Who Baptizes? Sacramental specificity in an auto-correct world

An erroneous view of God’s mercy animates many of the responses to recent reports of invalid baptisms, perhaps numbering in the thousands, celebrated by a priest of the Diocese of Phoenix.

Father Matthew Browne pours water over the head of 5-month-old Rocco Richard O'Toole during his baptism Aug. 16, 2020, at St. Dominic Church in Oyster Bay, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

“Do this in memory of me.” –Luke 22:19

For a few years now, I have observed the slow but steady corrosion of my spelling ability. With the rising ubiquity of spell-check and especially auto-correct features in word processing software, I have subconsciously developed a sense that I only need to get close to the words I intend to type, leaving the rest to whatever device I am using.

It is so very easy to take a similar approach to the Christian life. The truth of God’s mercy is so staggering, so powerful, and so much at the heart of all Catholic doctrine that it can have the psychological effect of overwhelming other truths.

In the minds and hearts of countless Catholics, not a few theologians, and even many clerics, “mercy” seems to have become the name for a kind of divine auto-correct feature, one that invariably and invisibly turns our “close” into “good enough.” God’s mercy comes to be seen as an omnipresent force that turns attempts into accomplishments and gives promised rewards even when we fail to keep our promises.

This erroneous view of God’s mercy animates many of the responses to recent reports of invalid baptisms, perhaps numbering in the thousands, celebrated by a priest of the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona. Many have publicly criticized the Church, accusing her of constraining and misrepresenting God’s mercy which, according to their view, cannot be thwarted by a one-word change from “I baptize” to “we baptize.”

Before critiquing such responses to this scandal, it needs to be said that every man, woman, and child must thank God for His great goodness and His mercy! As the old hymn puts it, there is a wideness in God’s mercy, and we should all rejoice and find tremendous relief in that wideness.

At the same time, our gratitude for God’s mercy must never corrode into presumption, whether in the case of these invalid baptisms or in any other aspect of God’s saving work. Salvation is a gift God offers the whole world, and He gives it gratuitously, but He does not give it unconditionally.

In the New and Eternal Covenant God has established with us in His Son Jesus Christ, He has made specific promises and calls us to a specific response. God reveals Himself to humanity in specific words and deeds, to use the language of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum. And God calls us to abide in communion with Him by means of specific words and deeds, especially the seven sacraments that are at the heart of His saving work in the Church.

It may seem a bit disorienting to begin this article with a title that references the Sacrament of Baptism, followed by a scriptural verse from Christ’s institution of the Holy Eucharist. But in that verse, we find a key to understanding the whole of the sacramental economy.

“Do this” expresses not only the entrustment of the Eucharist to those first priests, the apostles. The phrase also expresses the “this-ness” of all of the sacraments, beginning with Baptism. It expresses their Christological specificity.

It is in saying and doing the things said, done, and given by Christ that the sacraments operate and save us. We do not invent the sacraments. We receive them from Christ in His Church and serve as their stewards.

But can one word make that much difference? Back in August, 2020, we faced this same question here in the Archdiocese of Detroit, where I live and serve. Like the priest in Phoenix, one of our deacons chose to use the words “we baptize” instead of “I baptize.” Like the priest in Phoenix, this deacon surely meant no harm. But as in the Phoenix case, the spiritual lives of thousands of people were harmed.

Here in Detroit, this harm was inflicted both directly and indirectly, through one of our young priests whom this deacon had invalidly attempted to baptize. This priest has since received the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, and Holy Orders. But for three years he had no idea that all of his sacraments, including his ordinations, were invalid, and that almost all of the sacraments he celebrated in the first years of what appeared to be his priesthood were invalid.

Shortly before the baptismal invalidity scandal erupted in Detroit, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the relevant decision concerning the Baptismal Formula:

First question: Whether the Baptism conferred with the formula «We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit» is valid?

Second question: Whether those persons for whom baptism was celebrated with this formula must be baptized in forma absoluta?

RESPONSES

To the first question: Negative.

To the second question: Affirmative.

Not since the distinction was drawn between homoousios and homoiousios has the elimination of one “I/i” made such a tremendous difference in the life of the Church!

