Why is This Method of Baptizing Illicit?

Q: I have recently discovered that my Presbyterian baptism was invalid (improper matter—baptizing with no flowing water).  No investigation was done at the time of my conversion [to Catholicism], only a request for a baptismal certificate and so it was accepted by the Church at the time.

The method used was as follows: the Presbyterian minister dipped his fingertips into a bowl of water (so they were moistened but not dripping), then patted me on the top of the head 3 times.  Any water present on his fingers would only have touched my hair. I remember it clearly, as I was 12 years old.  I was also able to contact him to verify.  Several priests I have spoken with indicated that this would not suffice for proper matter.

Since I was not validly baptized, am I correct that all my other sacraments were invalid as well (therefore, my confirmation & marriage would need to be repeated to be valid & I should also not attempt to receive absolution or Holy Communion until I am validly baptized)?  My husband is a cradle Catholic, if that affects your response. –Irma

A:  Even the most cursory reading of this question should lead one to conclude that canonically, there’s an awful lot going on here.  But if we take a closer look, we’ll find that there’s even more to this situation—and it doesn’t add up.  Let’s first examine all the fallout that would occur if Irma’s baptism weren’t valid, as she describes it in her final paragraph; and then we’ll focus on the validity (or not) of her baptism.

First of all, if Irma’s baptism as a Presbyterian was not valid, and she wanted to become a Catholic, it’s true that it would be necessary to baptize her correctly.  As was discussed in “Do Converts Have to be Rebaptized?” the Catholic Church recognizes, as a general rule, the validity of baptisms performed by the mainline protestant denominations, including Presbyterians—and that baptisms administered by clergy of the Orthodox Churches are of course valid as well.  Consequently, when such baptized Christians later want to become Catholics, they are received into the Church after a period of catechetical instruction and preparation, but there is no reason to baptize them conditionally again.

We saw in “Inclusive Language and Baptismal Validity” that it’s very easy to baptize a person validly in the eyes of the Catholic Church: if the minister of the sacrament (who doesn’t even need to be Christian himself!) says the proper words while pouring real water on the head of the person, and has the intention to do what the Church requires, that’s quite good enough.  But if there is evidence that a baptism by a non-Catholic minister was not performed in a way that the Catholic Church considers to have been valid, then the Church holds that the person is not baptized—and so if he wants to become a Catholic, he will have to be baptized properly in a Catholic ceremony (c. 869.2).

If Irma’s Presbyterian baptism was invalid, and she was received into the Catholic Church without being baptized correctly, then this certainly does present a problem with everything sacramental that involved Irma later.  After all, as canon 842.1 asserts, you can’t receive any of the Church’s other six sacraments unless you have been baptized first!  Her confirmation would therefore have been invalid, for example (cf. c. 889.1); and she should not have been allowed to receive the Eucharist (cf. c. 912).

And if Irma’s Presbyterian baptism was invalid, that would undoubtedly mean that her marriage to a Catholic in a Catholic Church would be invalid too.  She and her Catholic husband married in a Catholic ceremony, with the assumption that they were both baptized. If Irma were actually an unbaptized person, it would have been necessary for validity to obtain in advance a dispensation from the local bishop for the impediment of disparity of cult before celebrating the marriage (cf. c. 1086.1).  (The concept of obtaining a dispensation for this impediment was discussed in greater detail in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic.”)  Without such a dispensation, a marriage between a Catholic and an unbaptized person is invalid.

It sounds like quite a mess, and it is—if Irma’s baptism is invalid.  But is it?

Over the centuries, there have been three basic methods used for baptism:
1) immersion, where the person to be baptized is physically dunked into a baptismal pool;
2) pouring, where the minister of the sacrament pours water over the head of the person to be baptized, and it flows down from there, normally into a baptismal font; and
3) sprinkling, where the person to be baptized is sprinkled with water by the minister, who uses his fingers, or a sprinkler designed for the purpose, or sometimes a branch dipped in water.

There are certainly variations on these basic themes, depending on the region of the world and the Christian denomination where the baptism takes place.  In some cases, for example, the person to be baptized will stand in a baptismal pool (perhaps immersed more or less up to his waist) and the water is poured over him—constituting a sort of combination of immersion and pouring.  Irma’s situation constitutes a variation of sprinkling, as the water was “patted” onto her head without being poured.

What method(s) of baptism does the Catholic Church use?  Canon 854 has the answer: baptism is to be conferred either by immersion or by pouring, in accordance with the provisions of the Bishops’ Conference.  (See “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain From Meat Every Friday?” for more on what a Bishops’ Conference is.)  Superficially, that would appear to suggest that baptism by sprinkling isn’t valid.

But not so fast.  Note that the wording of canon 854 of the current (1983) Code of Canon Law is markedly different from the corresponding canon of the previous (1917) code.  Canon 758 of the old Code of Canon Law—which is no longer in force—said that baptism is validly conferred by all three of the methods listed above.  Translating the Latin wording of this old canon into English is a bit tricky, because it indicates that these three methods were not only valid, they were licit as well.

