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Why intention is not everything

When it comes to the Christian life, it’s not only the thought that counts.

(CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The story only broke a few days ago, but it is already familiar to many: a priest had recently watched a video of his baptism and was surprised by what he saw. The Vatican in early August had issued a clarification that baptisms using the form “We baptize” and not “I baptize” are invalid. The priest realized that his own baptism had used the erroneous formula, which meant his baptism was invalid. Not only was he not a priest, he wasn’t even a baptized Catholic. He brought this fact to the attention of his archbishop, and was subsequently baptized and confirmed, received First Communion, and was ordained a deacon—and then ordained a priest.

The story was strange and even shocking. Perhaps just as intriguing was the variety of reactions on social media. Many expressed dismay that a deacon had spent 15 years invalidly baptizing people. Some worried aloud that their own baptisms had been invalid. But others were shocked and disturbed, not by the actions of the deacon, but by their fellow Catholics’ reaction. These comments were along the lines of: “What’s the big deal? Why are they making such a fuss over this? Isn’t this a hysterical overreaction? Isn’t nitpicking over one word gross legalism? Do we not trust in the grace of God?” Perhaps most of these responses came down to “Surely the deacon had a good intention. Isn’t that what matters?”

According to the Church’s teaching on the sacraments, intention does matter—but it’s not the only thing that matters. It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. This is because of the sort of creatures we are. Because we are beings who are at once physical and spiritual, when God wishes to share His own divine life with us by grace, He does so through some physical means. Thus every sacrament is an efficacious sign, a sensible action that conveys and communicates to us what spiritual reality is being effected.

The matter of the sacrament is the physical substance and action—for example, the pouring of water in Baptism. The matter is a natural analogous sign to the spiritual reality; that is, just as water is associated with cleansing, birth, and death, so baptism removes original sin, gives us birth to new life as adopted children of God, and gives us a share in Christ’s death and resurrection. The form of the sacrament explicitly states the spiritual reality taking effect, making clear that, for example, a baptism is happening, and not a bath or a drowning. So, in baptism, the form is “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Along with the form and matter, a proper intention is required. That is, in doing the act and saying the words, has to intend to confer the sacrament of baptism—to “do what the Church does,” at the very least. Thus, if while playing in the pool you dunk your friend’s head under the water and pronounce the baptismal formula, your friend will not actually be baptized.

As the CDF’s accompanying note explained, the three of these are closely tied together. Changing the words of the form calls into question whether one is “intending to do what the Church does.” In baptism, the Christian minister stands in the person of Christ, so that it also Christ who baptizes (just as it is Christ who absolves, consecrates, etc). To change the form to “We baptize” confuses the matter. Is it Christ via the minister who is conferring baptism, or is the community bringing one into the fold?

It’s no longer clear just what the minister is intending, or what is happening according to the words of form which are meant to specify the act.

So, the CDF has determined that “We baptize” is an invalid formula. But many have responded by focusing on the intention: “Surely the deacon simply wanted to make everyone feel included. Surely his heart was in the right place. Surely he had the right intention.” While, well, well-intentioned, this mindset misses the essential fact there is more than intention that is essential to the sacraments. No matter how good your intentions, in order to baptize, you actually have to baptize—that is, use the proper form and matter.

We can take this thread of “intention is what matters” and follow it from sacramental theology to moral theology. Like the sacraments, intention is a key factor in the morality of an act; and also like the sacraments, it is not the only factor. In the classical analysis of morality of acts, there are three parts to consider: the act itself, the circumstances, and the intention. The Church teaches that there are certain actions that can never be deliberately chosen, no matter what the intention, because the acts themselves are by their nature opposed to human flourishing and the love of God—they are “intrinsically evil”.

Some have tried to argue that any action could be possibly be morally good provided that the end they seek is in proportion to the evil committed, that is, if one’s intentions are sufficiently worthy. Yet the maxim from the time of Socrates still holds that one may never do evil in order to achieve good. No matter what one’s ultimate goal or intention, if one chooses an evil act to bring it about, one is still choosing evil. That is unavoidable.

Now, we might hesitate to call “evil” a deacon’s choice to use “we baptize” rather than the proper formula. But the technical definition of evil is “a privation of the good,” a lack of a good that a thing ought to possess. While we certainly would not attribute any malice to the deacon’s actions, the point of the CDF declaration is that the formula “we baptize” is deficient. Such a baptism is lacking in something in ought to have, and thus is no baptism at all.

