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After 'we baptize' scandal, have 'we' catechized?

When the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in August 2020 that baptisms are invalid if performed with a first-person plural sacramental formula, it seemed like just another surreal element of the annus horribilis the world was experiencing — absolutely strange, and, hopefully, not a long-term problem.

An infant is baptized. Credit: Shutterstock.

Nearly two years later, as issues connected to invalid baptisms continue making headlines, a kind of incongruity has emerged between how many ordinary Catholics have experienced the announcement, and how some diocesan and Vatican leaders have responded.

Since 2020, there has been real interest among Catholics in the CDF notification, and no small degree of anxiety among many Catholics concerned about their own baptisms, which, they feared, might have been invalid.

Given Catholic doctrine about the centrality of baptism to the life of grace and the possibility of salvation, concern about the prospect of widespread invalid baptisms is certainly understandable. To be sure, God can work outside of the sacramental economy, and He does. But sanctifying grace is ordinarily dispensed through the sacraments, and the notion that a sizable number of putative Catholics have not actually received the gateway sacrament of initiation is no small thing.

But given the prospective scope of the problem, there has been relatively little catechesis about its meaning, and only a few diocesan-wide enquiries into the prospect of widespread invalid baptisms.

Things began when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published on Aug 6, 2020, a document which explained that using the formula “We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” could not validly confer baptism.

This was not a matter of ecclesiastical law, the CDF explained. The Congregation was not promulgating a positive law on the matter, which prohibited the formula under pain of invalidity; it was instead articulating an essential theological reality about the sacrament itself — the CDF explained that modifying sacramental formulae can “render… invalid the Sacrament itself, because the nature of the ministerial action requires the transmission with fidelity of that which has been received.”

The formula, in short, was not forbidden or prohibited, it was merely impossible that using it would confect a valid sacrament.

When it was announced, many faithfully practicing Catholics found themselves wondering how saying “we baptize” instead of “I baptize” could really cause so much trouble. For some it was a source of grave concern. For others, who perceived it as sophistical semantic pedantry, it was a source of embarrassment, which made the Church look rather silly.

Soon after the CDF’s document, there emerged the case of “Father” Matthew Hood, a Detroit man who thought he was a priest and turned out to be unbaptized. A month later, a similar case popped up in Oklahoma City. Since then, a few bishops have put out notices about clerics with the habit of baptizing invalidly, and invited Catholics whose attempted baptisms were invalid to receive the sacrament, for the very first time.

The issue was mostly quiet for a while, until a priest in Phoenix resigned from his parish last month, asking forgiveness for performing thousands of baptisms using the first-person plural formula that rendered them invalid.

The priest’s resignation and apology have made national headlines in non-Catholic media. People find this topic fascinating. And the coverage has again prompted discussion, questions, frustration, and some degree of anxious scrupulosity among Catholics. The Phoenix diocese, like others which have been in similar situations, has published an FAQ and a few other resources.

But questions remain. Is God, some Catholics have asked, really so concerned about sacramental pronouns? Isn’t that kind of legalistic?

Some of the discussion among Catholics points to uncertainty about both principles of sacramental theology — like “why does one word matter so much?” and about the nature of the magisterium, and ecclesiology — “why should we trust the Church about any of this?”

Many Catholics are most especially asking if an invalid baptism means that God’s grace has not been operative in a person’s life. (No, it does not.)

The questions would seem to point to the need for serious catechetical initiatives on baptism and the Church’s teaching authority — for USCCB pastoral statements, perhaps, or an ongoing catechesis from the Holy See.

The CDF’s clarification represents a complicated doctrinal judgment, which is not especially intuitive, and which touches on people’s real, every day lives of faith. But it is not yet clear that most Church leaders have prepared any plan to address the catechetical questions the CDF’s instructions presents.

Nor is it clear that many bishops appreciate how much the CDF’s instruction presents a challenge for groups of practicing Catholics.

While some bishops have made it a point to review chancery records, or at least make staff available to answer questions, other chanceries have remained mostly silent on the matter, leaving some practicing Catholics left anxious, or frustrated, about a much-discussed issue, one with deeply personal implications, which they’re struggling to understand.

Making it more difficult for Catholics to understand the CDF’s instruction without catechesis is that the Holy See has itself been inconsistent on the matter.

In 2003, the Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacraments wrote to a bishop who had concerns about the “we baptize” formula being used by one of his priests.

“Please be assured that the form that you describe, and in the manner that you describe it, does not cast into doubt the validity of the Baptism conferred…the use of the first person plural does not invalidate the sacrament,” the Congregation explained.

Seventeen years later, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said otherwise. Reasonable Catholics have found themselves asking “how could something be valid in 2003, and invalid by 2020? Is all of this legitimate?”

Of course, there are answers to those questions, which explain that the force of a private letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship does not have the same authority as a response from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, specifically approved and authorized by the pope. The latter must be held by Catholics, while the former is the private opinion of some curial officials.

But the answers to the questions surrounding the “we baptize” affair are complicated. They are an application of nuanced theological principles, not easily reduced to a few sound bytes. And each time the issue of invalid baptisms comes up in the near future, there will likely be a set of practicing Catholics plagued by anxiety, and another set incredulous at what they see as bureaucratic ecclesiastical sophistry.

Those groups might be helped if more diocesan bishops, along with bishops’ conference, and the Holy See, were to take note of the Catholics asking questions, and invest time, money, and personnel in addressing them.

Of course, whatever bishops do, the “we baptize” controversy will eventually fade further from view, and headlines about invalid baptisms and resigning pastors will stop popping up to stir things up.

But without more communication, and a plan for catechesis from the Holy See, the U.S. bishops, or some of the Church’s most gifted catechists, the CDF’s instruction will likely remain an obstacle for some faithful Catholics, and a source of confusion for even more.

Without that catechesis, bishops could find that the long-lasting legacy of the “we baptize” confusion will be an erosion of belief among Catholics: either in the Church’s teaching authority, or in the importance of valid baptism at all.

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