Baptism Brouhaha

A recent doctrinal note from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed the question of whether baptisms performed with the words, “We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” were valid. The answer was “no,” along with the stipulation that people baptized in this way must be baptized again in forma absoluta, not conditionally. The note goes on to explain that the change from singular to plural shows defective intention on the part of the minister, and obscures the unique role of the minister in the sacrament: “the minister is the visible sign that the Sacrament is not subject to an arbitrary action of individuals or of the community, and that it pertains to the Universal Church.”

Well, like the outcome of some Rube Goldberg mechanism, a case quickly surfaced in Detroit of a deacon (oh why, I ask myself, did it have to be a deacon?) who had been using this formula for years, which led to the further case of a priest who had been baptized as a child by that deacon using that formula. Since valid baptism is the precondition for valid reception of the other sacraments, the priest was quickly baptized, confirmed, communed, ordained to the diaconate, and ordained to the presbyterate.

Let me make clear that what the deacon did was very, very bad, and perhaps he should never be let near a baptismal font again in his life. I don’t think an insistence on particular words in the sacraments is a sign of legalism or lack of Christian charity. Still, as a theologian with some knowledge of the history of the sacraments, I have a some questions.

First, there is the question of the well-documented historical variability in the baptismal formula. Whatever one makes to the references in Acts to baptism “in the name of Jesus,” we know that in the Eastern Churches baptisms are performed in the passive voice: “The servant of God, N., is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”–circumventing the I-we question entirely. Perhaps even more shockingly to our sensibilities, the description of baptism in the Apostolic Tradition seems to have no baptismal formula at all, but rather simply an immersion after each response of the Elect to the credal questions, “Do you believe in the Father?…Do you believe in the Son?…So you believe in the Holy Spirit?…” These seem like even greater departures from what the CDF considers the essential form of baptism.

Is the difference that, in omitting any reference to the minister at all, they do not constitute a denial of the minister’s unique role? At least regarding the Eastern formula, this seems to have been the thinking of Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologiae part 3 q. 67 a. 6, which the doctrinal note cites. I suspect the CDF note is leaning heavily on this particular article of the Summa, so it is worth mentioning that the point at issue in this text is not simply whether one can use “we” instead of “I”, but whether several ministers could perform one baptism together (the case he envisions is a mute priest pouring the water and a priest with no hands saying the formula), which he denies. “As there is one Christ, so there should only be one minister who represents Christ.” Aside from the fact that it seems like there could still be only one minister, even if he said “we”, there is also the issue that elsewhere, in addressing whether more than one priest could consecrate the same host, Thomas says “yes,” pointing the the rite of concelebration that occurs at ordinations, and arguing “the priest does not consecrate except as in persona Christi; and since many are one in Christ (Gal 3:28); consequently it does not matter whether this sacrament be consecrated by one or by many” (ST part 3 q. 82 a. 2). Thomas is aware this seems to contradict what he said earlier with regard to baptism, but his response to the seeming contradiction–“We do not read of Christ baptizing with the apostles when He committed to them the duty of baptizing; consequently there is no parallel”–is not entirely satisfying.

Second, I think in charity we ought to presume that the deacon in question acted out of ignorance, not out of malice or a desire to do something other than what the Church intends in Christian baptism. A somewhat analogous case can be found in a letter written in the 8th century by St. Boniface to Pope Zachary. Boniface discovered that a parish priest had been baptizing with the words Baptizo te in nomine patria et filia et spiritu sancta (“I baptize you in the name of the Fatherland, and of the daughter, and of the Holy Spiritess”), so he asked the Pope whether these baptisms should be held to be invalid. The Pope replied that since the man acted out of ignorance, the baptisms should be considered valid. Wouldn’t charity suggest that we should treat the current case in much the same way? Perhaps the issue is not unfamiliarity with the language of the rite, as it was with Boniface’s case. Perhaps the issue was poor liturgical and theological formation (it’s been known to happen). But does this kind of ignorance, as opposed to simple linguistic ignorance, necessarily result in a defective intention?

I am willing to be shown definitively that the baptisms in question were not simply illicit (which they unquestionably were) but invalid: not simply of questionable validity–so that you might then re-baptize sub conditione–but of such certain invalidity that in now baptizing that person there is no risk of re-baptizing someone who has already been baptized (a serious form of blasphemy for a tradition-minded Catholic like me). But until that is shown to me I will exercise my right and obligation to ask questions. One of the great benefit of having a doctrine of Infallibility is that it draws the boundary markers relative clearly as to where one may legitimately raise questions. The CDF, though sharing in the magisterial office of the Church, does not have the charism of infallibility. So, I have questions.