It is worth pointing out again that the offending clerics surely thought they were doing something good when they changed the words of the formula of Baptism. I happen to know the deacon involved in the Detroit case, and believe him to be a good-hearted man. The Phoenix priest also seems both sincere and truly contrite.

It is extremely unfortunate, even toxic, that there has for decades been a high level of tolerance in the Church for fudging the words and actions we have received in trust for the celebration of the sacred rites by which Christ is present and active among us.

The invalidity of so many sacraments through the re-formulating of the words of Baptism sounds an alarm all Catholics ought to heed. This alarm signals a state of decay that can have ultimate consequences for those whose communion with the Church is impeded, as well as for those who perpetrate, promote, or applaud unauthorized changes to the rites of Christ and His Church.

The words we use in our sacramental celebrations matter. Sacraments combine actions with words to make Christ present and active among His people in every time and place. The “I” of the formula, “I baptize you,” for example, expresses the truth that it is Christ Who baptizes in and through His minister.

Sacramental celebrations are composed of specific words and actions not to enforce a kind of military ceremonial rigidity or to raise the specter of magic rituals. What is more magical, after all, to insist upon saying and doing what Christ has given us to say and do or to suggest that even when a minister says the wrong thing, the right effect will happen anyway?

In all fields of human activity, especially those of greater consequence, precision matters. From brain surgery to international diplomacy, from athletics to cooking, and everything in-between, there are right and wrong ways of speaking and acting. Each way of speaking and acting brings its own consequences.

Words, in particular, are under threat today by shifting meanings and imprecision. But our words have consequences, great and small. Romano Guardini, in his book on eschatology, offers a most powerful reminder of the urgency of our care for words:

A word is not merely a sign to convey a meaning. It is a living thing, embodying spirit. In company with other words it makes up language, and language is the room in which man lives. It is the world of mental images from which the light of truth is ever breaking upon him. When a word decays, it is not merely that we become uncertain of each other’s meaning. One of the forms that compose our life has perished. A signpost has become illegible. A light has been extinguished and our intellectual day made darker. To restore to its original meaning a word that is being destroyed by careless use is a service to the whole of human life.

The heart of any truly Christian observer aches for those who have discovered the invalidity of their baptisms. I have given pastoral care to these people here in Detroit, and have also been consulted from time-to-time about the validity of certain doubtful baptisms. The need to keep strong the bond between the theoretical and the practical in these matters is very much on my own mind and heart.

The best service we can give to these victims of sacramental invalidity and to the whole Church is not to question the Church’s wisdom about what constitutes a valid sacrament. Rather, we are called to do all we can to help those who now find themselves in need of sacraments they thought they had already received, and to stand for fidelity in celebrating the sacramental rites of Christ and His Church.

In his 1930 book, The New and Eternal Covenant, Dom Anscar Vonier writes that “the perfect expression of faith” is “to see the gift of God, to praise it, to sing its glories.” May all Catholics, clergy and laity alike, be granted clear vision of the sacramental gifts God has given to His Church, praise Him for those gifts, sing their glories, and celebrate them faithfully for the salvation of the whole world.


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About Fr. Charles Fox 81 Articles
Rev. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome. He is also chaplain and a board member of Saint Paul Street Evangelization, headquartered in Warren, MI.

15 Comments

  1. Fr Fox I agree the Church determines validity. Although in the instance of Baptism and the current controversy, I’m reminded of an instance years past as a VA chaplain. Priests at that VA facility had been using grape juice invalidating the matter, wine, the requisite for consecration [although the priests consecrated the correct altar breads].
    Our Military Archdiocese was notified, and we were visited by the Archdiocese Episcopal Vicar to the VA. During discussion with staff he responded to the issue of the invalid sacrament. And the many who believed that it was Christ’s precious blood they worshiped during the consecration. His response was, God supplies in these instances.
    There now and have been similar through history instances when either the incorrect form or matter has been used invalidating the sacraments, including anointing, penance, and other sacraments. If a person were invalidly baptized, as the priest in question, would the sacraments he presumed valid and real, as well as the persons who received them believed be denied by Our Lord the graces they would have unquestionably received if he were validly baptized? Would God not ‘provide’ for the faithful recipient, and the multitude of many similarly unknowing recipients?
    It seems that the innocent parties would not be refused absolution for sins, the baptism of their children, the anointing for the dying, and the Holy Eucharist. If unknowingly the priest believed he was validly baptized it would not be an extraordinary act of God’s love if the innocent parties faithfully acted with the mind of the Church. That Christ would not exclude them from the gifts of the Holy Spirit that grace the members of his Mystical Body.

