Invalid Baptisms?—How Bishop Olmsted Made a Mountain out of a Molehill

On 14 January 2022, Thomas J. Olmsted, Bishop of Phoenix, alerted all the faithful regarding a matter of grave importance.  In his own words:

“It is with sincere pastoral concern that I inform the faithful that baptisms performed by Reverend Arango, a priest of the Diocese of Phoenix, are invalid. This determination was made after careful study by diocesan officials and through consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [abbr: CDF] in Rome.”

Father Arango acknowledged to his bishop that, for the past fifteen years, he had been performing baptisms in four different parishes using the words, “We baptize you in the name of the Father. . . .”  Since the official rites of the Roman Catholic Church indicate that baptism is administered using the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” Bishop Olmsted judged that the use of “we” instead of “I” had the effect of invalidating thousands of baptisms.

Are we really obliged to believe that all of Father Arango’s baptisms were invalid?  Bishop Olmsted says,

“Unfortunately, we have no choice but to repair the mess made by Father Arango.”

The CDF, in an official ruling, agreed with the Bishop, “Without the right words, the Sacrament is invalid.”

Let’s step back for a moment and examine this case more closely:

#1 BIBLICAL CONSIDERATIONS

In the Acts of the Apostles, thousands of baptisms are described.  At no time does the sacred text indicate what words (if any) were used to administer the rite.  Must we then doubt the validity of these baptisms (as the CDF proposes)?  Hardly.  At this historic time, baptism was being administered by immersion in water.  The repeated use of the Greek term, βαπτίζειν (baptizein), means “to immerse in water.” The only requirement for baptism was the conversion of heart.  In a typical case Peter says: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38, 8:16, 10:48, 19:5; 1 Cor 1:13; Gal 3:27).

Matthew alone reads, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (28:19).  Vööbus points out, however, that Eusebius (d. 340) cites the great commission of Matthew more than two dozen times as “teach all nations in my name” (1968:36).  It is quite probable, consequently, that Eusebius’ text of Matthew’s Gospel did not have a trinitarian formula and that this was later edited into copies of Matthew’s Gospel.  All in all, most scholars are in agreement that baptism “in the name of Jesus” was the earliest norm and that this norm gradually shifted toward baptism “in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Did 7:3) in the early second century.

Moreover, theologians generally agree that Matt 28:19 gives us a rubric without in any way implying that these are “the words that must be recited to make the immersion a valid baptism.”  No one in this period imagined that, at every baptism, divine grace does not flow unless “the required words” were said.  The judgment of the CDF, “Without the right words, the Sacrament is invalid,” is thus a ruling that finds no foundation whatsoever within early church practice.   [For more details, click here.]

#2 ECUMENICAL CONSIDERATIONS

In the Eastern Catholic Churches of the Byzantine Rite, immersion or submersion is used, and the formula is:

“The servant of God, [insert name], is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The Eastern Churches acknowledge the validity of Roman Catholic baptisms even though they do not require full immersion or their normative words.  Roman Catholics likewise acknowledges the baptismal traditions of the Eastern Churches.  These accords  recognized that there is essentially only “one baptism” even while there is a “legitimate diversity” in how these baptisms are administered.  Is the CDF aware that insistance upon one form of baptism might effectively undercuts the “mutual recognitions” made with the Eastern Churches?   [Click here for more details.]

#3 LINGUISTIC CONSIDERATIONS

Dr. Vincent Ryan Ruggiero makes this linguistic observation:

The plural form “we” includes the singular “I”; in fact, it is impossible to use “we” in a way that excludes “I.”

If Bishop Olmsted had known this, would he have pounced upon Fr. Arango the way he did?  Did Bishop Olmsted destroy the reputation of Fr. Arango unjustly?  Did he grievously error in making a mountain out of a molehill?  Yes and yes.

