I/We . . . Revisited

“A good theologian is always one preposition away from heresy.”

When I was studying at the University of Notre Dame, this maxim circulated around the liturgical theology department—attributed to Edward Kilmartin, SJ. (I’ve turned it into something of a personal motto: God is in the prepositions.)

The aphorism came to mind during the recent weeks of furor over the priest in Arizona who altered the baptismal formula “I baptize you…” to “We baptize you…” It was reported in both the secular and religious press.

I also couldn’t help but recall a similar I/We ruckus over the beginning of the Creed (“We believe in one God…” vs. “I believe in one God…”) that emerged during the revision of the English translation of the Mass a decade-plus ago. “Here we are again.”

Both controversies illustrate what lies beneath Fr. Kilmartin’s saying: small words—even single-letter words—like the tongue/rudder of James 3:4, can steer an entire ship in a new direction.

In regard to the Arizona baptism situation, I know for sure that many, many people have been hoping a liturgical musician with a rudimentary background in liturgical theology would weigh in, as sooooooo many (often with rude, not rudimentary, backgrounds) have done, particularly on social media. The spectrum of responses there has been sort of status quo, with the bulk of them clustered around one end or the other.

On one end of the spectrum, Jesus/God doesn’t care about these things, and this is precisely the sort of legalistic pharisaism that Jesus opposed; it is, of course, the thing that is driving people out the parish doors. This is a viewpoint that has some merit—though if God doesn’t care about this, then exactly where/when does God begin to care? At the spectrum’s other end we find the insistence that only these words and precisely these words convey valid baptism, because God has entrusted this to the Church (often Matthew 28:19 [or 18–19] is referenced); only a return to this strict adherence will refill the pews. Again, this is a viewpoint that has its merits (even if the Matthew passage doesn’t indicate a pronoun).

Back to I/We baptism and I/We Creed. On the surface, it may seem that the two I/We circumstances really have nothing in common other than a coincidental word pairing. It can be offered that in the baptismal situation the issue was a priest not following the ritual text, while the matter of the 2010 translation of the Mass was actually a return to a true following of the [Latin] text. (Scholars have pointed out that the earlier Greek pisteuomen—we believe—was later rendered incorrectly in Latin as credo—I believe.)

The words I/We, in my view, lie in the overlap area of a Venn diagram of Christology and ecclesiology, which has implications for both the sacraments and for liturgy.

I’ve been criticized a number of times for saying/writing that, at the eucharistic liturgy, the gathered baptized assembly acts in persona Christi. Usually I’m corrected (anywhere from dismissively to angrily to charitably) by somebody pointing out that the priest/presider is acting in persona Christi. To which I’ll reply “in persona Christi capitis.” (A nuance introduced by the Second Vatican Council.) The priest/presider (a deacon, for example, at a baptism or wedding outside of a eucharistic celebration) stands at the head of the baptized assembly—the Body of Christ gathered in and through the power of the Holy Spirit. So it can be held as a legitimate view that when Christ baptizes, it is the whole Church who does so. It is “we” who do so.

A continued and deeper conversation about these matters—or a deeper reflection on them—will eventually raise some thorny issues about both Christology and ecclesiology. The Roman rite accepts innumerable people baptized in other Christian traditions as being baptized validly, even from traditions that don’t begin the formula with any pronoun whatsoever. As is often pointed out, this is why we don’t refer to those validly baptized in other denominations as being “converts,” since they are already Christians, and fully redeemed members of the Body of Christ. Perhaps thornier is the matter of all the invalid Roman rite eucharists celebrated mid-twentieth-century in various prohibited vernaculars. Yet it can be posited that these invalid eucharists are, in part, what led to the authorization of vernaculars later on. (Eugene Walsh, SS, would muse about all the invalid eucharists during those centuries when Greek gave way to Latin as the official liturgical language.)

For those who believe that everything ecclesial is a straight line drawn from Jesus of Nazareth to institutional Roman Catholicism, the point will be made that an individual priest does not have the authority to make the decision to alter the rites; I accept the latter part of this as true. I reject the former as false. The former does not allow for an awareness or acceptance of the way in which doctrine and ritual develop and change, and the various modalities of authority within the Body of Christ, the Church. (I am indebted to the book “By What Authority?” by Richard Gaillardetz for broadening my own understanding of this.)

I truly believe that words matter. Yes, God is in the prepositions and the pronouns. But we must resist the very human failing to deify them, and mistakenly think that prepositions and pronouns ARE God. (Our era tends to be overly-glib about scriptural warnings concerning idolatry.) Yes, God does care about our rites and how we celebrate them in the ongoing process of revelation. God likewise cares about how we live our lives, and how we treat one another during ritual skirmishes, because they are all part of one doxology, one act of praise. It is, ultimately, in any of those numerous acts of doxology that we will find God.


  1. When I saw this on the news the reportage wasn’t just that the priest used the wrong word, but that hundreds, maybe thousands, of baptisms were invalid. More than that, all the subsequent sacraments received were invalid! That’s just plain pharisaism.

    Yes, words matter at least in the sense that ritual is important, and simply ad libbing a ritual robs it of its effect as ritual, but invalid? Come on!

    1. Yes, Charles, that was how I first heard it reported – and it was from a “secular” news source, so I just thought they weren’t using “invalid” in it’s sacramental/canon law sense. But religious news sources began confirming it. In my view, perhaps not licit, but still valid; the intent of the minister has been (again, in my view) too little discussed.