    • Knowing makes all the difference. If today we learned that our baptisms were questionably valid, would we complain?, justify?, rationalize?, hope? Would we resentfully or joyfully undertake some actions of hardship so as to satisfy or make reparation for error or mistakes we ourselves did not commit?

  2. “The best service we can give to these victims of sacramental invalidity and to the whole Church is not to question the Church’s wisdom about what constitutes a valid sacrament.”

    Perhaps not. The Church is a fair bit wider than one Vatican congregation. Words do indeed matter, but three dangers lie ahead. First, that our Orthodox sisters and brothers may well object to the suggestion their baptisms are invalid. We have received the occasional Orthodox Christian into communion with Rome, with a formula not in keeping with the CDF’s decision.

    Second, the encouragement of spiritual panic, especially in those folk who like to align closely with obedience.

    And lastly, the easy opting out of Catholicism, or some aspect of it, just by hunting down some old video. What if that priest from 2020 went to his bishop and said no to ordination? Is this an easy way out for clergy or married persons who want a change of life without going through the fuss of a tribunal or laicization. How many witnesses are needed to confirm a “we”?

  3. I am genuinely puzzled by this. John the Baptist baptized in Aramaic, presumably. Early baptisms were also, probably, mostly in Aramaic. Then some were surely in Greek. And then, of course, Latin. I do not know, but I presume that the first person singular was usually used. Nonetheless, these are different languages with different words. Can the God that said the sabbath was made for man and dissolved the old rabbinic laws truly be that legalistic? Can the intent of the priest really matter for nothing? If a lay person can baptize in extremis, can a priest saying “We” rather than “I” truly be invalid? I will, of course, accept the Church’s authority on this, but as a lay person I am baffled.

    • A quick reply about the distinction between words and intentions. I could have explained this more clearly in the article, sorry. One of the major points underlying what I wrote is that words *express* intentions. The use of “we” was not an accident. There have been baptismal formulae that do not explicitly express first-person singular agency but also do not speak against first-person singular agency. The problem with “we” is that it *speaks against* first-person singular agency. It is essential that the minister of baptism intends himself to baptize, precisely because in that moment he acts as an icon, instrument, and agent of Christ. By using the pronoun “we”, the minister replaces the meaning and operation intended by Christ with a kind of community welcoming ceremony. These ministers meant to do something good, but they inadvertently forfeited the gift and promise of Christ in exchange for a ceremony of their own design (however subtle the external change may seem to have been).

    • Have you ever heard of priests designated to be “in persona Christi” or “alter Christus”? Is it possible that the word “we” furthers the idea that the priest’s actions (in sacramental administration) are separate or distinct from those of Christ or His Church? If the priest himself does not accept his standing in persona Christi or alter Christus, if he sees himself as distinct, why? Why would a priest choose to define himself (distinct from Christ) in the administration of a sacrament, particularly that one which opens the soul to salvation? Who is the priest standing for if not for Christ? The Church has conferred on the priest through his receipt of Holy Order the and the indelible marking of his soul as ordered to Christy. Any humility the priest may claim should be that of ‘subordinating’ his will and his individual identity to that of Christ and His Church.

    • Also baffled. Dr. Fox writes, ” The use of “we” was not an accident.” Which then appears that the priests in question deliberately changed “we” for “I”. If so, it would help readers to better understand then why they did that. However, I am also baffled as to why the this invalidated the baptism of the receivers. Does sound very legalistic. And yes I understand words have intents although you wouldn’t know that today. Sometimes “legalistic” is a problem. I know a woman who was planning on marrying a man who had been previously married (his wife had died) in a Protestant church. They went to talk to a priest who asked the man if he had children by his first marriage. When he replied in the affirmative, the priest told the man then his children were bastards.

  4. RCIA (now OCIA, talking about work change!) leads to baptism for catechumens, but an act of faith for candidates, who have been deemed to be validly baptized as Protestants. But have they? Since we are finding that Catholics have not been validly baptized due to clergy changing the words, how do we have confidence that Protestant ministers, who are under less authoritative systems, have not on occasion changed the words of baptism?
    Should all candidates be conditionally baptized? Just asking. Given all that we are finding out, it seems like something that should be addressed.

