Does a valid baptism require wooden conformity?

Note: My response to the validity of baptism when the words used are “We baptize you. . . .” has two parts:

(1) The short and simple answer and

(2) the longer and more complex answer (here below):

In June 2020, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith  [abbr:CDF] published a Responsum to a question posed regarding the validity of baptism when the priest says, “We baptize. . . ,” instead of “I  baptize. . . .”  In the judgment of the CDF, the use of “We baptize” gives rise to a false notion of baptism.  Here are the words of the CDF:

In the specific case of the Sacrament of Baptism, not only does the minister not have the authority to modify the sacramental formula to his own liking, for the reasons of a christological and ecclesiological nature already articulated, but neither can he even declare that he is acting on behalf of the parents, godparents, relatives or friends, nor in the name of the assembly gathered for the celebration, because he acts insofar as he is the sign-presence of the same Christ that is enacted in the ritual gesture of the Church. When the minister says “I baptize you…” he does not speak as a functionary who carries out a role entrusted to him, but he enacts ministerially the sign-presence of Christ, who acts in his Body to give his grace. . . . (Source)

So the complaint of the CDF has two parts: (1) the minister does not have the right to change the words used and (2) the affirmation, “I baptize you. . . ,” affirms that, in every case, Christ is the one baptizing.

Relative to the second complaint, the CDF appeals to Augustine when he says:

Although many ministers, be they righteous or unrighteous, should baptize, the virtue of Baptism would be attributed to Him alone on whom the dove descended, and of whom it was said: ‘It is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’ (Jn 1:33)”. Therefore, Augustine comments: “Peter may baptize, but this is He that baptizes; Paul may baptize, yet this is He that baptizes; Judas may baptize, still this is He that baptizes»[13].  (Source)

Why the “I” cannot be Jesus

What the CDF affirms here is that, while there are many ministers of the Sacrament of Baptism, in every instance, it is Jesus Christ who imparts efficacy to the Vatican approved rites.  Hence, when a priest says, “I baptize you. . . ,” in reality the “I” is Jesus Christ who is baptizing.

This explanation is defective for various reasons:

  1. This explanation does not correctly interpret the meaning of the baptismal formula. The priest affirms, “I baptize you . . . in the name of the Son” who is Jesus Christ.  If the “I” was Jesus, then one has a confusing circularity for Jesus would effectively be saying, “I [Jesus Christ] baptize you . . . in the name of Jesus Christ.”  If Jesus is the “I,” then it is redundant for him say that “I am acting in the name of Jesus Christ.”  Thus, it must be the case that the “I” is someone else.  Here, in this rite of baptism, the baptismal formula is placed on the lips of the minister who acts “in the name of Jesus Christ.”  The fears of the CDF that the presence of Jesus would go unnoticed or that the efficacy of the rite would be due to other forces is this counteracted by the open acknowledgment that the priest acts “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Thus, the words of the priest make present the Creator and the Sanctifier, in addition to Jesus, our Redeemer.
  2. The inherent theology of the baptismal formula can be more easily understood by reflecting on the meaning of undertaking some activity “in the name of Jesus Christ.” This Hebraic expression of acting “in the name of x” has to do with the way that a disciple or a servant is authorized to act due to the training or mandate received from his trainer/master.  According to the Christian Scriptures, for example, the Twelve heralded the kingdom of God and apprenticed disciples “in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18, 5:28, 9:27, 9:29).  At other times, they are presented as baptizing (Mt 28:19; Acts 2:38, 8:16, 10:48, 19:5, 22:16), healing (Acts 3:6, 3:16, 4:7), and exorcising demons (Acts 19:13‑16) in this same name.  Contrary to a widespread misunderstanding, “there is in the New Testament no belief in the magically [or even supernaturally] potent names; in fact, there are no mysteriously dreadful words or names at all” (TDNT, p. 278).
  3. After every baptism, no one imagines that the minister of the rite would personally bring the one who was baptized to love Jesus. Nor will he be the only one who will, over a period of time, make use of the Gospels to train his new “disciple” in right thinking and right living.  Parents and grandparents will do these things.  God-parents will do these things. Teachers and role models (saints) within the church community will do these things.  Hence, one way to acknowledge this providential situation would be to say “we baptize you . . . .”  Indeed, “it takes an entire village [/congregation] to train a child.”
  4. The CDF leaves the impression that “retaining the official words” is absolutely necessary. The CDF enforces the notion, citing Vatican II, to the effect that no one, “even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority”[8].  Going even further, the CDF emphasizes that any change in the official words is not simple a “liturgical abuse,” it is, moreover, “a vulnus inflicted upon the ecclesial communion and the identifiability of Christ’s action.”  Vulnus is the Latin word that refers to “an ugly wound inflicted on someone’s body” or “an offense capable of destabilizing a principle or norm.”  Thus, the CDF takes the position that any liturgical change is a vulnus.  I take this as an emotionally charged attack on any and all liturgical innovators.

