Do Converts Have to be Rebaptized?

Q: My coworker is in an RCIA program, and is going to become a Catholic at Easter. She was raised Presbyterian. She told me that she doesn’t need to be baptized in the Catholic Church, because she already was baptized in her church. That doesn’t sound right to me, because when my own father became a Catholic years ago, he had to be rebaptized, even though he had been baptized as a child in the Episcopal church. Is the RCIA instructor right about this?  –Dave

A: Canon 845.1 couldn’t be clearer: the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and holy orders cannot be repeated. This is because by their very nature, they imprint a character on the recipient, which after its conferral can never be taken away. There is an amusing-yet-sad story told about the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate (331-363 A.D.), who had been baptized a Christian but later renounced his faith, reinstituted the worship of the pagan Roman gods and goddesses, and persecuted the Christians who resisted.  Having been told that baptism imprinted a special mark upon his soul, Julian sat in the bath and tried vainly to scrub that mark off of himself, in an attempt to undo his Christian baptism. But the fact is that it simply cannot be done.

That’s also why canon 864 notes that every unbaptized person, and only an unbaptized person, can be baptized. If a person has already been baptized, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to try to do it again, because it cannot be done again. (This is why the term “rebaptize” is canonically meaningless.)

So what would happen if, say, a priest were to go through the entire baptismal ceremony and perform what he believed to be a valid baptism, on a person who had in fact been baptized before? The answer is simple: nothing. If the priest and family truly didn’t know that the person had been baptized before—let’s say a nurse in the hospital where he was born had baptized him because it seemed that he might die, and had never told the family what she had done—they would of course be acting in entirely good faith. But the ceremony would have no spiritual effect at all. The conferral of the sacrament would be invalid, a concept that was discussed at length back in “Marriage and Annulment.”

Things get murkier, however, when a person wants to become a Catholic, and there is some uncertainty about whether he was already baptized before or not. This situation is perhaps more common than many would think! Let’s say that we have a person who was told years ago by family members that he had been baptized as an infant, but a baptismal certificate is nowhere to be found. It may be that he was baptized by a family member in an emergency—canon 861.2 notes that in cases of necessity, any person with the correct intention may baptize—and thus there is no record of the baptism in any church registry. Perhaps his parents had left the faith, and his grandmother had secretly baptized him in private. Or it may be that the family members are not getting the story straight, in which case he is in fact not baptized at all! What is a pastor to do in such a situation?

Canon 869.1 has the answer. If there is a doubt as to whether a person has been baptized or not, and the doubt cannot be resolved even after investigating the matter, the person is to be baptized conditionally. This means that baptism is to be administered, with the acknowledgement that if the person has already been baptized, it will have no effect. In such cases the Church is erring on the side of caution. Better to perform a second, unnecessary and ineffectual baptismal ceremony, than to fail to baptize the person at all!

This is why, incidentally, an abandoned infant is to be baptized, unless for some reason it is clear that he has been baptized already (c. 870). If perchance he has been baptized before, the second ceremony will not change a thing; but if he has not been baptized, it of course will have full effect.

But what do we do with someone from a non-Catholic Christian faith who wants to become a Catholic?  Normally he can provide a baptismal certificate from his own church—but is it enough?

As a general rule, it is. The Catholic Church has long taught that the one baptizing needn’t profess the Catholic faith in order to baptize validly.  It is enough that he (or she) intends to do what Christ commanded—namely, to free the person from original sin and incorporate him into the Church—and uses a valid form for the administration of the sacrament. In fact, the baptizer doesn’t even need to be a Christian. Imagine, for example, a woman giving birth in a hospital to a sick baby who is in danger of death. If she were to request a Jewish nurse to baptize the baby, that nurse would validly do so, so long as she used the correct formula and intended to do what the Church requires (even if she weren’t too sure exactly what that was!).

For this reason, the Church acknowledges that baptisms performed by Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, and the bulk of the other mainstream protestants are valid. It is true that there are some religious communities, like the Mormons (discussed in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic”), whose baptism the Catholic Church does not accept as valid, because it has determined that for theological reasons there is a significant defect in the intention of the minister. We have also seen, in “Inclusive Language and Baptismal Validity,” that if a non-Catholic religious community is using a theologically defective formula during the baptismal ceremony, the Catholic Church rejects it as invalid. But otherwise, unless there is some specific reason to question the validity of the baptism in a particular case, the Catholic Church regards most protestant baptisms as valid.

Consequently, when a protestant wishes to become a Catholic, the pastor who will receive the person into the Church looks into the circumstances of that person’s baptism, and decides whether there are any grounds to doubt its validity. If not, canon 869.2 states clearly that the person is not to be baptized again.

This is no doubt why Dave’s Presbyterian coworker will be received into the Catholic Church on Holy Saturday without being baptized by the Catholic pastor. It sounds like everything is being handled completely in accord with the law.

What about Dave’s father, the former Episcopalian who eventually became a Catholic and was baptized again by a Catholic priest? We have no way of knowing what the circumstances were, or when or where this all took place. It is true that, in days long gone, it was a common practice to baptize conditionally all those protestants who wished to enter the Catholic Church, just to be on the safe side. It may be that the pastor was playing it safe; or it may be that for some particular reason, he had cause to question the validity of the baptism. In any case, conditionally baptizing anybody and everybody who wants to become a Catholic is definitely not the correct practice nowadays.

Thus we can see that there is no inconsistency between the reception into the Catholic Church of Dave’s Episcopalian father and his Presbyterian coworker. If the Church considers it necessary to baptize a non-Catholic Christian conditionally, it will do so. But otherwise, one baptismal ceremony, whether Catholic or not, is quite enough.

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