  1. At this time in history, this discussion reminds me of the old meme – how many angels fit on a pinhead? Really?
    Sorry, does smack of literalism, fixation on legalism, etc. Do we really believe the Triune God does everything we say – whether I, we, church, community, etc.?
    Appears that some lack faith or put more power in a formula than the intent/purpose? Just saying!! Does this fit into the category of *Pelagianism*? OR a tempest in a teapot?
    One hopes that there are more Pope Zacharys’ around.

    1. well, either words (which convey ideas) matter or they don’t. if they don’t, then why bother doing baptisms at all . and this recent CDF ruling comes from the papacy of Francis, so Pelagianism?

  2. Good article. I appreciate the validity question in regards to other formula considered valid.
    Though the example of Pope Zachary seem more to do with mispronunciation which St. Thomas address in part in the ST. 3rd Part, Q.60, article 7. So not quite analogous I guess. Though you have to wonder how many baptisms have been done in Latin throughout history where the pronunciation has been completely butchered.

    Though as a practical matter, whether baptized in form sub conditione or in forma absoluta, you still have to locate as many people as humanly possible to undo the error.

    Addressing another matter, about why even discuss validity, anytime you have rituals that are efficacious in themselves (at least to some extent), there are lines that have to be drawn. I can feed someone smashed carrots and say ” I cleanse you of all sadness” and no none would think of it being a Christian baptism. If I pour water over a person’s head and say “I cleanse you of all sadness”, still no baptism. So there are dividing lines somewhere.

  3. It seems to me that the CDF is pretty closely following Aquinas in this decision, and as Deacon Fritz notes, St Thomas does provide answers to all these questions.

    And even if we don’t find the Common Doctors’ answers particularly satisfying, given the form of the CDF decision here raises Aquinas’ opinion to the status of the ordinary papal magisterium, it does tend to make itself right ongoing forward (i.e. even if we could have previously argued “we” didn’t contradict the intention of the Church, from this point on it would be much harder to do so).

    But the bigger implication here is probably the ecumenical one, as in the longer term this ruling will put real pressure on the ability to assume the validity of non-Catholic baptisms (especially in Protestant communities with higher tolerances for variance in their liturgical formula). Both because there are undoubtedly non-Catholic communities who formally and/or informally approve baptisms with the form “we baptize”, and due to the broader risk of invalidity arising from small variations this strict approach seems to imply.

  4. Ugh, what about all the baptisms and Eucharistic confections which that priest did before he was (really) baptized and ordained?

    And why doesn’t the old principle that “the church supplies” apply in this case?

    Francis is very big on mercy. Surely these unfortunate (possibly tragic!) cases are amenable to a more merciful resolution than this cascading series of sacramental do-overs.

    1. Jim,

      The baptisms and most weddings he performed are still valid. The masses weren’t, but God isn’t limited to the Sacraments, so we would trust those involved will have still received Grace in accordance with their needs.

      In terms of the “the church supplies”, my understanding is that applies to jurisdiction etc, and hasn’t traditionally extended to defects in form, though again we can hope extra-sacramental Grace was available to any impacted.

      1. Father Hood married us before he was validly baptized and validly ordained. Is our marriage valid?

        Due to the many different situations that the engaged couple may have been in, this answer may be different for each individual couple. You should speak to your pastor as soon as possible so any steps can be taken to remedy your marital status in the Church, if necessary.

        It is important to note that if it is determined that your marriage is sacramentally invalid, you are not guilty of any sin – grave or otherwise – by living as husband and wife in the time since your ceremony. You can be comforted in the fact that God knows that you made every effort to follow His plan exactly for the Sacrament of Marriage.

        The Church teaches that to be guilty of a sin, the act must be one that is known, deliberate, and voluntary, which would not have been possible while a couple was completely unaware of the possible sacramental invalidity of their marriage.

        This is surely alarmist and totally incorrect. The couple themselves are the ministers of the sacrament of matrimony, not the priest. What does the Archdiocese think it is doing?

      2. Paul Inwood: You may wish to brush up on Canon 1108, §1.

        I wouldn’t have thought any of the couples would have problems here, as Canon 144 allows for the executive power of governance to be supplied in this case. It is prudent, however, for the Archdiocese to encourage couples to check with their pastors, both to make doubly sure of the details and to put the minds of the faithful involved at ease.

