More on Baptismal Validity

On August 24 Fritz Bauerschmidt reported here on the fallout from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s June 8 Responsum to questions concerning baptismal validity. By then, we had all heard of the case in the archdiocese of Detroit of Deacon Mark Springer who had consistently baptized using a formula that the CDF was now proclaiming to invalidate the sacrament, the scruples of Fr Matthew Hood of that diocese who discovered that he had apparently not been validly baptized, let alone validly ordained, and the kneejerk reaction of the Archbishop — a scenario that has also been replicated in a small number of other places, for example in Oklahoma City in September with Fr Zachary Boazman.

The CDF pronounced that baptisms using the formula “We baptize you in the name of the Father…..” were not only illicit but invalid, hence the furore when it was discovered that some priests had been invalidly baptized, rendering all sacraments received by them and therefore conferred by them invalid. Not only were the priests in Detroit and Oklahoma fast-tracked through the sacraments to ordination, but unfortunately all those who had received sacraments at their hands were warned that all of these may well have been invalid. Additionally those who had been baptized by Deacon Springer were in a similar situation, and were asked to consult to discover if they were actually Catholic, the CDF’s pronouncement having stated that all who had been invalidly baptized needed to be re-baptized in forma absoluta.

I think it is fair to say that the huge amount of confusion, soul-searching and angst caused by the CDF’s pronouncement, and more so by the ensuing reactions, was unnecessary, lacking in charity, and even sinful, especially at a time of pandemic.

Fritz spotlighted some of the theological considerations, quoting the Summa. Others have commented, too. Sister Susan Wood SCL, a distinguished theologian, put it this way: “What the ‘I’ means [in the baptismal formula] is that the person who is baptizing is acting in the place of Christ. Christ is the primary actor in all the sacraments. It’s Christ who forgives sins. It’s Christ who baptizes.” The person baptizing, whether ordained or lay, acts in persona Christi.

This understanding is shared by Lutherans, Episcopalians and others. Using “We” to accentuate the role of the community, if that was the reason behind the deacon’s action, has things the wrong way round. It is not the community that includes Christ, but Christ who acts through the community.

In all of this, and the many discussions that followed, the one thing that I never saw was a reference to “Baptism by desire”. In a similar way to Baptism by martyrdom, this normally relates only to those at the point of death who die unbaptized, even though they may have desired to be baptized (for example, catechumens), but it might well admit of a wider application.

Fr Hood, in being confirmed, receiving the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion and being ordained, had surely acted on the understanding that he had validly received the sacrament of baptism, and this understanding could itself be construed as a desire for a baptism that the CDF thinks he did not actually receive until August this year. Similarly, the parents of those who were baptized by Deacon Springer between 1986 and 1999 surely believed that their children (including Fr Hood) were validly baptized, and this, coupled with their clear desire to have their children baptized into the new life of Christ, would carry considerable weight.

The other area for exploration concerns the notion that there is only one valid formula for baptism. While Canons 834 and 838 undoubtedly give the Church the power to determine what formula may be used, the fact is that other Churches use different formulae for baptisms which are nevertheless considered valid by the Roman Catholic Church. Bruce Morrill, a contributor to this blog, has noted that Easter Rite Catholics and Orthodox use the formula “X is baptized”. The word “I” is never mentioned. Another contributor, Professor Maxwell Johnson of the University of Notre Dame, additionally points to the historical development of the baptismal rite over the centuries, and tells us that there is evidence that some baptisms in the early Roman and Milanese churches did not use a formula at all.

If “I baptize you” is acceptable because it references the minister acting in the person of Christ and “We baptize you” is not, even though it includes the minister acting in the same way, one wonders about the status of wordings such as “Christ baptizes you”, were someone to use that, or “The Church baptizes you” (which would incorporate the Church’s own understanding of the minister acting in the person of Christ, since sacramental validity depends on the minister intending to do what the Church intends). There are of course many other possibilities that could be imagined.

Rather more relevant to this case, however, is the fact that the CDF’s 2020 pronouncement is in complete contradiction to a previous Vatican response to a query on the very same question.

A letter sent to a diocese from an undersecretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and published in the 2003 issue of Roman Replies and CLSA Advisory Opinions by the Canon Law Society of America, addressed the “We baptize you” formula.

Employing the first person plural, rather than the singular…does not cast into doubt the validity of the Baptism conferred. That is, if the three divine Persons are named specifically as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the use of the first person plural does not invalidate the conferral of the Sacrament.

The liceity of such a celebration, however, is quite another matter.

It is the responsibility of the celebrant of Baptism to confer the Sacrament in a way that is licit as well as valid, and any infraction such as the one you describe should be brought immediately to the attention of the local Bishop.

