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.