  5. It’s not just the Apostolic Tradition that describes such a baptismal rite, so does the Ordo romanus XI, which gives the whole rite of initiation as it was celebrated in Rome in the mid seventh century. I don’t think the “Ego te baptiso” came into use in Rome itself until the tenth century, but was used much earlier in the Latin West outside Rome. This doesn’t mean that the CDF is wrong, but the document is rather a blunt instrument.
    As to “ecclesia supplet”, it does indeed only concern jurisdiction. The Church can only make good a lack of orders by… ordination.

  6. The CDF’s pronouncement seemed to be concerned more with formulae that began “We baptize you in the name of the father, and of the mother, and of the godfather…. etc, etc”, and to have applied their abhorrence to such additions to the use of the plural pronoun in general.

    A number of points spring to mind. The most facetious would be What about “the royal ‘we'” ?!

    But perhaps more pertinently, the whole of RCIA is predicated upon the involvement of the entire community in initiation, including baptismal celebrations. Add to that a well-known definition of sacrament which refers to it being a celebration of the fact that God has once again acted in the life of the community, and the oft-repeated meme with regard to the Eucharist that “the assembly is the minister of the sacrament”, and it might therefore be maintained that not only does the minister act in persona Christi but the community itself is an authentic representation of the presence of Christ during the sacramental celebration.

    The case of Fr Matthew Hood in Detroit is surely nothing more than a comic over-reaction by both priest and bishop to an accidental discovery. One asks what would have happened if Fr Hood had never by chance discovered that his 1990 baptism used the plural pronoun instead of the singular? Would all the sacraments received and conferred by him be invalid, even though no one knew they were? What would have happened if he had become a bishop and ordained other priests? To conditionally re-baptize him, re-confirm him and re-ordain him is one thing. To state that every sacrament he had received or conferred up to the time of discovery was invalid is quite another. If nothing else, surely one could say that his whole life exemplified a true case of baptism by desire. The same principle could be applied to all the other baptisms that Deacon Springer carried out in the 1980s and 1990s. To put people through the trauma of scrupulousness at this point seems totally disproportionate.

    1. Thanks, Paul. Can only imagine what my canon law profs would have said about this – the best understood canon law as *pastoral* – not rigid; unthinking; form focused; etc.

      From an article published last week by Daniel Horan:

      “The problem is not with the attraction to religion in general and Christianity in particular as an anchor in the perceived stormy sea of modernity. It is that too many people refashion Christianity — its doctrinal teachings and moral guidance — into an idol of their own making in order to grasp a misguidedly simple and falsely clear message. Typically, such people unintentionally fall into a kind of heresy because they appropriate ideas, propositions, perspectives and elements of the Christian faith only in part and only insofar as it serves their worldview, in an attempt to assuage their anxiety about the complexities of life. Ironically, such unknowing heretics purport to be “traditional” or “orthodox,” touting an absolutist line from their propositional worldview that in turn rejects the broad range of legitimate Christian perspectives and the development of doctrine.”

      Geez, seeking security and form-al guarantees appears to be the focus – not exactly faith. Note that the above quote shows a different interpretation of doctrinal development than that used by AG.

    2. Spot on. My Archdiocesan canon lawyer prof is, at best is raising an eyenrow; at worst releasing an exasperated sigh, and i can hear the sigh’s tone around scrupulosity. Martin Marty’ theological Gospel of Peanuts comes into focus with Charlie Brown’s exclamation of lament, “Good Grief”.

  7. The Summa addresses the case of Fr. Hood’s at least in two places, one directly and the other indirectly.

    In the indirect case, ST III, q 66, a. 6 states “if any of those things be omitted which Christ instituted in regard to a sacrament, it is invalid; save by special dispensation of Him Who did not bind His power to the sacraments.” So by special dispensation, Fr. Hood’s ordination could be “valid” or perhaps his confessions or masses. But that is on God, not on human beings. We are under obligation to carry out the rites and correct any deficiencies that may arise.

    In ST.Suppl q 35. a. 4, the case of someone being ordained who has not been baptized is directly addressed. Here is the quote from New Advent:

    “Such a man if he be ordained to the priesthood is not a priest, and he can neither consecrate, nor absolve in the tribunal of Penance. Wherefore according to the canons he must be baptized, and reordained (Extra De Presbyt. non Bapt., cap. Si quis; cap. Veniens). And even though he be raised to the episcopate, those whom he ordains receive not the Order. Yet it may piously be believed that as regards the ultimate effects of the sacraments, the High Priest will supply the defect, and that He would not allow this to be so hidden as to endanger the Church. ”

    I personally take great comfort in the prompt honest reply and proper response from the Archdiocese of Detroit and hope that all ordained and lay minsters would take it as seriously and seek prompt rectification.