In both the sacraments and the moral life, intention is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition. While the intention to do what the Church does is necessary for the validity of the sacraments, the proper form and matter are equally necessary and essential. While a proper intention is necessary for an act to be moral, one also must also choose a non-evil act, and one fitting given the circumstances. When it comes to the Christian life, it’s not only the thought that counts.

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About Nicholas Senz 30 Articles
Nicholas Senz is Pastoral Associate at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Fishers, IN. He holds Master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. Nicholas lives with his wife and three children.


  1. And the matter proper to the Sacrament of Matrimony is one man and one woman. Hence, in Catholic theology it is impossible for two men to be married since the required “matter” is not present.

  2. Nonsense. The inference being made here goes beyond the particular priest mentioned. The inference is that anyone baptised with the wrong formula is not, properly speaking, Christian, and therefore ineligible for eternal salvation.
    Christ is NOT going to condemn to hell a man who, for example, goes thru his whole life not knowing he was baptised using the wrong formula.
    Christ is not some legalistic monster, condemning us for the failings of others.

        • Although Nicholas there are instances when the form of the sacrament may be irregular, perhaps as in the case of Father Hood and invalid in appearance. But the sacrament is nonetheless confected the if intent was to do what the Church does. “This is demonstrated from documents of the faith: In the profession of faith prescribed for the Waldensians by Innocent III 1208, there is required for the confection of the Eucharist ‘the faithful intention’ of pronouncing ‘the words of consecration’; likewise Martin V 1418, Eugenius IV 1439 and the Council of Trent 1547 require ‘in the ministers, while they confect the sacraments, the intention at least of doing what the Church does’” (MSGR. J.M. HERVÉ, S. Th. Dr.: THEOLOGIA DOGMATICA. VOL. III. Part 4: De Sacramentis in genere Chapter IV: De ministro sacramentorum).

    • I think that, should this incorrectly baptized person die in that state, we (and God) would consider that he had what was once called “baptism of desire” (you might check it out, along with what was called “baptism of blood”).

    • You’ll notice I didn’t say any of that. God gives His grace apart from the sacraments, but God does not confer the sacraments apart from the sacraments—that is, while a person might receive sanctifying grace, they wouldn’t receive the indelible mark of baptism or the other effects particular to that sacrament.

  3. Mr Scott has assumed too much. The article correctly shows that if the wrong formula is used then a baptism has not taken place.
    But it does not follow that the person who is not baptised as a result of the error is ineligible for salvation. That is an entirely different debate which it is not the intention of the article to discuss or to assess.

    • What about the formula of the Byzantine tradition, which uses the passive-voice: “The servant of God N. is baptized in the Name of, etc.” That certainly isn’t invalid and it doesn’t really seem any different that “we baptize,” does it?

  4. Nice article. Man dependent on contemporary “American Church” has to develop the sixth sense to be able to distinguish between real and pretended presence of Christ. It is much more important than racism, ecology, and so on, yet we are not urged too often about such a thing.

  5. ‘All things work well ..’ – good thing the article clarifies well how The Bride ,
    The Church always wants to be as faithful as possible , to the Will of the Bridegroom and the more She is , the stronger and faster would the reign of The Kingdom of holiness be , as answered prayers of ‘ Our Father .. ‘ , coming on earth here .
    True , there are enough instances when The Lord shows us how He comes through in the midst of our lackings – such as when St.Peter is short on cash , for the temple tax – ? Judas having insisted he alone be the one to handle all the money , without having sought out the permission for same from The Lord ! ( Waiting to read through the Book of Heaven , revelations to S.G Louisa – unsure if same mentioned in there )

    Thus , in instances such as the above baptism incident , when in ignorance , we can turn to His mercy and use the gift of trust , which The Church too trusts us to use – thus , no mandate as to how the many who may be in the dark about this can turn to The Lord .
    The whole incident could have been allowed by The Lord , to look for the coin in the mouth of the fish – through the surprise find of the Divine Will devotion , as vast as the oceans and as endearing as the find of that coin , in the mouth of that fish that knew how to find and keep the coin in its mouth and swim to its Master and Peter , all in Divine Will and its perfect timing and manner . 🙂

    Sacraments as occasions of the working of the Divine Will of the Three Persons .. – the endearing prayers and themes , such as the above – can anyone resist same ..

    and very likely that the Holy Father , prepared through the Eucharistic Miracle of Argentina , to help bring forth same ..trying to move in very slow cautious steps , in step with the whisper of the Spirit , not desiring to raise any noisy waves of fears and confusions …
    thus may be the Amazonian Synod and even the desire for a new Rite for the region , using elements and themes from the above revelations .