    In my 25 years of teaching in three different seminaries, I have known instances wherein candidates to the priesthood were taught that any inadvertent errors or deliberate changes in the rites results in committing a “sacrilege.”  As a result, many newly ordained priests were literally traumatized.  I myself witnessed a priest literally shaking when celebrating his first Mass. What should have been a joyous affair with his family and friends in attendance became a personal trial dominated by fear.  The CDF has unfortunately tried to revive an atmosphere wherein both priests and the faithful are prompted to question the validity of their infant baptism based upon a liturgical terrorism—Did the minister use the exact words?

  5. What the CDF fails to tell us is that there are two kinds of innovations: one that destroys and one that builds up. The CDF classifies all changes to the words as destructive.  The use of “we” instead of “I,” as understood by the CDF, has the effect of denying the centrality of Christ who is the unseen administrator of every baptism (as explained above).  But let’s see why the CDF does not want us to see, namely, liturgical innovations that “build up.”  Here is one such formula found in the official rites regarding the Sacraments of Initiation:

Celebrants should make full and intelligent use of the freedom given to them either in Christian Initiation, General Introduction (no.34) or in the rubrics of the rite itself. In many places the manner of acting or praying is intentionally left undetermined or two alternatives are oered, so that ministers, according to their prudent pastoral judgment, may accommodate the rite to the circumstances of the candidates and others who are present.  In all the rites the greatest freedom is left in the invitations and instructions, and the intercessions may always be shortened, changed, or even expanded with new intentions, in order to fit the circumstances or special situation of the candidates (for example, a sad or joyful event occurring in a family) or of the others present (for example, sorrow or joy common to the parish or civic community). The minister will also adapt the texts by changing the gender and number as required.


No tradition for the wooden recitation of memorized prayers

One finds no tradition for a wooden recitation of memorizing prayers within ancient Judaism (other than the Shema of Dt 6:4f), it would have been a remarkable “departure from tradition” had Jesus imposed upon his disciples a prayer of fixed words (“recite after me”).  The Lord’s Prayer, as a result, was seen to be a schematic summary or abstract that invited spontaneous expansion and adaptation to present circumstances on the part of the one chosen to pray on behalf of the assembled group. The thematic summary that has been understood as the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s Gospel is not what one finds in the Gospel of Luke or in the Didache.  If the early churches had a wooden repetition norm in praying, one can be sure that there would be only one formula (instead of three).  Needless to say, there was no movement within the early churches to suppress this “legitimate diversity” in the Lord’s Prayer. This is probably due to the fact that Jesus himself never prayed “the Lord’s Prayer” in exactly the same way on any two occasions.

This same line of reasoning applies to the eucharistic prayers.  Here, as in the Lord’s Prayer, the plural form (“we” and “our”) indicates that one is dealing with a prayer normally used in a group setting.  The one chosen to lead the prayer would be expected to know the thematic summary and to expand and adapt it to fit the special moods and concerns of the group assembled.  In the case of delayed rains, for instance, the Mishnah goes so far as to suggest that the prayer leader chosen to lead the morning prayers on the day when the fast begins ought to be “an experienced elder who has children and whose cupboard is empty so that his heart should be wholly in the prayer” (m. Taanit 2:2).  The choice of an “experienced elder” with hungry children surrounding him at home was clearly done with the expectation that his personal engagement combined with his mastery of the prayer form would allow him to weave together the standard themes with a heart-felt expansion that moved those present.

Prayer leaders in ancient Judaism or in the early church were not expected to memorize and recite fixed prayer formulas.  Justin Martyr (C.E. 150), for example, spoke of “the presider” at the eucharist as giving thanks “at considerable length” and “according to his ability” (First Apology 65, 67).  He surely was not thinking of a rote recitation of Did. 9-10 which would take less than two minutes.  The Apostolic Tradition (C.E. 220), in its turn, presented an elaborate set of eucharistic prayers for use by the presiding bishop on various occasions.  Following this set of prayers, however, this telling rubric was offered:

It is not at all necessary for him [the bishop] to utter the same words as we said [note oral emphasis] above, as though reciting them from memory, when giving thanks to God; but let each [bishop] pray according to his ability.  If indeed anyone has the ability to pray at length and with a solemn prayer, it is good.  But if anyone, when he prays, utters a brief prayer, do not prevent him (9).

