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Liturgy Q & A: Validity of Protestant Baptisms

Ruling on ‘We’ Formula Raises a Concern

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

 Q: A document from the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith indicates that the use of “We (and possibly including a list of people present – parents, godparents, etc.) baptize you in the name of the Father …” is a change to the formula for the sacrament that results in an invalid baptism. Various conversations have ensued concerning baptisms by other ecclesial communities. The gist of the conversations is that there is potentially a multitude of invalid baptisms within the Protestant world and that some/many/most Protestants joining the Church need either a conditional baptism (out of fear that the wrong formula was used) or out of a belief that the wrong one was used and they need to be baptized (not conditionally). It is not hard to find examples of baptisms that have used such a formula. One example was what purported to be a Baptist baptism in either a creek or a lake: full dunking along with “We baptize you” and the normal formula following. This has caused a great deal of consternation among some Protestants who have recently joined the Church; they have sought, without success, to persuade a priest to give them a conditional baptism. Is there any way of telling whether the Church is going to hold that baptisms done by various ecclesial communities are invalid if their ministers (or elders or deacons, etc.) must baptize using the formula “I baptize …”? There are a lot of RCIA programs that could use guidance on applying the CDF document. — T.M., Keizer, Oregon

A: This important and well-articulated question is not easy to answer.

 However, we can say that the context of the declaration of invalidity due to the change of formula refers primarily to Catholic baptisms. The application to non-Catholic baptisms is not addressed.

 This can also be observed from the theological commentary that accompanied the declaration. The kernel of the theological argument is the following:

 “In the celebration of the Sacraments, in fact, the subject is the Church, the Body of Christ together with its Head, that manifests itself in the concrete gathered assembly. Such an assembly, therefore, acts ministerially – not collegially – because no group can make itself Church, but becomes Church in virtue of a call that cannot arise from within the assembly itself. The minister is therefore the sign-presence of Him who gathers and is at the same time the locus of the communion of every liturgical assembly with the whole Church. In other words, the minister is the visible sign that the Sacrament is not subject to an arbitrary action of individuals or of the community, and that it pertains to the Universal Church.

 “In this light must be understood the Tridentine injunction concerning the necessity of the minister to at least have the intention to do that which the Church does. The intention therefore cannot remain only at the interior level, with the risk of subjective distractions, but must be expressed in the exterior action constituted by the use of the matter and form of the Sacrament. Such an action cannot but manifest the communion between that which the minister accomplishes in the celebration of each individual sacrament with that which the Church enacts in communion with the action of Christ himself: It is, therefore, fundamental that the sacramental action may not be achieved in its own name, but in the person of Christ who acts in his Church, and in the name of the Church.

 Therefore, in the specific case of the sacrament of baptism, the minister does not have the authority to modify the sacramental formula to his own liking, for the reasons of a Christological and ecclesiological nature already articulated. Nor can he even declare that he is acting on behalf of the parents, godparents, relatives, or friends, nor in the name of the assembly gathered for the celebration, because he acts insofar as he is the sign-presence of the same Christ that is enacted in the ritual gesture of the Church.

 When the minister says, “I baptize you …” he does not speak as a functionary who carries out a role entrusted to him. Rather, he enacts ministerially the sign-presence of Christ, who acts in his Body to give his grace and to make the concrete liturgical assembly a manifestation of “the real nature of the true Church,” insofar as “liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the ‘sacrament of unity,’ namely the holy people united and ordered under their bishops.”

 Moreover, to modify the sacramental formula implies a lack of an understanding of the very nature of the ecclesial ministry that is always at the service of God and his people and not the exercise of a power that goes so far as to manipulate what has been entrusted to the Church in an act that pertains to the Tradition.

 Therefore, in every minister of baptism, there must not only be a deeply rooted knowledge of the obligation to act in ecclesial communion, but also the same conviction that St. Augustine attributes to the Precursor, which “was to be a certain peculiarity in Christ, such that, although many ministers, be they righteous or unrighteous, should baptize, the virtue of Baptism would be attributed to Him alone on whom the dove descended, and of whom it was said: ‘It is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’ (John 1:33).” Therefore, Augustine comments: “Peter may baptize, but this is He that baptizes; Paul may baptize, yet this is He that baptizes; Judas may baptize, still this is He that baptizes.”

 Therefore, the reason for the invalidity is not so much the change from “I” to “We” but the fact that, in the context of a Catholic baptism, this change undermined the fundamental meaning of the rite itself.

 In fact, the Church has long recognized the validity of the Eastern baptismal rite which does not say “I baptize you” but “The servant of God (name), is baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This formula is also used in several Eastern Catholic Churches.

 The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has addressed the validity of baptism of some non-Catholic groups, such as the Mormons, which was declared invalid in 2001. However, it has not addressed the validity of most traditional Protestant baptisms at the level of the universal Church. In most cases the baptism has the presumption of validity if the rite is carried out with water (whether by infusion or immersion) and the Trinitarian formula.

 In places where there is an abundance of Christian denominations the Catholic Church will often enter into specific agreements regarding mutual recognition of baptism.

 For example, in 1991 the Church in Chile signed such a document recognizing the validity of baptism of Lutherans, Methodists, Wesleyans, and several Evangelical and Pentecostal denominations. They excluded the validity of baptisms from the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Salvation Army, and similar groups.

 In 2013 the U.S. bishops ratified a 2010 Common Agreement which said that the conditions for a valid baptism include flowing water and be performed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Apart from the Catholic Church, the initial signers were the Presbyterian Church-USA, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ. Other ecclesial communities might have since joined the Common Agreement.

 In Mexico, the bishops have provided a detailed list of denominations in which baptism is recognized or not. Validity is recognized for the historical Orthodox Churches and the historical Protestant churches: Anglicans and Episcopalians (considered as separate entities in the country), Presbyterians, Calvinists, and Lutherans. The baptism of Methodists is considered doubtful for reasons that are specific to Methodism in Mexico.

 There follows a list of denominations whose baptism is considered invalid. Among these are several groups that call themselves Orthodox but that are not connected to the historical Eastern Churches. As well as the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Salvation Army there is a list of about 80 separate groups, mostly Pentecostal and Evangelical in style.

 In this case, the Mexican bishops have apparently taken a different position regarding the validity of Pentecostal and Evangelical baptism than the Chileans. This might be because the number and variety of these denominations is much wider in Mexico than in Chile, and it is practically impossible to ascertain the correctness of the baptismal rites which might vary even among different congregations of the same denomination. Therefore, the presumption of validity is much more difficult to maintain.

 The canonical consequences that arise from these baptisms are the need to be baptized if entering the Catholic Church and the need to request a dispensation of disparity of worship in the case of a mixed marriage.

 * * *

 Readers may send questions to Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city, and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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