    Hope there would be lots of ‘little children ‘ of the Divine Will who would help him joyfully , as The Church prepares for The Feast of Nativity and be willing to be born more deeply , into The Kingdom , with its promise of the era of peace through holiness .
    Blessings !

  6. Certainly, the souls attached to the unborn that pass from a miscarriage are not lost?

    The Church is right to clarify this, but who trained the deacon who made the error? If this requirement is one of the main validator’s of the Rite, it should be listed and initialed on the baptismal certificate that those were the words spoken. Bishop Sheen spoke to the intention to be baptized — I imagine what is actually in your heart or parents’ does count for something. Getting baptized by some leftist priest who doesn’t even follow the Church’s rules is more valid? Substance over form may apply here.

    We know anything is possible with God, certainly tossing all these people to the wind would not be His intention! Blessed be the name of Jesus!

  7. This is so much like the medievalists arguing about “how many angels could be on the head of a pin.“. This is the wrong time for even a right judgment of form and matter. We have had such a gross number of pedophiliac and other perversions and distortions of priestly vows that the whole concept of “opere operate” (forgive the spelling) can be seen as at risk. I cannot think of any argument that is more invasive to reasoned sacramental integrity at this time than this semantic one

    • The medievals never argued over this. They debated the question of the relation of angels to physical place, which is an interesting question to consider: in what sense is a non-physical being “in a place”? What’s the relation of the spiritual world to the physical world?

      The issue of pedophile priests is a red herring here, a horrible crime that demands justice, but a subject unrelated to this. We don’t want to fall into Donatism and think that the effectiveness of the sacraments depends upon the holiness of the minister. It is Christ who administers the sacraments, through the priest who has been configured to him by his ordination. Communities don’t confer sacraments; persons do. This is why the “we baptize” formula is erroneous and invalid. It expressed an understanding of baptism that is foreign to the Church’s, so that it’s not clear that Christian baptism is what’s intended.

      “Semantics” is quibbling over words that have no substantive difference, but are two signs pointing to the same reality (e.g. silver and argent). But there is a substantive difference between “I” and “we.” Imagine if your spouse said “We take you to be our wife” during your marriage vows. You’d have questions! You’d wonder if he understood marriage to be the same sort of thing you do, or if he was intending to enter into marriage as you understood it.

      • Yikes! Very good response. “New church” isn’t “True Church” because they have inverted the primary and secondary truths. And your article is insightful, easy to understand and enlightening the mind. Glory be to Christ forever!

  8. Homosex priesthoods should be annulled for lack of celibate intention. Many abortion deranged women and their partners are blocked from making a good confession over fear that their confessor is not a true priest

  9. Nicholas, what a great article. It kind of reminds me of how some professed Catholics I know say that they have never witnessed a miracle in person, when in fact we Catholics are privileged to participate in the miracle of the Eucharist on a weekly or even daily basis. Maybe this too is ultimately an “I” instead of a “We”.

  10. While on the topic of sacramental validity, why does the Catholic Church not embrace (and necessitate) full triple immersion, as was observed in the early church and remains so to the present in the Orthodox Church. It seems that the modern focus on sacramental validity has led us to strip down the sacraments to a bare minimum in the rubrics, preventing us from filling embracing the physical form and metaphysical outpouring of grace present in each sacrament. After all, “baptizo” in Greek means “sink” or “plunge”, not “sprinkle” or “pour”!

  11. Why The Words Of Baptism Matter
    by Rev. Matthew Hood
    September 3, 2020

    The article begins:

    When I woke up on the morning of August 6, I expected the worst part of my day to be a long meeting. But then I opened my laptop to see an email about a Vatican statement, and realized that my day was about to get much worse. My world had been turned upside down.

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