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!