Judith Hann assists us here in making a careful study of how Thomas Aquinas regards situations in which the minister uses alternate words.  This study was published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Ecclesiastical Law Society in 2021.  Without going into the details, here are the conclusions that Hann brings to us:

Aquinas . . . does not adhere to a radical literalism with regard to sacramental formulas. Instead he refers to the intention [of the minister] to do what the Church does and to the meaningfulness of the sacramental act for those who participate in it. In doing so, he proves that his understanding of sacramental speech is less that of spells with a magical automatism and more that of communication. Understanding sacramental speech as communication, as acts of conveying sacramental meaning to the community, demands a greater tolerance with regard to wording.  (Source)

What does this say regarding the “radical literalism” being proposed by the CDF?  Two points: (1) The CDF judged the minister using “We beptize you . . .” too harshly.  These words, in and of themselves, do not clearly reveal an intention to deviate from what the Church intends by the rite; and (2) The CDF appeals to Aquinas, but, in so doing, the CDF mistakenly assumes that Aquinas affirms the “radical literalism” that the CDF wants to impose on all ministers of baptism.

#4 ECCLESIA SUPPLET

When I was taking my first course on the Sacraments some sixty years ago, it was pointed out that the “intention” of the minister decides the outcome.  Thus, if in case of an emergency, a young mother baptizes her infant son who has turned blue and has stopped breathing, and she uses the words, “I baptize you in the name of God and of Jesus,” this suffices as a valid baptism.  How so?  Because she intends to do what the Church has done, namely, to baptize her son.  The Church tacitly supplies what is missing.  This principle is called Ecclesia supplet, which in Latin means “the Church supplies.”  If Bishop Olmsted had remembered his first course in Sacraments, might he not have used this principle to dispel any fear that the case of Fr. Arango involved any invalid baptisms.  Bishop Olmsted declares,

“I do not believe Fr. Andres [Arango] had any intentions to harm the faithful or deprive them of the grace of baptism and the sacraments.”

That’s all that is needed.  Ecclesia supplet. All of the baptisms of Fr. Arango are valid.  There is no mess to clean up.  That’s the good news for everyone involved!  But the Bishop is unable to see this.

#5 PASTORAL CONSIDERATIONS

As things now stand, a grave danger is about to erupt.  An overly zealous and marginally incompetent bishop has set the wheels going in the direction of finding those who are the victims of “invalid baptisms” and making arrangements to have them repeat their baptism.  Then they will, in most instances, have to repeat their confirmations and marriages as well.  At this point, only one priest has his reputation ruined.  I would estimate that once Catholics come to understand that they too might be invalidly baptized, then more priests will be called on the carpet.  More reputations will be shattered.  Meanwhile, overworked priests will be required to give time and attention to thousands of Catholics who fear that their baptisms were invalid.  Many more thousands will come forward and ask to be conditionally rebaptized “in order to give themselves peace of mind that their spiritual welfare is secure.”

Meanwhile, Fr. Matthew Hood in the Archdiocese of Detroit has admitted that he discovered, upon seeing a family video of his baptism, that his own baptism was invalid.  So he was rebaptized, reconfirmed, reordained.  Now he is anxious because he is aware of the fact that he administered hundreds of Sacraments without recognizing that most of them were “invalid” because he himself was “invalidly” ordained to begin with.  Yipes!  So here is another overly zealous and marginally incompetent priest who is spreading uncertainty and fear.  How many more will come after him?  [Click here for further details and discussion regarding Fr. Hood.]

Parce Domine!  [Spare us, O Lord!]  Someone in authority needs to come forward soon and expose the false judgment of the CDF and the incompetent pastoral solution championed by Bishop Olmsted.  The faithful need to be reeducated as to why ALL THEIR BAPTISMS WERE VALID ALL ALONG.  Fr. Arango can then be reinstated.  He can undertake the new task of wiping away the tears of all those Catholics who were horrified by the false alarm and the sleepless nights.  The mountain can finally be seen again as just a molehill.

Peace and joy in the Love of our Lord,

Aaron Milavec

PS: Further analysis of wooden repetition and the theology of baptism.

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8 thoughts on “Invalid Baptisms?—How Bishop Olmsted Made a Mountain out of a Molehill”

  1. This is an atrocity, this is a jealous outburst by the bishop minions. Father Andres has done so much for the hispanic community and for the young adults. He took over a deteriorated church and made it blossom, he has reignited the faith in so many people something the joke of bishop we currently have has not been able to accomplish. He has been a key pillar in the charismatic renovation and youth retreats. Andres’ good name is now tarnished and the Catholic church looks like a joke for doing this.
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    Thank you, Edgar, for telling us more about the quality of Fr. Andres’ ministry. I was unaware of this. ~~Aaron

