The latest “Note” from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, titled Gestis verbisque, addresses the issue of using proper form to celebrate the sacraments. It does so within the larger context of a treatise on general principles of sacramentology. “Form” here has the technical meaning in sacramental theology, that is, the essential words required for a valid sacrament (e.g., “This is my body” in the consecration of the Eucharist). This essay will examine the document, situating it within a larger context and providing some comments on it.
The first question is: why now? What occasioned this document? Its opening paragraph suggests a reason: many bishops are being asked to determine whether someone was properly baptized. Since baptism is the entry to all the sacraments, invalid reception of baptism negates the validity of subsequent sacraments (for example, Confirmation). Perhaps the most concerning case came from Detroit in 2020, where a man who thought he was a priest discovered his baptism was invalid.
What do we mean by an “invalid” baptism? Simply put, something that looked like a sacrament but which was not a valid sacrament because it lacked something essential to the sacrament in terms of matter (the material element required for the sacrament, e.g., water for baptism, certain types of bread and wine for the Eucharist) and/or form (the formula required for the sacrament). The form for baptism is “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” while triply immersing the child in or pouring water upon the child’s forehead.
Background and context
This is not rocket science; this should not be a major problem. Why is it?
Frankly, because we once had priests and deacons who decided to improvise when it came to baptism. In the case of Matthew Hood, the man who discovered he wasn’t a priest because he wasn’t baptized, it was because of how a certain deacon adulterated the rite of baptism.
Having had my undergraduate education in the Detroit Archdiocese in the days of John Cardinal Dearden, I can testify that there was a major obsession about “feminist” and “inclusive” language in various quarters of that Archdiocese. Others were obsessed with a “democratic” Church that should not appear too “clerical.” For the deacon involved in this case, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” was too clerical. To overcome that this deacon decided to substitute a formula, saying “We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Now, it is not the community that baptizes. In the ordinary case, it is the priest acting in persona Christi and in nomine Ecclesiae. Even in an emergency when a lay person baptizes someone in danger of death, it is a concrete person who baptizes, not some group. No “us” here.
So, to baptize as this deacon did is invalid, redefining who baptizes and the minister of the sacrament. How did Matt Hood find out about this? Well, he was baptized in the 1980s, by the time videos were filming baptisms and, watching his own baptism, he discovered what happened.
Other sacramental ministers of that era decided that the baptismal rite was “misogynistic” and “patriarchal” and so decided on even more extensive surgery to the Baptismal rite, substituting the formulation “I baptize you in the name of the Creator and the Redeemer and the Sanctifier.”
Now, Jesus revealed His “Father” to us. When His apostles asked Him to teach them how to pray, He said “Our Father” (not “Our Father and Mother”). And just before Jesus ascended into heaven, He commissioned those apostles to “baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19), that is, in the names He revealed of the Persons of the Trinity.
When ministers substitute functions for names, a two-fold error occurs. First, God addresses us by name and revealed His Name to us. When two people marry, they exchange consent as “I, John, take you, Mary ….” They don’t say, “I, the salesman, take you the bakery clerk ….” Second, while we tend to associate the Father with Creation, the Son with Redemption, and the Holy Spirit with Sanctification, it would be false to imagine that these “functions” are specialized niches of particular persons of the Trinity. The whole Trinity created: the Father sees, He sends out His Word, and the Spirit moves upon the waters. The entire Trinity likewise engages in the work of redemption and sanctification.
This ad lib was not just because God is addressed by His revealed name but also because the deacon’s parceling out the “jobs” of the Persons of the Trinity is, bluntly, heretical. This bowdlerizing of the Rite of Baptism proves that a very little knowledge of theology can be a dangerous thing.
Now, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in 2008, declared that baptisms “in the name of the Creator” were invalid. It declared the “we baptize” formula invalid in 2020. Previously, in 2001, the CDF had declared Mormon baptisms invalid. That’s important because baptism is a sacrament that cannot be repeated if it was validly administered. Most Protestants who convert to Catholicism do not require baptism because they were validly baptized in their own communities, as most Protestant denominations baptize with water, more often by immersion than pouring, using the Trinitarian formula (upon which they would insist by Scriptural warrant).
