18, 2008 at 8:02 am

Will it be technically possible for our sikh friend to be a god parent to our child?

Technically, no. You might conceivably find a loosey-goosey priest willing to allow a Sikh to act as godparent, but only a confirmed Catholic can actually be a godparent. However, your Sikh friend can still act as a spiritual mentor to your child.

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