  8. The issue here seems to be about the value of historical evidence versus the current authoritative teaching. It’s all very well to cite early methods of baptism, which are well attested. However, the Church is not in that intellectual/dogmatic place any more. Doctrine develops (what else could it do?) and what the Church says now is what matters.

    The Bishops of the Church of England, in their response to Leo XIII’s Bull on Anglican Ordinations, cited early evidence of ordination to argue that the Roman Church’s current view of ‘validity’ was resting on shaky historical foundations. But the Church might have responded in the same way. It’s not the past that counts, (or any interpretation of early documents) but where we are at the moment.

    In my experience there is plenty of invalid baptism about. I have seen babies baptised by smearing the forehead with water and the sign of the cross so many times in my career (not in Catholic churches) that I wonder if the common Baptism agreements reached with Protestant denominations have any real weight.


    1. Alan, I think you are right about the issue. Sometimes, however, historical evidence does seem to change Church teaching. The most recent example I can think of is the Vatican’s declaration that the anaphora of Addai and Mari is a valid eucharistic prayer, even though lacking the institution narrative. Part of what influenced the decision was the historical evidence that it never had an institution narrative (some earlier scholars claimed that it originally had one and that it was removed at some point). So historical evidence in some cases can influence doctrine. I suppose the question is what those cases are.

      1. I was thinking about the Addai and Mari Anaphora as I wrote my note and I have kept a copy of Fr. Robert Taft’s article in Worship Magazine about it. I think it is a decision of great significance. And I have often hoped that the Church might think again about Anglican ordinations – as a former C. of E. member.


    2. My understanding is that baptism by sprinkling (affusion) is valid but illicit in the Catholic Church, so those baptisms you mentioned are probably valid (unless anyone else wants to chime in otherwise).

      On an interesting note, the Orthodox praxis sees the norm as immersion. Pouring is roughly the western equivalent of “valid but illicit”. The validity of sprinkling is debated. Though some Orthodox sources cite “aerial baptism” of an infant who is in danger of death if there is no water is available. You move the child up and down three times in the air and recite the baptismal formula. The idea being that the moisture in the air is being used to baptize the infant. I would love to hear the CDF’s opinion on that.

    1. It’s not in Catholicism what some people think it is. It’s more or less about supplied jurisdiction, not supplied matter or form.

  9. Don’t lean so heavily on Aquinas…after all, though what he had written well, was revealed to him (and he came to see) “it was all but straw”. Maybe this is some of the straw?? If not….what was it that was shown to be?

  10. Though there be no way for it to be affirmed or denied, I am willing to wager that Pope Francis had little or no knowledge of the process by which the CDF issued this ruling. We are called to be disciples of Jesus who are engaged in the missionary work of his church. The deacon surely intended to do what the church does when it celebrates the sacrament of baptism. Fr. Hood was an infant and could form no intention but his parents brought him to the church with the desire that he be baptized. In good faith he subsequently participated in the Rite of Penance for the first time and then was able to be nourished with the Body and Blood of Christ thereafter. Save for the replacement of the word “we” for “I” all was done in good form and order. Methinks this is about someone in Rome–perhaps the head of the dicastery for divine worship and the sacraments–wanted to send a message about the potentially disastrous consequences for sacred ministers who, on their own authority, alter a single jot or tittle while celebrating the sacraments–whether intentionally or unintentionally.

  11. For an earlier discussion of this issue, a 2010 article with discussion on this forum is relevant:

    I sympathize with Scott Smith above. I can remember trying to assess whether a Baptist partner to a marriage was validly baptized or not, so that I could see to it that the appropriate dispensation was sought. I was told to examine the understanding of baptism in his conventicle; did they intend in baptism to do what the Church intends to do? Now would I have to get hold of the exact words as well, or assume that disparity of cult was the proper category?

    1. Thank you for posting this link – to copy/paste my response from that time period:

      Epikeia – An indulgent and benign interpretation of law, which regards a law as not applying in a particular case because of circumstances unforeseen by the lawmaker. The lawmaker cannot foresee all possible cases that may come under the law, and it is therefore reasonably presumed that were the present circumstances known to the legislator he would permit the act, e.g., a mother presumes that she may miss Mass on Sunday when there is no one present to care for her baby. Epikeia is not permitted, however, no matter how grave the inconvenience, if violation of the law would render an act null and void, e.g., to presume that marriage may be contracted because of grave inconvenience in spite of an existing diriment impediment.