Now, isn’t this much ado about nothing, a question of legalism? Absolutely not, as I have previously explained. Proper form and proper matter are both essential to express what a given sacrament is supposed to do. Somebody pouring water on a baby may be (a) washing baby, (b) breaking a temperature, (c) wrongly trying to hydrate the child, (d) drowning the kid, or (e) baptizing. What is said in conjunction with the act gives it meaning: a child is not baptized if the minister pours water and says “rub-a-dub-dub!” Neither is a child baptized if the minister pours water but replaces the essential declaration of the Church since its origins—that is, being baptized in the name of the Trinitarian Persons. Either the baptism occurs, or it does not. The Church cannot “retroactively” replace what was not there in the first place.
Why this document now?
If Gestis verbisque was promulgated because increasing numbers of bishops are having to grapple with the question of valid baptisms, then what’s not asked is: what were bishops doing in the 1970s and 1980s while these sacramental abuses were occurring? Catholics were writing to their bishops and to Rome, but–let’s be honest–many bishops of the time ignored those warnings and failed to rein in sacramental ministers who thought they were improv artists. Is the DDF being forced to face the extent of these abuses?
As noted, the CDF previously addressed questions of deficient baptismal formulae. Those declarations, however, were typically in classic “dubia” form, i.e., a particular genre of Vatican document.” Dubia usually are framed in the form of a precisely crafted question and answer, e.g., “Is baptism “in the name of the Creator …” valid?” “No.”
The DDF’s Gestis clearly wanted to expand the why behind the issue and, given the centrality of baptism to the entirety of one’s sacramental life, if the Dicastery is experiencing an influx of queries about the validity of baptisms, “Rome, we have a problem.”
Arguably, we do, which is why Gestis finds it necessary to reiterate classical principles of Catholic sacramental theology that have been undisputed for millennia. That particular matter and particular forms are prerequisite to sacraments is clear. You cannot celebrate the Eucharist with rice cakes (another “cultural decolonization” hangup of some 1970s/80s clergy). The form for some sacraments is clearer than others. “This is my body” or baptism in the name of the persons of the Trinity clearly reaches back to the apostolic age. The particular language for expressing consent in marriage has changed in the Church, as long as it preserves the free choice of a permanent union consistent with marriage’s essential characteristics. Gestis reminds us that matter and form are essential to sacramental celebration.
Gestis also raises the question of the minister’s intention. A minister must “intend to do what the Church does.” That does not mean he must necessarily believe everything the Church does. Anybody can validly baptize an infant in danger of death as long as he intends to do what the Church intends in baptism by pouring water and baptizing in the name of the Trinitarian Persons. They simply need to say “I want to do what the Church is doing” and use the matter and form in the proper manner. As previously noted, this is neither rocket science nor requires esoteric theological study.
A minister may be personally unbelieving or morally flawed. The Church has dealt with these cases in her history, e.g., the Donatist controversy in the early Church. As long as a minister simply intends to put himself at the Church’s disposition, using the very minimal matter and form requirements, one has done what he is supposed to do. How he stands before God in his double life is an issue between God and him.
Gestis puts the question into a larger context. The sacraments are God’s gifts, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church (which itself is a sacrament that reveals Christ to us). They are not the minister’s. When celebrating the sacraments, Gestis reminds us of the twofold role of the minister:
- the minister acts in persona Christi—in the person of Christ. It is Christ who baptizes, confirms, forgives, etc. The minister merely puts himself at Christ’s disposal because Christ touches us here and now through the sacraments; and
- the minister act in nomine Ecclesiae, in the name of the Church. The sacraments are not his sacraments. He celebrates them in the name of and on behalf of the Church. And since the sacraments are liturgical acts and it is the role of the bishop to govern the liturgy in his diocese (which is why the dereliction of episcopal duty mentioned above is so consequential), ministers need to recognize they cannot add or subtract from what the Church has appointed and which the People of God have a right to expect. (I italicized the latter because we have tended to emphasize the responsibility of the bishop in matters liturgical while failing to note that episcopal dereliction also abridges the rights of the faithful).