  5. Vatican Council II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 22 (3): “Therefore no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.”
    Canon 846: “In celebrating the sacraments the liturgical books approved by competent authority are to be observed faithfully; accordingly, no one is to add, omit, or alter anything in them on one’s own authority.”

  6. The question no one seems to be asking is – where did this priest get his training?
    Aren’t seminarians taught the proper rubrics and the rationale behind them?
    I blame the seminary for poor teaching practices. And it/they should be chastized for poor formation

  7. “It is worth pointing out again that the offending clerics surely thought they were doing something good when they changed the words of the formula of Baptism.”

    That may well be, but nonetheless the underlying thought is, “I’m going to use *my* words because *I* know better than the Church.”

    Pride and arrogance.

  8. Let us suppose that two persons had been conducting business all their lives according to a partnership agreement drawn up by up decades ago by an attorney. Now someone comes along and reads the partnership agreement and notices that the drafter of the agreement omitted a comma and that omission changes the meaning, e.g. “Let’s eat grandpa.” Are we now to conclude that every transaction conducted by these persons is null and void?

    In the case of the Phoenix priest, are all couples wed by this priest now guilty of adultery for every night they slept together?

    What if we extend this back in time, not just 20 some odd years, but centuries. Suppose archaeologists stumble across the baptismal records of the man who would later become St. Patrick, and there is the same error. Rigid thinking would have us believe that his later reception of subsequent sacraments were invalid because he was not properly baptised, therefore anyone ordained by him was not a real priest, all baptisms, ordinations, etc performed by them were invalid, and so on, down the generations. Wow, with one simple syllogism we could wipe out the Catholic church because there are no “valid” Catholics.

    It was this form of extreme thinking that drove me from the Church in my teens, and is impeding my return in my sixties. I have several images of God, but not one of them is of God as a anal-retentive nit-picker insistent that every ‘i’ be dotted and every ‘t’ be crossed before He will let us through the Gate.

    • Dear Richard,

      I may be, as you seem to imply, an anal-retentive nit picker, but God, as you clearly affirm, is not.

      I think the difficulty you say is holding you back from embracing Catholic faith and life…for the love of God, please don’t wait any longer because of misunderstandings about God’s mercy and providence…is at least partially resolved by the only saying that God binds Himself to the sacraments, but He is not held bound by them.

      In other words what articles like mine are trying to address is the reason we Catholics insist upon the specific structure of the “sacramental economy,” Christ’s saving gifts of seven sacraments. In the sacraments, details matter. Words matter. Actions matter. Matter (such as water, oil, etc.) matters. The identity, inner dispositions, and attitudes of the people involved in sacramental celebrations matter. All of this ensures *in an externally verifiable way* that the Church is faithfully living the life Christ has entrusted to her and sharing the riches of His grace with His people.

      For those who, through no fault of their own, are unable to receive one or more of the sacraments, God can surely find other means by which to save them. But once the impediment to sacramental reception is removed, the sacraments must be sought and received.

      In this case, those who have had no idea that their sacraments were invalid are surely not responsible for this (what the Church calls) “invincible ignorance.” And their desire to receive the sacraments faithfully surely opens them to receiving the spiritual benefits of God’s saving grace.

      Also, no Catholic would argue that spouses who believed themselves to be validly married are guilty of adultery for having what they believed to be proper marital relations. “Full knowledge” is one of the three necessary conditions for mortal sin, along with grave matter and deliberate consent.

      I’m sorry I didn’t explain more clearly in my article what is the situation of those whose baptisms were invalid in these cases. Every article focuses on some things and leaves out others. But I never meant to assert or imply that these poor people were forgotten by God. Quite the contrary.

      God bless you,
      Fr. Charlie Fox

      P.S. Being 100% Irish, and approaching the month of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m afraid I cannot bring myself to entertain your hypothetical about discovering St. Patrick’s baptisms to be invalid. Interestingly, in the context of this discussion, his spiritual autobiography, the Confessio, begins with the word “I” … “I am Patrick, a sinner, the most rustic of men” (“Ego Patricius, peccator, rusticimus”).

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