Taking all the arguments adduced above into account, one could make a strong case that baptisms which took place prior to the CDF’s 2020 Responsum were valid though illicit, and that the CDF’s ruling should not be used retroactively. How to undo the pain and anguish that this episode has already caused is a different question.


  1. I am addressing the following section: “In all of this, and the many discussions that followed, the one thing that I never saw was a reference to “Baptism by desire”. In a similar way to Baptism by martyrdom, this normally relates only to those at the point of death who die unbaptized, even though they may have desired to be baptized (for example, catechumens), but it might well admit of a wider application.”

    St. Thomas Aquinas taught that baptism of desire occurred when the soul was first moved by love for God, not at the point of death. So a catechumen prior to baptism would be filled with divine charity and sanctifying grace. This baptism of desire did remove the obligation for the catechumen to receive the sacrament of baptism at which point the catechumen would receive a fuller share of divine grace and sanctification and also the “baptismal character” which is required for the reception of the sacrament of confirmation and holy orders. So Fr. Hood almost certainly (to the extent anyone can know another person’s soul) had the baptism of desire even without the sacrament (assuming the CDF is correct and the formula initially used was invalid).

    Even though, the baptism of desire has not been explicitly named in most of the official communications I have seen, it appears to be implied.

  2. There hasn’t been discussion of baptism of desire because that would be a dead end. For starters, its benefit for infants is highly doubtful. Vicarious desire has been defended by a few theologians (including weighty authors like Cajetan), but these are far outweighed by the doctors (and broader consensus across the Tradition) holding that desire of baptism obtains its effect in conjunction with an individual’s act of perfect charity/contrition. This requires the exercise of one’s own reason. If someone like JPII, who strongly encouraged greater hope for unbaptized infants to attain full beatitude, did not turn to vicarious desire, that’s telling.

    But even were one to grant the possibility of vicarious desire or limit discussion to those who have obtained the use of reason, this would only relieve worries about salvation, not resolve difficulties in receiving further sacraments. Baptism of desire is not equal to water baptism; its effects are incomplete. Desire of baptism can bestow sanctifying grace and remission of sin, but it does not impart a character, remit temporal punishment of sin, or fully incorporate one into the Church (e.g., Aquinas and Bellarmine would say one is incorporated “mentally” but not yet “corporally”). Thus even for those who may be *justified* in advance of the sacrament through desire for baptism, reception of water baptism remains the necessary gateway to other sacramental graces.

    1. The individuals involved did receive the waters of baptism. So the question is if their parents’ belief and desire, AND, upon reaching the age of reason, the belief and intent of the individuals themselves to live as baptized disciples, AND the power of God to work in this circumstance, can be obfuscated by one person with good intentions messing up one word of a formula which isn’t currently or hasn’t historically been applied consistently throughout the church (or even used at all). The fact that the church would waste so much capacity and ink and breath on something like this explains why we are failing so completely to lead people to Christ and the grace of the sacraments in a world so desperate for hope and meaning.

  3. It might be instructive for all to read the article in the Summa which the CDF footnoted and relied on, in which Aquinas *explicitly addresses* why the Greek / Orthodox formula is valid while “we baptize” is not.

    All arguments against the CDF (and Pope Francis who approved it) which fail to engage with this background tend to be particularly unpersuasive.

    1. Aquinas says (III L66 C6)

      Reply to Objection 1: Action is attributed to an instrument as to the immediate agent; but to the principal agent inasmuch as the instrument acts in virtue thereof. Consequently it is fitting that in the baptismal form the minister should be mentioned as performing the act of baptizing, in the words, “I baptize thee”; indeed, our Lord
      attributed to the ministers the act of baptizing, when He said: “Baptizing them,” etc. But the principal cause is indicated as conferring the sacrament by His own power, in the words, “in the
      name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”: for Christ does not baptize without the Father and the Holy Ghost.

      The Greeks, however, do not attribute the act of baptizing to the minister, in order to avoid the error of those who in the past ascribed the baptismal power to the baptizers, saying (1 Cor. 1:12): “I am of Paul . . . and I of Cephas.” Wherefore they use the form: “May the servant of Christ, N . . ., be baptized, in the name of the Father,” etc. And since the action performed by the minister is expressed with the invocation of the Trinity, the sacrament is validly conferred. As to the
      addition of “Ego” in our form, it is not essential; but it is added in order to lay greater stress on the intention.

      1. But then this has to be read alongside ST III, q. 66, a. 6, ad 4 –

        Several cannot baptize one at the same time: because an action is multiplied according to the number of the agents, if it be done perfectly by each…

        – and, further, ST III, q. 67, a. 6, cited by the CDF.