Here again, the prayer of the celebrant was characterized as being “at length” and “solemn”–terms that could not apply to a “canned” prayer where the length and mood were fixed in advance.  The rubric, “Let each pray according to his ability,” undoubtedly prevailed in the Didache community as well.  The prophets, more especially, were prized for their ability to improvise dynamic prayers that nourished and healed the hearts of those who heard them.  Concerning this, the Didache says: “Let the prophets eucharistize as much as they wish” (Did. 10:7).  This free-flowing style of spontaneous prayer that characterized the prophets was cherished and seen as a necessary compliment to the more stylized expansion of the eucharistic prayers offered by the celebrant (Did. 9-10).

All in all, one does not find a movement to standardize public prayers prior to the mid-third century (Hanson:173-176).  Beyond this, the push to regiment prayer leaders and to require that they “read” standard prayers from a printed text only came about after the invention of the printing press.  Presumably this penchant for “reading the approved text” came about as a backlash of the Protestant Reformation where Latin prayers were simplified and translated into the common language of the people.  The Council of Trent vigorously suppressed all of the variations that had entered into the Mass especially among the religious orders of men.

For 25 years I taught in three Catholic seminaries.  During this time, I lamented the fact that future priests were “solemnly warned” never to deviate from the approved “printed” prayers under any circumstances.  This was at a time when the Catholic Charismatic Movement was in full swing. I witnessed seminarians (imbued with the Spirit) offering inspiring and forceful (free-style) prayers.  But then, in their liturgical preparation, the Spirit was shackled and they were taught NEVER to deviate from the approved text.  To this day, I consider this as the “sin against the Holy Spirit” that has served to kill the prophetic aspect of liturgical celebrations.

Where do we go from here?

The CDF is not playing with a full deck of cards.  They have presented us with bogus reasons to support the notion that Jesus formulated the words required for a valid baptism in Matt 28:19.  They have failed to notice that early baptisms were done “in the name of Jesus” and only after two generations did the trinitarian formula take its place.  They have presumed that the standard formula was used generation after generation down to the present day.  They have failed to notice that even the Didache does not have the standard formula.  In truth, the so called “standard formula” did not emerge until the late middle ages.  But they don’t want us to know this.  They want us to believe that the only way to keep the sacredness of the rite is to use the standard formula.  They give no credit that Jesus did not use standard formulas for his prayers.  Every time he prayed to the Father, he improvised using the template [= what we now call the “Our Father”].

But the CDF does not want us to notice this.  They want to imagine that God wants to commit himself to those who follow wooden memorized prayers.  Having the right words is the sole way to guarantee validity.  So they want to discredit every deviation and to breed fear in the faithful whenever their ministers deviate from the standard formula.  They are wrong in this.  They have divinized the words and acted as though the divine magic does not work unless the right words are pronounced in just the right way. They want to freeze the official words and to insure that there are no more deviations because all change is, for them, a vulnus.  They cannot allow that the rite of baptism was changing from the very beginning even during the New Testament period. In the centuries that followed the rite and the theology of the rite continued to change in order to continue to be used to address the needs of the faithful.  As Cardinal John Henry Newman said, “To live is to change; to grow perfect is to have changed often.”  He applied this to the Sacrament of Baptism and he applied this to the Church.

But the CDF wants us to distrust all innovators at all times and all places.  This is a false ideal that subverts true religion.  Jesus was a pioneer and a prophet.  He was never content with wooden conformity.  His disciples also followed this principle.  Only the CDF wants to take charge and freeze-dry the entire process.  They want to sow fear in the hearts of Catholics such that they run away from innovating priests.  Parce domine!  [Latin: “Spare us O Lord.”]

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2 thoughts on “Does a valid baptism require wooden conformity?”

  1. This comes from an article published in the Jesuit magazine, America:

    The Easter Vigil has traditionally been the time when the unbaptized become baptized, are confirmed and receive Communion for the first time and thus become Catholic Christians.

    To receive already baptized Christians into the church at the vigil may be well-intentioned and likely comes from a desire for inclusion and a welcoming spirit. But liturgically speaking, it sends the opposite message and is akin to suggesting that the candidates were not actually Christians before being received into the church, despite the clear teaching of the church. There is a danger of triumphalism by receiving baptized Christians at the Vigil, and that triumphalism has detrimental ecumenical implications. It is also a triumphalism that we do not want to inculcate in those being received into the church.

    In 1986, the U.S. bishops approved and adopted the National Statutes for the Catechumenate, which provide guidelines for the catechumenate and included regulations for the reception of baptized Christians from other communities into the Catholic Church. Statutes 30 through 37 focus particularly on these, and the directives regarding reception of baptized Christians are clear and unambiguous. It is also clear that they are largely ignored.

