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.