Inclusive Language and Baptismal Validity

Q: I’ve heard that some Episcopalians who became Catholics had to be re-baptized, because at the Episcopalian baptism the minister said something like “in the name of the Creator, and the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit,” rather than directly naming the Father and the Son. I understand that the Church doesn’t like inclusive language, but why couldn’t it just accept these non-Catholic baptisms without making them get baptized all over again when they converted? The minister obviously was referring to the Three Persons of the Trinity when he did the baptism. He just used different names for them.  –John

A: Baptism, which the Church teaches is necessary for salvation, is frequently referred to as the “gateway to the sacraments,” because only a baptized person can validly receive any of the other six sacraments (CCC 1213; c. 849). Because of its pivotal importance, it is the one sacrament that is easiest to administer validly.

In fact, baptism is the only sacrament that can be conferred validly not only by a layman, but even by a non-Christian!  Canon 861, which notes that the ordinary minister of the sacrament of baptism is a bishop, priest or deacon, adds that in case of necessity, any person who has the right intention may baptize. To cite a common example, doctors and nurses—whether Catholic or not—have been known to baptize many, many infants and adults in emergency medical situations.

And the Church recognizes the validity of these emergency baptisms, performed without any of the external church rituals normally present at a Catholic baptism. For canon 850 states that in case of urgent necessity, only those elements which are required for the validity of the sacrament of baptism must be observed, and the other parts of the regular liturgical rite are not needed.

And what exactly are the required elements? The Catechism explains that “the essential rite of the sacrament” involves a triple pouring of (or immersion in) water as the minister pronounces the words, “N., I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1239-1240). This verbal formulation was given to the Church by Christ Himself, when he told the apostles to “go forth and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). In sacramental theology, this is surely one of the clearest examples of a divine law that one can find! Theologians have held for centuries that the Church should do exactly what Christ taught us—check out St. Thomas Aquinas’ nearly 800-year-old explanation in his Summa Theologica (Tertia Pars, Q. 66, Art. 5).

Note that the Church recognizes the validity of baptisms performed in non-Catholic Christian ceremonies, provided that they include the use of water and this Trinitarian formula. If a non-Catholic wishes to become a Catholic, and provides evidence that he was baptized in a church belonging to one of the major protestant denominations, the Catholic Church routinely presumes that the baptism was valid unless there is some reason to question it (c. 869.1). Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, and many others have essentially the same baptismal rituals that we do. Canon 869.2 asserts that non-Catholics are not to be baptized again conditionally unless for some reason a red flag is raised and the validity of the original baptism is called into question. Some of the less well known denominations, such as some Unitarians or branches of the Pentecostals, have ceremonies that may look very much like a baptism but which fail to use the Trinitarian formulation. When the pastor finds that a prospective convert to Catholicism has been “baptized” in such a ceremony, the baptism must be performed again, this time using the correct wording.

With the growth of the feminist movement over the last few decades, there has been discussion of whether using the terms “Father” and “Son” for the First and Second Persons of the Trinity is an inappropriate and maybe even offensive use of masculine terms. Some Christians have argued that the Trinity has no gender, and thus these words should not be applied. And consequently they have in some cases tried to use their so-called “inclusive language” in the rite of baptism, using words like those quoted by John in his question above.

Individual Catholic bishops and priests have objected to any use of a non-Trinitarian formula, arguing that any baptism performed without specific mention of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was not valid. People who had been baptized in this way were frequently told that they must be re-baptized using the correct wording. But in the absence of any sort of official ruling from Rome, others, including some Catholics, continued to insist that using a formula that avoided “sexist” language could be permitted.

In order to resolve this issue, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith just a few months ago issued a response to this very question. Without providing any extensive explanations, it stated simply that baptisms performed “in the name of the Creator, and of the Redeemer, and of the Sanctifier,” or “in the name of the Creator, and of the Liberator, and of the Sustainer” are not valid. Persons baptized using either of these formulations must therefore be baptized again, using the proper form of the words. It seems safe to presume that if these two genderless formulations are invalid, other similar wordings would be too.

We can see here that this insistence by Rome on the use of the traditional baptismal wording stems not from a desire to offend women, still less to discourage non-Catholic Christians from being received into the Catholic Church! Rather, the Church is following the directive of Christ Himself, Who told us nearly 2000 years ago exactly what to say. Obedience to Our Lord will always take precedence in the Church to political correctness. Here the Church is not so much doing what it wants to do; it is doing what it must.

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