Friday, June 21, 2024

The Implications of Baby Names

Madison in Splash

Baby names made the news earlier this week when New York Times journalist Madison Malone Kircher posted an article entitled “Have We Reached Peak Baby Names?” Kircher notes that in 2024 almost anything can become a name. Gone are the days when unusual names raised eyebrows, as in 1984 when the name Madison for a girl skyrocketed after the mermaid in the movie Splash (Daryl Hannah) looked at a street sign in Manhattan and told her beau Allen (Tom Hanks) that that was her name (hey! that’s the NYT journalist’s first name as well!). Even attempts to parody this trend appear to backfire. In a 1996 episode of Seinfeld, the ever-foolish George Costanza wishes to name his future child Seven in honor of Mickey Mantle’s number for the New York Yankees. Since the episode’s debut, the Social Security Administration reports, the popularity of the name Seven has spiked.

It was not always so. It is speculated that one of the reasons that “Michael” was, with the exception of 1960, the most popular boys’ name in the United States from 1954 to 1998 was because the warrior Archangel who defeated Satan and his minions was invoked to protect our troops against the wicked legions of Hitler and Tojo during World War II.[1] The returning GIs—Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish—remembered Michael’s patronage and gratefully named their sons after him.
The Heraclitan flux of contemporary baby names stands in sharp contrast to the Church’s traditional teaching on the subject. The 1917 Code of Canon Law states:
Curent Parochi ut ei qui baptizatur, christianum imponatur nomen; quod si id consequi non poterunt, nomini a parentibus imposito addant nomen alicujus Sancti et in libro baptizatorum utrumque nomen perscribant (§761).
Which I translate as:
Pastors should see to it that someone who is baptized be given a Christian name; if, however, they do not succeed in this, they should add to the name given by the parents the name of some Saint and enter both names in the baptismal register.
The Rituale Romanum repeats this law and further elaborates:
Et quoniam iis qui baptizantur, tamquam Dei filiis in Christo regenerandis, et in ejus militiam adscribendis, nomen imponitur, curet, ne obscoena, fabulosa, aut ridicula, vel inanium deorum, vel impiorum ethnicorum hominum nomina imponantur, sed potius, ut jam supra num dictum est, Sanctorum, quorum exemplis fideles ad pie vivendum excitentur, et patrociniis protegantur (§70).
Which I translate as:
And seeing that a name is given to those who are baptized (and who are to be regenerated in Christ as sons of God and enlisted into His army), care should be taken that no obscene, fabulous, or ridiculous names, either of inane gods or of impious heathen persons, should be given; rather, as stated above, they should be given the names of the Saints, by whose example the faithful are stirred up to live piously, and by whose patronage they are protected.
The instruction is admirably direct. The estimable Philip T. Weller translates obscoena, fabulosa, aut ridicula as “ugly, notorious, or ridiculous,” but I think a more literal translation is warranted. [2] Obscene names are names that are literally “off-stage” (ob-scena), too vulgar to be used for the noble role that a Christian plays in the great theater of life. Fabulous names are from fables (such as Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas) and, perhaps we should add, from sitcoms like Seinfeld. Ridiculous names are self-explanatory, and perhaps in need of more scrutiny today. In her article, Madison Kircher mentions some of the names bandied about on Tik Tok for babies; they include Tank, Flick, Halo, Dew, Ethereal, and Orca.
The Rituale states not only a rule for naming but offers a rationale behind it. A baptized person is regenerated in Christ as an adopted son of God and enlisted in Christ’s military service (militia). He no longer belongs to himself or even to his earthly family, for he no longer lives but Christ lives in him. (Gal. 2, 20) And with a new identity comes a new name.
Finally, the Rituale requires the use of a Saint’s name. Being named after a Saint provides inspiration for the person so named, and it establishes a patron-client relationship. Because of this relationship, a Christian can turn to his patron Saint in times of need and look forward to his “name day,” his patron saint's feast day. Reflecting on this relationship, the great liturgical author Fr. Francis X. Weiser, SJ recalls:
According to ancient traditions, the name-day is festively held in Christian homes. I remember how from early childhood I went to church with my father every year on the feast of St. Francis Xavier, attending the Holy Sacrifice and later receiving Communion, too. Returning home, I found the table cheerfully decorated with flowers and little presents. Mother, Father, brothers and sisters offered their congratulations. Then we sat down to a joyful breakfast, my proud little self sitting in the place of honor. And all this because centuries ago a wonderful young man in Spain loved God so much that he became a Saint. I cannot express the powerful conviction that filled me every year on this occasion, how great and important it is to become holy. This was one of the eloquent lessons which our religious customs taught me without words, but with an effect greater than many words could achieve. Judging from this aspect, we may truly say that such Catholic customs in the home educate the children more efficiently than the best Catholic teachers could ever do in school.[3]
Biblical Inspiration
The impetus behind favoring saintly names is derived from the Sacred Scriptures, where two principles are operative. The first is what we may call nominal realism, where the name designates the essence of the person. Adam is ha-Adam, the human being, while his wife is Ishah, the “woman” (“from the man”) as well as “Eve,” the mother of the living. Jacob is the “heel-grabber” who usurps his twin brother Esau. Needless to say, God is the best namer in this category, for He knows things according to their essences better than any other.
The second principle is nominal vocationalism. When God confers a new purpose or identity upon someone, He often gives him a new name. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, Simon bar Jonah becomes Saint Peter, and Saul of Tarsus becomes St. Paul. The concept of vocational naming was so strong in the Christian imagination that it affected not only baptismal names but religious names as well (the taking of a new name during final religious vows) and confirmation names--which, curiously, are nowhere mentioned in the liturgical rubrics either before or after Vatican II, but have been customary since the Middle Ages as a way of marking the significance of the sacrament.