Three further concerns
Gestis therefore addresses an important and potentially serious problem in the contemporary Church and, so, is a welcome restatement of teaching. That said, I would add three additional concerns.
First, one reason the Church is facing these problems is ministers’ misunderstanding or rejection of their role. The minister is there to make Christ present and do what the Church does. That’s everything (which is quite a lot), but that’s it. That it is “Father Paul” or “Deacon Jack” who baptizes means nothing.
Two corollaries flow from this. Sacramental ministers must truly acquire a sense of kenosis, of emptying out; they must take as their norm John the Baptist who, faced with Jesus, is clear: “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). And while individual ministers need to work on the virtue of humility, the Church herself must also ask whether certain aspects of post-Vatican II liturgical reforms are not at least partially responsible for the accentuation of the minister-celebrant as an individual human personality over his role in persona Christi. An honest assessment of post-Conciliar “celebration styles” of the Mass, e.g., versus populum, centrality of celebrants’ seating versus sidelining of tabernacles, would honestly ask whether these practices–intentionally or unintentionally–have turned the minister celebrant into a “personality” rather than in persona Christi.
Second, Gestis dredges up but does not completely address lingering problems in contemporary Catholic sacramental theology. A discussion of matter, form, and ministerial intention is appropriate to this case but, as noted above, the document really says nothing that has not been said for centuries and centuries.
But it hasn’t been said out loud very much for the past half century. I suggest that the average Catholic under the age of sixty is unlikely to have heard the terms “matter” and “form” in relation to the sacraments, even though the terms have pre-Christian roots in the hylomorphism of Aristotelian metaphysics. That is, in part, because no small number of sacramental theologians experiment with approaches to sacramentology that abandon the classic Aristotelian-Thomistic understanding which, when coupled with the metaphysical ignorance of our virtual generation, is a lethal combination. I have every expectation, for example, that the “left” of Catholic American journalism will soon chime in with criticisms of Gestis for even talking in this way. Fr. Thomas Reese’s recent attack on transubstantiation would be representative of this tack.
Two recent works in sacramental theology—José Granados’s Introduction to Sacramental Theology and Romanus Cessario OP’s The Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church—separately identify a specter I fear is lurking in the background of all this, one which Gestis does not address: the problem of sacramental causality. Put bluntly, our language in the past five decades has eroded an understanding that the sacraments cause grace, not just celebrate it. In other words, the works of justification (baptism), reconciliation (penance), and so forth happen in and through the sacrament. The sacraments cause them. The sacraments are not rituals that celebrate something that happens independently of or maybe even prior to them. And it is this separation of awareness in the divine causing of grace (e.g., justification in baptism) from its sacramental rite that in fact allowed people–including bishops–to allow the problem of invalid baptism to acquire the dimensions it did, dimensions the Holy See seems finally to admit.
Third, reading Gestis makes me wonder how it fits with Fiducia supplicans, the recent and very controversial Declaration on “the pastoral meaning of blessings”. Gestis makes clear that the grace-causing activity of the sacraments is joined to their valid celebration, which at least presupposes certain minimal prerequisites in matter and form. It affirms that the minister is acting in persona Christi and in nomine Ecclesiae. There is no question that sacramental actions are inherently and indivisibly liturgical acts.
So, might one be so bold as to ask whether the “non-liturgical blessings” that Fiducia dreams up as a new species of “blessings” is less a “development” of theology than an ad hoc tactic to differentiate what apparently some people want to do: “bless” irregular situations from all the other kinds of blessings that should occur within ecclesial-liturgical contexts wherein the minister speaks in nomine Ecclesia (and presumably in fidelity to her teaching)?
What’s at issue is not the straw man of “blessing-as-moral-query” as much as blessing as ecclesial act necessarily bound up with the service of liturgy as progress in human sanctification. And how do we reconcile the contrast between the damage caused by ad lib ministers tampering with sacramental form with the DDF advising (via press release) that ministers offer their other blessings in short and simple ex tempore form? Is Fiducia less a “development” than an example of wanting one’s cake and eating it, too?
(Editor’s note: This essay was updated on Feb. 5, 2024, to clarify and correct the section about the baptism of Matthew Hood.)
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