  2. This was my response exactly, in a comment section in the news source that I also read. I’m certainly, not a learned authority but a lifelong practicing Roman Catholic. I’ve attended many baptisms which included the celebrant’s invitation for all the attendees to raise their hands over the person being baptized, and join in as the supporting Body of Christ. I thought intent was implied, I’m weighing in only as a fan of your blog, and supporting your insights.

  3. Thank you for weighing in so thoughtfully. One more – news also adds the Michigan situation similar to the Arizona but highlighted by re-ordaining a priest because his baptism was *invalid* – REALLY, you can’t make this stuff up!!!
    Totally agree with the VII emphasis that it is the church/community that acts in the sacrament via ministers (including the cleric).
    It smacks of clericalism and making priesthood the primary sacrament – REALLY??? The liturgical language change in the Creed was ridiculous – rejected by scholars and the evidence you only refer to.
    If reports are to be believed – the Michigan case surfaces decades ago and canon lawyers ruled that i may have been illicit but not invalid. Now, a recent ruling by Rome changed that and the focus on one word – REALLY??
    Sorry, canon law, theology, sacraments are primarily *pastoral* – so, what is wrong with just accepting that this was illicit but valid???

    1. Another angle is that We the Body of Christ in Church have over centuries taught and bound those of us who confer baptism in our rite to use the first person singular in so baptizing.

      It’s not like it’s heroically difficult to do.

    2. We’re not Lilliputians who can bind God with technicalities.

      David, I for one am not ready to definitively declare Truth in this matter. Frankly, I can live with some ambiguity and trust it will all work out in the end. In any case, that’s the human condition, so I don’t have any choice. Better to laugh at our foibles than to dig down and fight over prepositions.

  4. Of course both words reflect the truth. It is Jesus who baptizes through the one who is actually pouring the water whether they be clerics or not. Jesus is both an I and a We. As the head of his body he may speak in the first person singular. But living among many members and acting through them he may speak in the first person plural. To even suggest that the validity of baptism hinges on this personal pronoun cries out for rectification. That such a baptism may be illicit and the ministers who do so may be disciplined is reasonable. But the church possesses the power of binding and loosening. The canons are a conditioned product of churchmen. The authority exists to overlook the “We” in favor of the intention of the minister, the one being baptized, the parents, sponsors, and all present.

    Interestingly in the Rite of Ordination, the bishops says: “We rely on the help of the Holy Spirit and we choose our brother(s) for the office of presbyter.” Is it not Christ himself who is issuing the call. If so, why not “I” choose…….

  5. Semantically, everything involved in the first person singular is also contained in the first person plural. How can the extra elements of the latter invalidate the former?

    If “I baptize you…” is X, and X is sufficient for validity, X plus Y contain everything necessary for validity.

    1. That doctrinal note is very interesting. It may be as likely that a priest has a personal interpretation that “I baptize” means that he himself is doing the baptism. (I once worked with a veteran priest who chrismated with the oil of catechumens because, as we all as know, chrism is reserved for confirmation.)

      There’s no way to ferret out what a priest really intends. If an individual baptizer believes he (or she) is doing the baptism, who is to know? Unless we research homilies and bulletin notes carefully and if he (or she) ever refers to people that “he” or “she” has baptized and not Christ, are his (or her) baptisms then invalid as well?

      Do we not trust the words of one guy and not distrust the other?

      It really makes me worry that the theological education of high-placed clerics seems so weak. And to be sure: I don’t want any of their jobs. I (or maybe we) just want to be able to have some confidence in the earthly leadership of Christ’s (not my) church.

  6. It seems absurd to believe that a wording difference requires the upheaval of lives, engenders a return to an emphasis on scrupulously that I thought we had grown out of by now. I also wonder if our clergy did not feel so diminished that, that which ought to represent divine presence is demanded for the “in persona christi,” human standing at the font. That the formula used was illicit stands, that the naming the act invalid is an indication that all are punished when the Jesus we follow says we all are worthy as God’s good creation and we all are called to “in servis Christi” before we stand in judgement of each other.

  7. I could probably be convinced either way on the validity of the I/we baptismal formula. The main point though is the Church has to be faithful to what has been entrusted to her. In Acts Chapter 10, St. Peter literally witness the holy spirit descend upon a household without baptism. Instead of saying baptism what superfluous, St. Peter diligently made sure everyone was baptized. God can do what ever He wants in terms of bestowing grace, but the Church must be obedient to his commands.

    I have also become an increasingly skeptical of “doctrinal development” mentioned in this article. A point to illustrate is the doctrine of the Trinity. It is commonly held that the doctrine of Trinity emerged after the Church’s reflection on Jesus life and teachings and statements about his own nature found in the scriptures that matured at the ecumenical councils. But per Two Powers in Heaven by Alan Segal and The Glory of the Invisible God by Andrei Orlov, Binatarianism (if not Trinitarianism) was common in Second Temple Judaism. So the ecumenical councils didn’t so much develop the doctrine of the Trinity as they applied an already existing Jewish doctrine to Jesus. It makes me wonder how many other teachings classified as “developments” are just preservation of older beliefs in new dressing.

    1. “The main point though is the Church has to be faithful to what has been entrusted to her.”

      Now read Max Johnson’s latest thread, and then come back and tell us what you think was entrusted to the Church.

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