When the cleric presiding over the ceremony alters the ritual language in such a fundamental way that it undermines its meaning, according to the Vatican.
And even changing a single crucial pronoun can invalidate a baptism, he says.
A Roman Catholic priest, the Reverend Andres Arango, resigned his post as pastor of his parish in Phoenix on February 1, after admitting that he had used the incorrect baptismal formula during more than two decades of priestly ministry in Arizona, in California and Brazil.
Arango used the formula “We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, instead of the prescribed singular pronoun: “I baptize you…”
Theologically, this makes all the difference, the Vatican ruled in 2020, because it is not the “we” of the congregation that baptizes, but rather the “me” of Jesus Christ, acting through the priest.
Now the Diocese of Phoenix is appealing to all who have undergone the ritual under Arango receive “valid” baptisms — and possibly other initiation rites. The diocese estimates that thousands of people have been affected.
What is the meaning of baptism and why is it important that it be “valid”?
Baptism is the fundamental rite of initiation into the Christian faith. In Catholic theology, baptism is considered a sacrament – a visible rite conveying spiritual grace – and is “necessary for salvation”, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “The Church knows of no other means than baptism, which assures entry into eternal beatitude,” that is to say, heaven.
For a sacrament to be valid, it must be presided over correctly, the Church teaches.
“For us, baptism is for salvation, so that’s a big deal. We have to make sure we get it right,” said Jay Conzemius, court moderator for the Diocese of Pittsburgh and former president of the Canon Law Society of America.
Has this ever happened?
Yes. Cases have occurred in Michigan and Oklahoma of priests being told their baptism was invalid.
In June 2020, the Vatican issued guidelines stating that the formula “We baptize you…” was not valid and anyone baptizing using it must be rebaptized correctly.
The Vatican then said that some anonymous priests were using the formula “We” to make baptism a community affair involving parents, godparents and the community to welcome a new member into the Catholic Church. But in an explanatory note accompanying her decision, she recalled that when a priest baptizes someone, it is Christ who performs the sacrament, and not the community.
“To modify on one’s own initiative the form of the celebration of a sacrament constitutes not only a liturgical abuse… but a wound inflicted on ecclesial communion,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in the note.
The Vatican clearly knew that its decision would cause upheaval, but for such a fundamental sacrament that concerns the salvation of a soul, it felt the need to insist that independent variations were not only unacceptable but invalid.
Does the church say that anyone who is baptized invalidly will go to hell?
No, according to church officials and theologians.
“While we want to make sure everything is done the way the rite should be done, what needs to be emphasized just as strongly is the notion that God is not constrained by the mistakes a priest might make,” said Gregory Hillis. , professor of theology at Bellarmine University, a Catholic school in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Nobody assumes that God is going to say, ‘Well, I’m sorry, you have first person plural rather than first person singular,’” Hillis said.
Bishop Stephen Doktorczyk, Vicar General of the Diocese of Orange, California, added, “There is a saying that God works through the sacraments, but it is not limited to the sacraments.”
What other impact does it have?
If a person’s baptism is held invalid, subsequent rites such as confirmation and, in the case of priests, ordination are also not valid as sacraments.
A priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit discovered in 2020 that the deacon who baptized him as a child was using “we” rather than “I.” He had to receive a valid baptism – and confirmation and ordination, since these depended on a valid baptism. And the archdiocese also worked to organize sacramentally valid baptisms for those whose rites he had presided over without knowing he was not validly ordained.
Did some priests change the baptismal formula in other ways?
Yes, which may explain the Vatican’s insistence on verbal precision in 2020. It issued an almost identical instruction in 2008, again due to variations on the baptismal formula used by some English-speaking priests.
Then some priests tried to tamp down the patriarchal nature of the rest of the formula by replacing references to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” with phrases like “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.”
Again, the Vatican declared such baptisms to be invalid and must be done correctly.
Is all of this really worth it, especially when many are distancing themselves from organized religion?
Words matter, say Catholic leaders.
“The Church cannot change what Christ himself instituted,” wrote Bishop Antonio Miralles, a sacramental theologian at the Pontifical Santa Croce University, at the time of the 2008 ruling.
But there are real consequences of doctrinal decisions — like trying to track down thousands of people with the heartbreaking news that their sacramental history was invalid — said the Reverend Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and columnist for Religion News Service.
He would have preferred a Vatican ruling that such baptisms were valid even if they were not “lawful”, or done according to the book – in which case the priest could face discipline but the faithful would not be affected.
“That’s the problem when you get a bunch of bureaucrats in a room without thinking about the pastoral consequences of the decision,” he said.
Newsletter | Click to get the best explainers of the day delivered to your inbox