At this time of year questions are frequently asked about the requirements for a sponsor or godparent of a person being received into the Catholic Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Perhaps the most common question in this regard concerns the role of boyfriends or girlfriends (and, perhaps, even spouses).
First, we must make a distinction between a sponsor and a godparent; they are not the same. “Sponsors are persons who have known and assisted the candidates and stand as witnesses to the candidates’ moral character, faith, and intention” (RCIA, 10). It is the sponsor who presents the candidate to the Church for reception into the Order of Catechumens.
“Godparents are persons chosen by the candidates on the basis of example, good qualities, and friendship, delegated by the local Christian community, and approved by the priest” (RCIA, 11). The godparent shows the catechumen and neophyte how to live the Christian live by word, example and encouragement.
In short, sponsors simply present a person and give testimony, while godparents journey with a person in the name of the parish so that a Christian may never journey alone. The sponsor does not share the responsibilities and duties of the godparent (this holds true not only with the RCIA but also with godparents at the Baptism of a child and sponsors at the Confirmation of a Baptized Christian).
Mother Church expects godparents “to show the candidates how to practice the Gospel in personal and social life, to sustain the candidates in moments of hesitancy and anxiety, to bear witness, and to guide the candidates’ progress in the baptismal life (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, 11).
Because progress in the baptismal life is not to end before death, asking someone to be a godparent – and accepting the invitation – is a most serious issue, both in terms of adults and of infants. The obligations of godparents stay with them through either their own death or that of their godchild. For this reason, godparents “continue to be important during the time after reception of the sacraments when the neophytes need to be assisted so that they remain true to their baptismal promises” (RCIA, 11).
The sponsor has a similar task to the godparent: “to take care that the confirmed person behaves as a true witness of Christ and faithfully fulfills the obligations inherent in this sacrament” (can. 892).
Now, then, back to the original question: can a boyfriend or girlfriend – or even a spouse – be the sponsor or godparent of a person through the RCIA?
The Code of Canon Law requires that there “be only one male godparent or one female godparent or one of each” (can. 873). To be a godparent, one must be fully initiated into the Catholic Church, be at least sixteen years old (exceptions can be granted by the Bishop or Pastor), be free of all canonical penalties, not be the parent of the one to be baptized, and lead “a life of faith in keeping with the function to be taken on” (can. 874).
With the above requirements, it is to be remembered that a godparent must be “approved by the priest” (RCIA, 11).
Though they are not expressly forbidden, a priest may refuse to allow a boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse to be a godparent. The decision as to the person of godparents lies with the priest and is a responsibility that no priest should take lightly because of the serious role and duty of the godparents, which is why most priests require a letter of good standing for godparents not known to them.
Some priests have a uniform policy that says that a boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse may never be a godparent or sponsor while others are more willing to consider it.
The refusal of a priest to allow such a godparent is very often difficult to accept and priests do not always adequately explain their reasoning. This especially happens if the boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse is the only serious Catholic the person seeking to enter into the Church knows.
In these cases I would most likely allow the boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse to be the godparent (providing he or she meets the necessary requirements), but I would not make this a blanket policy (nor vice versa), and again, the decision is up to the individual priest.
Now to the question of sponsors: ordinarily, a sponsor is only used at Confirmation, with only godparents being used at Baptism (at least in the U.S. and outside the RCIA). Most often it happens that the sponsor through the RCIA is also the godparent.
The Code of Canon Law requires the same of sponsors as it does of godparents (cf. can. 893 and 874).
Priests, then, may also choose who may or may not serve as a sponsor.