      My favorite part of canon law class – probably the only time I paid attention.

      Shoot – even Fr. MacDonald argued for the church supplying. Sorry, disagree with the canon law interpretation of Ed Peters that form is not covered by church supplies. But, then, probably disagree with parts of most Ed Peters’ opinions.

    2. At least in England & Wales the permission for mixed marriages carries a just in case dispensation in case the non-catholic’s baptism were invalid, which means that enquiries about baptism prior to marriage don’t usually need to be too exhaustive.

  12. I think the CDF and St. Thomas would agree with William Fredereick deHaas’ quote on “when Epikeia is not permitted”. Canon law contains laws of differing importance and authority and conflating them is not helpful. Roughly speaking it is the difference between Divine Law and mere ecclesiastical law. Sacramental formula has traditionally been perceived as being outside of the Church’s jurisdiction to alter with her own power of epikeia and therefore guarded more “rigidly”.

    In many of the comments, there seems to be a conflation between the Church’s “epikeia/ecclesia supplet” and God’s own “epikeia” that is not helpful. When the Church says that she cannot make up for an error or deficiency in a sacrament, it is not the same thing as saying that God is unable to make up for the deficiency. Saying that a sacrament did not take place is not the same thing as saying that no grace occurred. The Spirit will blow where it wills. God can do what ever he wants but humans cannot. Under heaven, we follow his commands in worship and correct any deficiencies that come along the way. The fact that God can make up for our failure in administering the sacraments doesn’t remove the obligation on our end to correct the past.

    I suppose that those adhering to a traditional formula requirement for validity can be seen as rigid and perhaps not without reason. But there is also a rigidity to other side. A declaration that we must see that a sacrament occurred as long as the general intention is intact is in itself a quest and craving for certainty.

    1. Sacraments themselves fulfill “a quest and craving for certainty,” do they not? The voice and touch of our Savior in our lives? And what is wrong with that? It is possible to undermine that certainty by careless administration, but also by pressing a steady concern as to whether the ritual was done EXACTLY right, because otherwise the Lord passed us by. At what point does reverence become scrupulosity? And when it does, who gets hurt?

  13. A few peripheral observations:

    – Permanent deacons in 1990 were far from today’s prominence in parishes. I’m disinclined to doxx the baptizer, if he is still in active ministry. In my home diocese, deacon candidates and wives earned masters’ degrees in theology in the 1980s. That’s certainly no guard against invalid or illicit sacraments, but it doesn’t hurt.

    – I wonder how many clergy, pondering that their vocations aren’t going as well as Fr Hood’s, might ponder the possibility of uncovering their own invalid baptism and finding the sacramental domino effect more speedy than laicization.

    – I noted the CDF explanation and wondered also about this, “(the exterior action) cannot but manifest the communion between that which the minister accomplishes in the celebration of each individual sacrament with that which the Church enacts in communion with the action of Christ himself: It is therefore fundamental that the sacramental action may not be achieved in its own name, but in the person of Christ who acts in his Church, and in the name of the Church.” Are we saying that lay people are baptizing in the person of Christ, be they male or female?

    There’s a lot of clumsiness in this episode, and it’s not limited to a careless deacon of another century.

  14. I’d like to point out what Ludwig Ott wrote in Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. On p. 354 he discusses Designation of the act of Baptism and explains that Ego te baptizo was declared necessary for a valid baptism by Alexander III. Ott explains in the next paragraph how baptisms were performed without the designation and were considered valid. However, Aquinas and others of the time pointed to the decree from Alexander III that baptisms without the designation were invalid.
    Here’s the point, which I find interesting and germane to this discussion. Ott writes at the end of the paragraph, “In view of this, the express designation of the baptismal act can hardly be considered an essential part of the sacramental form. It seems more proper to see in it a condition strictly imposed by the Church for the valid administration of the Sacrament.”

    1. So much of Vatican II’s reform came from a broader knowledge both of our own history and of other Christian traditions. The baptismal formula in the Eastern Churches is in the passive voice: “The servant of God, N., is baptized….” Does the argumentation behind this decree make all of those baptisms invalid? I am reminded of the document signed by JP2 acknowledging the validity of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari even though it lacks an explicit narrative of institution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *