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Intention Matters: Baptized by the Water and the (Right) Words

March 1, 2022


One of the most beautiful aspects of our Catholic faith is its strong incarnational basis. That is, “incarnational” in the sense of relating in a tangible, concrete way to physical “fleshly” beings such as ourselves. This is especially evident in the centrality of the sacraments in the life of the Church. All sacraments, by definition, involve both “matter”—i.e. physical “stuff,” such as the bread and wine used in the Eucharist and even the sound waves involved in speaking aloud one’s sins in the sacrament of penance—and “form,” the proper prayers to be said during a sacrament’s celebration. 

Recently, a priest in Arizona made headlines when he resigned after admitting to having attempted to baptize using a form other than the standard given to us by the Church. These baptism ceremonies are now known to have been invalid, because he used an incorrect formula, pronouncing, “We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” rather than “I baptize you…” As attention-grabbing as this news story is, it’s actually reminiscent of a similar story from a few years ago, when a young priest realized that his own baptism had been invalid due to the use of the same incorrect words. 

In a lot of ways, this story really begins in June 2020, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a “responsum,” or a clarification on an open or disputed question, on: “Whether the Baptism conferred with the formula ‘We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ is valid?”; followed by the question: “Whether those persons for whom baptism was celebrated with this formula must be baptized in forma absoluta?” 

The first question was, of course, answered in the negative, indicating definitively that use of the “We baptize…” formula does not result in a valid baptism. Or more colloquially, it simply won’t work! 

The second question logically stems from the first. That is, a person who was baptized according to the invalid formula would need to be baptized “in forma absoluta,” or “absolutely.” Here, “absolutely” is used in a more technical sense of being the opposite of “conditionally.” A conditional baptism is appropriate in cases where there is real, unresolvable uncertainty as to whether a person was or was not baptized (for instance, in cases where adults coming into the Church think they were likely baptized as infants, but no record of proof of any sort can be found), and the ritual for a conditional baptism explicitly refers to this uncertainty. But an “absolute baptism” is a baptism where it is known for a fact that the candidate has never been baptized. This second part of the CDF’s response serves to underscore the first, by highlighting the consequences of attempting to baptize with the incorrect formula. 

Declaring that a category of previously thought-to-be baptized people are actually unbaptized would seem, in one sense, to be rather shocking—and rightly so! As canon 849 of the Code of Canon Law tells us, baptism is “the gateway to the sacraments and necessary for salvation.”

Some might argue that the CDF statement was rather alienating, or at least very un-pastoral, in its incisive clarity. At first glance, it might seem that the Church, via the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, is obsessively hung up on a single word, to the extent that it is apparently willing to pull the rug of sacramental grace out from under some members of the faithful. 

Yet one thing that might help put this in a more intuitively understandable perspective is to recall that the Church’s sacramental theology, like her theology in general, is actually a “science,” according to the traditional use of the term. Although today we often think of the sciences as empirical sciences (such as biology or chemistry), traditionally a science is any body of knowledge based on objective, knowable truths. 

The sacraments are objective “scientific” realities in that they function independently of any of our feelings, opinions, or personal biases. To attempt to draw an analogy: just as gravity is a natural force that causes objects to fall to earth in certain given ways, regardless of how useful or inconvenient we find it, so too do the sacraments impart their effects according only to their own nature, and not according to the ways different individuals across history have thought they should work. 

As canon 840 tells us: “The sacraments of the New Testament were instituted by Christ the Lord and entrusted to the Church.” In other words, the sacraments were instituted by the incarnate son of God, Jesus Christ, and are merely placed into the care of the institutional Church, which serves as their guardian and steward. 

As the sacraments come to us as instituted by Christ, no one individual, not even a priest, can presume to alter them (or their formulae) in any way. Or as canon 841 puts it, “since the sacraments are the same for the whole Church and belong to the divine deposit [of faith], it is only for the supreme authority of the Church to approve or define the requirements for their validity.” This means that only the pope, at times with the assistance of the appropriate dicastery of the Roman Curia (i.e., the appropriate “Vatican department”), can definitely discern which specific types of matter and formulae are sufficient and suitable. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that this truly is a discernment, a careful consideration of whether the particular matter or form actually reflects Christ’s intentions. Essentially, this is what the CDF did in 2020 when it recognized that “We” baptisms were not valid. And so this recognition was not simply an executive decision or mere “policy-making.” 

But of course, anyone with even a grade-school level of catechesis on the sacraments knows that besides proper matter and form, a valid sacrament is also dependent on the correct intention of the minister. For baptism in particular, intentionality plays a strong role. So strong in fact, that even a non-Catholic or non-Christian can validly baptize as long as his or her intentions match the Church’s understanding of baptism, as is noted in canon 861 §2, which tells as that “in a case of necessity any person with the right intention confers baptism licitly.”

Now, some might ask, “So if even, say, a Jewish nurse at a hospital could validly and licitly baptize as long as she had the right intention while pouring the water and saying the correct words, how does it make sense that a priest—who presumably broadly intended baptism for the people he attempted to baptize—would actually be celebrating baptism invalidly as a result of changing just one small word?” 

Community life in the Church is important, but true Christian community can only come about as a result of personal encounter with Jesus himself.

The answer to this is, as the CDF determined, that changing “I baptize” to “We baptize” does reflect at least some level of intention to change the nature of the sacrament. “We baptize you” would presumably express an intention to emphasize a community aspect of baptism, implying that the sacramental grace is conferred by the entire Christian assembly, as opposed to the priest (in this instance) being the minister of sacramental grace. Or as the doctrinal note attached to the CDF response states, it is reasonably assumed that those who elected to change the wording of the baptismal formula did so “in order to express the participation of the family and of those present, and to avoid the idea of the concentration of a sacred power in the priest to the detriment of the parents and the community that the formula in the Rituale Romano might seem to imply.” 

However, while there is certainly a community dimension to baptism as a concept in general—the one to be baptized is being received into the family of the Church, after all—it is essential that baptism is conferred by a single individual. This is because the one baptizing does so by standing in the place of Christ. The Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium tells us, “By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that when [one] baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes.” 

Attempted “We” baptisms are not only pastorally disastrous because of the practical consequence of their invalidity, but also because they obscure this direct connection with Christ. Community life in the Church is important, but true Christian community can only come about as a result of personal encounter with Jesus himself. The CDF doctrinal note phrases this beautifully: “When celebrating a Sacrament, the Church in fact functions as the Body that acts inseparably from its Head, since it is Christ the Head who acts in the ecclesial Body generated by him in the Paschal mystery.”