From Abram to Abraham, “Father of the Multitude”
Nominal Determinism
And there is an additional temptation. Nominative or nominal determinism is the concept whereby one’s name determines one’s destiny. One website has chalked up some amusing examples in support of this theory: the neuroscientist Lord Brain, the Cherokee feminist Wilma Mankiller, the lawyer Sue Yoo, the ophthalmologist Dr. Ashley Seawright, a music teacher named Miss C. Sharp, and last but not least, the gastroenterologist Dr. Joshua Butt.
Personally, I marvel at the fact that Archbishop Annibale Bugnini’s parents gave him not the name of a Saint but of the Carthaginian general whose name means “the Grace of Ba’al” and who swore to his father at the age of nine that for as long as he lived he would never be a friend of Rome. [4] One would have thought that “Hannibal,” at least to a son of Italy, eminently qualifies as the name of an “impious heathen person,” and yet the name was common before Vatican II and remains popular in Italian-speaking communities to this day. A nominal spin on loving thy enemy?
Hannibal Swears Enmity to Rome
Annibale ad portas!
It also strikes me as appropriate that the father of liberal Protestant theology is named Schleiermacher, or “veil-maker,” and that a previous Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the former Holy Inquisition) should have the name “rat-catcher,” or Ratzinger.
Of course, outside the biblical narrative, there are dangers in taking nominal determinism seriously. Having the name Hooker does not make one unchaste, and not everyone named Victor is a winner. When my wife and I named our daughter Monica Grace, our friends, knowing my work on St. Augustine of Hippo, congratulated me on such a thoroughly Augustinian name: Monica for Augustines mother, and Grace for his title, the Doctor of Grace. Their reading is perfectly valid, although we chose the name out of familial piety: Monica is my mothers middle name, and Grace is my mother-in-laws middle name.
Imperfect Practice
Despite the explicit guidelines of the 1917 Code of Canon Law and the Rituale Romanum, Catholic naming has never historically been in complete compliance with the principle that one’s Christian name should be that of a canonized Saint. In Hispanic cultures, names like Concepcion, Dolores, and Soledad honor titles of the Blessed Virgin Mary—Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Sorrows, and Our Lady of Solitude, respectively. Similarly, English names include Grace, Hope, and Charity. Catholics have been known to name their child Trinity, which is not a Saint but the Godhead itself. And, of course, there is the use of the Holy Name of Jesus as a boy’s name in Spanish-speaking cultures and among Arab Christians. Finally, the parents of the mystic stigmatist Blessed Hosanna of Mantua (1449-1505) named their daughter after a Hebrew exclamation or a word in the Mass.
Hosanna of Mantua: a Blessed not named after a Saint
1983 Code of Canon Law
The new legislation has no language about obscene, fabulous, and ridiculous names, nor does it admonish parents or pastors to name infants after Catholic Saints. Canon 855 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law simply states:
Curent parentes, patrini et parochus ne imponatur nomen a sensu christiano alienum.
Which the official translation renders:
Parents, sponsors, and the pastor are to take care that a name foreign to Christian sensibility is not given.
On one hand, “foreign to Christian sensibility” overcomes the discrepancy between the old official policy of a Saint’s-name-only with the immemorial custom of also naming children after different Christian mysteries or titles. On the other, it may not do enough to promote Christian identity. Indigo is a purplish-blue dye from plants native to India, and it is now a popular name for both boys and girls. Is it alien to Christian sensibility? There are, after all, Saints named after colors (Albanus, Candidus, Rufus, etc.), and Indigo is not the name of an inane god or an impious heathen. Even so, what the new instructions lack is a robust understanding of the baptismal name as a link to a person’s new vocation and to a Saint who is both inspiration and patron and, once a year, the source of a little boy or girl’s joy. And insofar as the new instructions do not foster customs such as name-days or personal devotion to a Saint, they do not contribute to Catholic culture or to individual Catholic formation.
Ms. Kircher’s article in the Times cites Emily Kim, a full-time baby name consultant who charges $295 for a five-minute session for her personalized suggestions. “A baby name is just one facet of your personal style, in the same way home décor and clothing is part of your style,” Ms. Kim said:
In our parents’ day, the elements of your personal style were known by your close friends and maybe your neighbors, your family, but your style wasn’t showcased on a larger scale to acquaintances and strangers in the way that is the norm now.
Put cynically, we now name our children to showcase ourselves rather than attempt to name their essence or their vocation or their destiny. Of course, Catholics can also be accused of promoting their own “brand” by adhering to Saints’ names or the like, and yet there remains a difference between a universal brand that sees children as a gift from God of which the parents are mere stewards and guardians, and a particular brand that sees children as an extension of a couple’s ego and idiosyncrasies. Surely the latter worldview, and the baby names that it engenders, are foreign to Christian sensibility.
Michael Patrick Foley is a baby name consultant who offers free, unsolicited, and generally unwelcome advice on how to name your baby. He was not paid $295 for this article, even though he worked way more than five minutes on it.
[1] Janet Adamy, “New Parents Drop the Mike --- U.S. boys named Michael dip to 76-year low,” Wall Street Journal (May 13, 2017), A1.
[2] Philip T. Weller, The Roman Ritual: The Sacraments and Processions, vol. 1 (Bruce Publishing Co., 1950), 37.
[3] Francis X. Weiser, SJ, Religious Customs in the Family: The Radiation of the Liturgy into Catholic Homes (Collegeville, 1956), 27.
[4] There is a Saint Hannibal Mary di Francia, but Bugnini was born in 1912 and St. Hannibal did not die until 1927.

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