        I.e. “ego” may not be strictly essential, but that doesn’t mean “nos” can be substituted without invalidating the Sacrament, as St Thomas clearly explains.

      2. Putting aside if Aquinas is right, the fact that the CDF explicitly footnoted these passages means it has already excluded some of the critiques offerred here (I.e. the CDF decision does not suggest there is only a single valid formula, raise doubts about the Greek formula etc).

      3. It seems quite obvious to me that Aquinas in the passage I cited is saying that it is preferable but not essential that the minister should be mentioned in the act of baptizing.

        III 66 6 4 states that more than one cannot baptize simultaneously, but here we have a case where that is not happening. It is clearly only one who baptizes, and that person is using a pronoun that includes not only himself but others, not to state that they are all baptizing but to indicate that the community itself is associated in the action.

        In III 67 6, the CDF is rather naively relying on this statement from Pope Nicholas I to the Bulgars —

        “You say that many in your country have been baptized by someone, whether Christian or pagan you know not. If these were baptized in the name of the Trinity, they must not be rebaptized.” But if the form of the Church be not observed, the sacrament of Baptism is not conferred.

        — in particular relying on the words in bold. But the context of those words is manifestly that the “form of the Church” is the name of the persons of the Trinity, which has certainly been observed in the cases we are discussing, and not the pronoun used, a pronoun which Aquinas has already declared is not even essential in the passage I cited previously.

        Therefore when CDW in 2003 stated that baptisms using “We” rather than “I” were illicit but nevertheless valid, I believe that the undersecretary or other person drafting the response was a more subtle theologian than whoever was responsible for the CDF’s latest ill-judged pronouncement.

      4. Paul,

        If you read the full context of the CDF decision, is it clear they flatly disagree with your take on the intent with which “we” was used in this specific example (and indeed in light of the longer form they criticise, they are highly likely to be correct for this specific case).

        And the CDF focus on intent, and the form as only relevant to the extent it expresses that intent, is important (especially as the Church is on record approving validity for far worse unintended mistakes in baptismal form).

        Which is to say, the CDF decision doesn’t mean any use of “we” would invalidate – The mere vocable isn’t magic. “We” said by mistake would be valid, the “royal we” would probably be valid, “we” in a context were it was clear only one baptises would probably be valid.

        Which is to say, like most things based in Aquinas, the decision is far more subtle than you are giving it credit for.

      5. Scott —

        “we” in a context were it was clear only one baptises would probably be valid.

        That is precisely the point I made in my previous response. It was always clear that only one was de facto baptizing, and because the Trinitarian form was used the baptisms were valid but illicit, as CDW opined in 2003.

        I don’t think CDF has demonstrated that baptizers using “We” were out to diminish or subvert the role of Christ or the Church in baptism in any way. Clearly they weren’t, or they wouldn’t have been bothering to baptize in the first place. Their intent was to do what the Church does; their only sin was a misguided attempt to engage the community in the act, as indeed we do with all sacraments, which are actions in the midst of the community, not stand-alone magic spells. But that error of judgement is not an excuse for this over-large storm in a teacup.

      6. It was always clear that only one was de facto baptizing

        I don’t think that is at all clear, and given the CDF has greater access to the details of the specific case than we, I don’t think it is a judgement open to us to make.

        For example, it wouldn’t surprise if the formula in question (i.e. “In the name of the father and of the mother, of the godfather and of the godmother, of the grandparents, of the family members, of the friends, in the name of the community we baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”) was also accompanied by requested community actions (like raising hands in blessing) which made the intent for many to baptize more explicit.

      7. Scott —

        Obviously I agree that formulae beginning “In the name of the father and of the mother, the godfather……” etc indicate a totally different intention and would not be valid; and the CDF was right to draw attention to that abuse.

        But a blanket condemnation of “We” ? As far as I am aware, Deacon Springer’s only “sin” was to change the pronoun “I” to “We”; he did not preface it with the formula just quoted. That shows a different sort of intention, as I indicated above.

        The CDF did not know about Deacon Springer, as this was only discovered in archive video footage after they had made their pronouncement, so their Responsum cannot be said to apply to his particular case., whereas the CDW’s 2003 could have done so if they had known about it.

      8. Paul,

        I don’t believe we ever got that much detail about the Deacon Springer example. The home video wasn’t released, and obviously we don’t have much insight into what the Deacon himself was thinking.

        If there were extenuating circumstances, it obviously would have been open for the Archdiocese to raise a new dubium, and potentially get a different answer.

        But it isn’t unreasonable for the CDF to treat “we baptize” as presumptively invalid (words do indicate intention after all), nor for the Archdiocese (with access to better case information than us two) to discern that there wasn’t grounds for a different answer in this case.

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