    Statute 30 declares that “[t]hose who have already been baptized in another Church or ecclesial community should not be treated as catechumens or so designated,” and then emphasizes that the degree to which they need to participate in catechesis prior to reception into the church needs to be determined on an individual level. There are some seeking reception who possess understanding of Catholic theology and spirituality and who therefore do not require a long period of catechesis and preparation.

    Statute 31 unpacks this further by declaring that “baptized persons who have lived as Christians and need only instruction in the Catholic tradition and a degree of probation within the Catholic community should not be asked to undergo a full program parallel to the catechumenate.” The R.C.I.A. is not a single event but a collection of rites, and Statute 31 makes clear that baptized Christians are not to take part in those rites intended for unbaptized participants in the catechumenate (like the Rite of Election and the Scrutiny rites, among others).

  2. In 2001, the CDF reversed its earlier approval of Mormon (Church of Latter-Day Saints) baptisms. This is puzzling because the Mormons use a formula for baptism that is remarkable like that used by Catholics. The CDF explains:

    I. The Matter. On this point there is no problem. Water is used. The Mormons practice Baptism by immersion (cf. Doctrine and Covenants [D&C] 20:74), which is one of the ways of celebrating Baptism (application of the matter) which is accepted by the Catholic Church.

    II. The Form. We have seen that in the texts of the Magisterium on Baptism there is a reference to the invocation of the Trinity (to the sources already mentioned, the Fourth Lateran Council could be added here [DH 8021). The formula used by the Mormons might seem at first sight to be a Trinitarian formula. The text states: “Being commissioned by Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (cf. D&C 20:73). The similarities with the formula used by the Catholic Church are at first sight obvious, but in reality they are only apparent. There is not in fact a fundamental doctrinal agreement. There is not a true invocation of the Trinity because the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, according to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are not the three persons in which subsists the one Godhead, but three gods who form one divinity. One is different from the other, even though they exist in perfect harmony (Joseph F. Smith, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith [TPJSI, Salt Lake City: Desert Book, 1976, p. 372). The very word divinity has only a functional, not a substantial content, because the divinity originates when the three gods decided to unite and form the divinity to bring about human salvation (Encyclopaedia of Mormonism [EM], New York: Macmillan, 1992, cf. Vol. 2, p. 552). This divinity and man share the same nature and they are substantially equal. God the Father is an exalted man, native of another planet, who has acquired his divine status through a death similar to that of human beings, the necessary way to divinization (cf. TPJS, pp. 345-346). God the Father has relatives and this is explained by the doctrine of infinite regression of the gods who initially were mortal (cf. TPJS, p. 373). God the Father has a wife, the Heavenly Mother, with whom he shares the responsibility of creation. They procreate sons in the spiritual world. Their firstborn is Jesus Christ, equal to all men, who has acquired his divinity in a pre-mortal existence. Even the Holy Spirit is the son of heavenly parents. The Son and the Holy Spirit were procreated after the beginning of the creation of the world known to us (cf. EM, Vol. 2, p. 961). Four gods are directly responsible for the universe, three of whom have established a covenant and thus form the divinity.

    As is easily seen, to the similarity of titles there does not correspond in any way a doctrinal content which can lead to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The words Father, Son and Holy Spirit, have for the Mormons a meaning totally different from the Christian meaning. The differences are so great that one cannot even consider that this doctrine is a heresy which emerged out of a false understanding of the Christian doctrine. The teaching of the Mormons has a completely different matrix. We do not find ourselves, therefore, before the case of the validity of Baptism administered by heretics, affirmed already from the first Christian centuries, nor of Baptism conferred in non-Catholic ecclesial communities, as noted in Canon 869 §2. . . .

    It is equally necessary to underline that the decision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is a response to a particular question regarding the Baptism of Mormons and obviously does not indicate a judgment on those who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Furthermore, Catholics and Mormons often find themselves working together on a range of problems regarding the common good of the entire human race. It can be hoped therefore that through further studies, dialogue and good will, there can be progress in reciprocal understanding and mutual respect.

    I appreciate the pastoral sensitivity found in the final paragraph. My hope would have been that the CDF would have submitted its analysis to a handful of Mormon theologians by way of assuring themselves that they had presented the “faith” of Mormons correctly.

    As the CDF notes, the Mormons use a matter and form that appear, on first reading, to be entirely Orthodox. Only upon digging more deeply, did the divergences appear. Yet, is it not possible that reading their EM may be misleading “for an outsider”?

    Peace and joy,

    PS: For an excellent and insightful pastoral guide, see Katie Langston, “When, Why, and How to Baptize Mormons.”

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