Why is This Method of Baptizing Invalid?

Q: A family member was recently baptized in a non-emergency manner, but the priest only said the words of baptism (form), while a layperson concurrently only poured the water (matter). Was the baptism valid? –Steve

A: As we’ve seen many times before in this space (in “Laypeople Can Always Baptize—But When Should They?” among others), it’s very easy to baptize validly.  That said, it’s certainly possible to do it incorrectly and end up with an invalid baptism, as was discussed in “Inclusive Language and Baptismal Validity.”  At issue here in the baptism which Steve mentions is the fact that two different people were involved simultaneously in the administration of the sacrament.  Can they do that?

There are only a couple of canons in the code which reference the correct way to baptize.  Canon 849 tells us that baptism is validly conferred only by a washing in real water with the proper form of words; and canon 850 adds that baptism is administered according to the rite prescribed in the approved liturgical books—except for urgent cases [which almost always involve danger of death], when only the elements required for validity are to be observed.  Note that neither canon specifically mentions who is required to do what.  For this, we have to look at those “approved liturgical books” which are referenced by canon 850.

Here’s what the the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) rubrics say for the rite of adult baptism during the Easter Vigil:

The celebrant, immersing the candidate’s whole body or head three times/taking baptismal water and pouring it three times on the candidate’s bowed head, baptizes the candidate in the name of the Trinity: “N., I baptize you in the name of the Father [he immerses or pours water the first time] and of the Son [he immerses or pours water the second time] and of the Holy Spirit [he immerses or pours water the third time].”

We can see here that the “approved liturgical books” tell us specifically that the celebrant is the one who both says the words and does the pouring/immersion of the person to be baptized.  And as a matter of fact, if you read closely this is confirmed by the form of words itself, which provides the content of the sacrament: “N., I baptize you, in the name of the Father…”

But is this a matter of validity?  Reasonable canonists, liturgists, and sacramental theologians will say that it is.  Nevertheless, you don’t have to take their word for it: Rome addressed this specific question officially, all the way back in 1916.  The document can be found here, on page 478.

In the 1916 case, a Catholic wanted to marry a non-Catholic who had been baptized in a manner different, yet substantively similar to the case referenced in Steve’s question: the minister pronounced the words of baptism, while the person being baptized immersed herself in the baptismal pool.  The minister, therefore, neither poured the water nor immersed the person in the water while saying the words.  Like the case Steve describes, this was a situation where the minister who pronounced the words of baptism was not the one who immersed the person in the water.

The question of the validity of this manner of baptism was posited to the Vatican over a century ago, solely because the person who had been baptized in this way was planning to marry a Catholic.  The Church needed to determine whether this marriage would be between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic, or between a Catholic and an unbaptized person.  As we saw in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic,” the theological ramifications of the two scenarios are different, and it’s thus important to know in advance whether the non-Catholic party to the marriage has been baptized or not.

So what did the Vatican’s former Sacred Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments have to say about this situation?  Firstly, it acknowledged that in general, the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of baptisms performed by non-Catholic ministers, provided that they are done using the correct form and in the correct manner (p. 479, I).  It then concluded that minister who had pronounced the words of baptism in this particular case had indeed used the correct Triune formula, which the Church recognizes as valid (p. 479, II).

But then the Congregation observed that the problem with this baptism was that the same minister is supposed to carry out both matter (the pouring of water or immersing of the person in it) and form (saying the required words)—something which obviously did not happen in this case (pp. 479-80, IV).  As was already noted above, the words of baptism, which begin with “N., I baptize you…” make no sense if the person saying them is not the one actually doing the baptizing.

The Vatican didn’t randomly arrive at this conclusion out of nowhere.  It cited St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who wrote in his Summa Theologica about this very question:

… [T]he integrity of Baptism consists in the form of words and the use of the matter. Consequently, neither he who only pronounces the words, baptizes, nor he who dips. Wherefore if one pronounces the words and the other dips, no form of words can be fitting. For neither could he say: “I baptize thee”: since he dips not, and therefore baptizes not. Nor could they say: “We baptize thee”: since neither baptizes. (Summa Theol., III p., q. 67, a. 6 ad 3)

The Congregation concluded that for this reason, the baptism should be considered invalid.  Steve now has the answer to his question.

A person who has been invalidly baptized in this way must be baptized again, because the first baptismal ceremony had no effect.  (Strictly speaking, the person will not be “baptized again,” since he/she was never baptized in the first place.)  Steve indicates that it was a “family member” who was invalidly baptized in this way, and so it sounds like the family will have to insist that the baptism be re-administered, and properly this time.

Presumably the invalid baptism took place at a Catholic parish. If it was the work of a cleric other than the pastor of the parish, Steve’s family should contact him to tell him what happened, and request a valid do-over.  It would be reasonable to assume that the pastor had no idea what the other clergy of the parish were doing when they administered the sacrament of baptism—and he naturally needs to know!  But if the pastor himself was involved in this invalid administration of the sacrament of baptism, the matter needs to be brought to the attention of the diocesan bishop.  It is the bishop who ultimately has responsibility for the spiritual wellbeing of all the Catholic faithful of his diocese (cf. c. 387), and so if baptisms are being administered invalidly by clergy in one of the parishes there, the bishop should want to know about it—so he can take steps to ensure that it never happens again.

We can see here that the answer to Steve’s question wasn’t actually found in the Code of Canon Law.  As is true of many sacramental and liturgical matters, the code simply defers to the approved liturgical books.  There we will often find additional details and specific answers to our questions about who is supposed to do what, when and why—and this sort of liturgical information will always be consistent with canon law.

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