What are “emergency” baptisms at hospitals?

When my son was three weeks old, he was admitted to emergency for a life saving operation - pyloric stenosis. The hospital baptized him Catholic prior to surgery. A week later he was able to come home and two weeks later, we had his Baptism at our family parish. Now, many years later, someone mentioned in a class that the 'second' Baptism was not official - that the hospital's Baptism was the 'real' one. How exactly would that work?

I think I can explain what was happening here.

In Catholic belief and practice, baptism is a ‘once for all time’ sacrament. You only get it once and it is effective forever. No one can ever change that you are a Christian and a member of the Body of Christ once it is done. That’s why we don’t rebaptize people from other Christian denominations as, for example, the Baptists do.

Generally what happens when a child receives emergency baptism in a hospital, is that s/he receives the additional rites of the ceremony in a parish celebration later on–prayers, reading, participation of godparents, anointing with holy chrism, receiving of the baptismal candle, etc. But generally the actual dunking or pouring of water is omitted, since it’s already happened. If it is put in, then it would only be done conditionally–that is, on the condition that the first time it wasn’t done correctly.

I don’t know what happened at the parish ceremony for your son, but that’s probably why they said the second ceremony wasn’t real, which isn’t exactly true–it was a continuation and a completion of the first ceremony done as an emergency thing in the hospital.

Fr. Brett Hoover, CSP is the former Director and co-founder of BustedHalo.com. HE is presently a Doctoral Candidate in Theology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Ordained in 1997 as a Paulist priest, Fr. Brett is clinical assistant professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles where he teaches pastoral theology and on the intersection of faith and culture. He received his Ph.D. in 2010 and has taught at Loyola University Chicago and the Catholic seminaries at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Fr. Brett is the author of three books, including the recently published Comfort: An Atlas for the Body and Soul (New York: Riverhead, 2011). From 2001 to 2004, Fr. Brett co-founded and then served as editor of BustedHalo.com.