  2. Where was this energy when my family was sexually abused by a Catholic Priest? There was no resigning, it was swept under the rug. Shame on you Thomas J Olmstead – you prey on the Hispanic community and pick and choose what you deem is too much. You are having a priest resign over GRAMMAR , yet allow known child molesters to get off scotch free. Where was this when my family asked you to annul the countless marriages that were done based on fear and manipulation by the priest who molested them, where was this energy when we asked you countless times to hold him accountable as well as the numerous priests that helped him? This is why the Catholic Church is losing followers not because of belief but because of your cowardly leadership and inability to hold priests accountable on the things that matter

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    I hear your anger and disappointment, Cecilia. In this instance, a good priest has been sacked due to his GRAMMAR while Bishop Olmsted has overlooked the enormous crimes of molesting priests. ~~Aaron

  3. A priest [namely, Fr. Andres Arango] who saved a parish that was failing due to real mistakes made by the priest before him and this is how you repay his efforts? A true beacon of hope for those in the community to reignite their faith and relationship not only with God but with the Catholic Church and this is how he’s treated? I wish the church acted with the same sense of urgency in real pressing matters like molestation amongst its leaders and other priests. The simple idea that a man who is an example to those around him on what it means to serve God is being bullied out of what he helped build is mind blowing. I stand by Father Andres and would prefer his blessing over bishop [Olmstead] what’s his name.

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    I appreciate the way you are standing up for Fr. Andres Arango. It appears that you know him personally. Is that the case? ~~Aaron

  4. THIS is the reason so many people, especially young people, are leaving the church. Of all the issues in the world, the amount of people that need our kindness and help, you [Bishop Olmstead?] spend your time attacking a beloved priest [Fr. Arango] who gives his life to his community. If you don’t think your “god” is above human error, you need to rethink your religion. All this has done is further make a laughing-stock of the Catholic Church.

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    I agree with you, Natalie. This is a huge waste of time and resources. Fr. Arango’s reputation has been shattered needlessly. ~~Aaron

  5. This situation is just a big mess made by Father Hood for attention. I find it hard to believe that anyone that has that strong of faith really believes that a word switch can determine whether they are Baptized or not. If so, let me reassure you that your baptism is valid. If the pastor would have said something like “This Baptism isn’t Valid” or” No Baptism Today” I’d be concerned, but that was not the case. When you were baptized “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” it became valid, as the intent of the pastor was to baptize you and I’m sure Father Arango said very lovely words about you during the ceremony.

    Now as I bring up intent, I want to question Father Hood’s intent here. Is it really to bring to light the “wrong” being done? Because I don’t see how this has benefited anyone but Father Hood himself. As people now have to take the time to redo their baptism so it can be considered valid under the Catholics church, this guy is being praised on the comments for speaking his “truth”. While the reputation of an established and beloved pastor is tarnished by a switch of words, this guy is just getting more attention and is being praised by his community. This makes the Catholic Church look horrible. So again, who really benefits from all this?

  6. While these reasons form great fodder for theological discussion, and I appreciate your outlining them clearly, I feel it important to make a clarification to these “on fire” posts. Bishop Olmsted (please spell his name correctly) has made it a point to offer to visit every victim of sexual abuse in this diocese, and has done so more than once with many who have wished to. Every year he invites victims to a Mass for healing, healing for them and their families as well as healing for our sinful Church. He has alerted civil criminal authorities to investigate allegations of sexual abuse and has immediately taken action upon their findings.
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    Thank you, Deacon Joseph, for drawing attention to Bishop Olmsted’s exemplary pastoral care of sexual abuse victims. This demonstrates his sensitivity to those who have suffered due to the exploitation of priests. I would now hope that his pastoral sensitivity would turn toward those who have suffered needlessly due to his policy of repeating all the baptisms of Father Arango. Being a humble man who seeks the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I would now hope that Bishop Olmsted would exercise due diligence and to explore to what degree he has made a grave error when it comes to judging the validity of Fr. Arango’s baptisms. See, for example, the thoughts of Father Thomas Reese, S.J., on this matter. I would hope that he would “immediately take action” to undo the chaos his misjudgments have caused. He might even have a Mass for healing yet another set of victims and their families. Maybe then it might even be appropriate for you to contact me and to thank me for having had the courage and the theological training to alert Bishop Olmsted and his victims of another clerical misadventure and exploitation by priests that tarnishes the good name of our Catholic Church.

    Peace and joy in the Love of our Lord,
    Aaron

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