Before we move on, it’s important to appreciate the distinction between the validity of an action, and its liceity.  The concept of validity/invalidity was addressed in greater detail back in “Marriage and Annulment,” but in short, when an action is valid that means it really did take place (cf. c. 124).  Liceity/illiceity, on the other hand, refers to the legality (or not) of the action (a good example of this was discussed in “Are They Really Catholic? Part II”).   It’s quite possible for the administration of a sacrament, or some other juridic action, to be valid—meaning that it really did take place—but illicit, meaning that it shouldn’t have happened at all, or shouldn’t have taken place in the way that it did.

The previous Code of Canon Law, therefore, stated that immersion, pouring, and sprinkling were all valid and licit ways to baptize.  The current Code of Canon Law simply says that baptism “is to be conferred” either by immersion or by pouring, meaning that both of these methods are valid and licit.  Why doesn’t the current law mention baptism by sprinkling?

The reason for this change cannot be deduced merely by looking at the code itself.  In order to find it, we have to search through the published records of the Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law, which was established in the 1960’s by Blessed Pope Paul VI.  Commonly referred to simply as the Code Commission, this body consisted of various teams of canon lawyers tasked with rewriting and reorganizing the Code of Canon Law in light of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.  Different teams—called coetus, the Latin word for “group”—worked together to draft the new canons for various sections of the code.  Once the current code was promulgated in 1983, these coetus basically ceased to function, as their goal had been met.  The minutes of some, but not all, of their discussions have subsequently been made public over the years; but they are not on the internet, and are written entirely in Latin.

The coetus charged with working on the canons on the sacrament of baptism considered leaving sprinkling on the list of valid-and-licit options, as in the 1917 code.  But they eventually decided to omit it, because the Church’s theological understanding of baptism indicates that it should involve a washing of the person to be baptized—and sprinkling doesn’t really constitute washing.  Saint John Paul II later approved of the changed canon, which is now canon 854.

But here’s the critical point.  The Church has never said that baptism by sprinkling is invalid.  That would constitute a radical change from the 1917 law, which said it was both valid and licit—and such a radical change would need to be stated explicitly!  The Church’s current ritual instead uses phrases like “either the rite of immersion… or the rite of infusion [i.e., pouring] may lawfully be used.”  The adverb “lawfully” is critical here: it’s carefully chosen canonical lingo, indicating that this is a matter of liceity—not of validity.

Put differently, the Catholic liturgical books today say that you shouldn’t baptize by sprinkling.  They don’t say you mustn’t baptize that way.  That’s why canonists logically conclude that baptism by sprinkling is illicit…but valid.

Theoretically, if the Pope wanted to decide that baptism by sprinkling is henceforth invalid in the eyes of the Catholic Church, he could certainly announce that; as canon 841 tells us, it is for the Supreme Authority of the Church to define what constitutes a valid sacrament.  But if the Pope were to change the law, and declare that a previously valid-but-illicit means of baptism is now an invalid one, the Church would then have to review the methods of baptism used by other Christian denominations, and make official determinations as to their validity/invalidity.  While it’s not supposed to be used in the Catholic celebration of this sacrament, baptism by sprinkling (or a variation of it, as in Irma’s case) is still used by some non-Catholic Christians around the world.  After all, the Catholic Church can’t tell them what to do!  The clergy of Catholic dioceses and parishes around the globe would then need to know how they’re supposed to regard the baptisms of non-Catholic Christians if they had been performed in this way.  Otherwise, priests would not be sure whether they needed to conditionally rebaptize a protestant like Irma, who wanted to join the Catholic Church; or whether the wedding of a Catholic parishioner and a person baptized by sprinkling would constitute a marriage between two Christians, or not!

So why does Irma claim that “several priests” told her that her baptism was invalid?  This is the part of her question that rings false.  When pressed, she declined to identify any of these priests, or explain precisely what they allegedly told her.  At a minimum, it is hard to imagine that any priest would tell a lay-person that yes, his/her baptism was invalid… and then fail to explain how to rectify the problem.  It would appear that Irma found various Catholic pronouncements stating essentially that baptism by sprinkling shouldn’t be used, and then wrongly concluded that this meant her own baptism was invalid.

There’s no reason to think that the manner in which Irma was baptized by her Presbyterian minister was in any way unusual by Presbyterian standards.  If baptism by sprinkling really was invalid, the Vatican would have been carefully examining the Presbyterian method(s) of baptism long ago—and it would have had to issue a statement to the entire Catholic Church that this isn’t a valid way to baptize.  But it didn’t do that.  While the Catholic Church holds that nowadays you aren’t supposed to baptize by sprinkling, we nonetheless conclude that persons baptized in this way are indeed baptized Christians.

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