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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