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German bishop permits lay baptisms — is that allowed?

The Bishop of Essen, Germany, appointed 18 lay pastoral and parish workers - 17 women and one man - as extraordinary baptismal ministers last Saturday.

The lay ministers were given a four-day training course by the diocese’s head of faith, liturgy and culture and will now prepare the families of children, and individual adults, to receive the sacrament, which they will administer to them. 

Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck said that he was making the move in response to “a pastorally difficult situation” caused by a shortage of priests in the diocese, and that he plans to appoint more lay ministers, to whom he is giving a three-year mandate.

Basilica Mission San Juan Capistrano California.

Media outlets, Catholic and secular, have covered the commissioning of the lay ministers. But is this latest move allowed by the Church? And is it a big change?

The Pillar explains:


Who can baptize?

Overbeck noted in his homily on Saturday that in the early Church it was always the bishop who administered baptism. As the Church grew, it became a sacrament primarily administered by priests and deacons, and less frequently by bishops.

But while the Code of Canon Law states that the ordinary minister of baptism is a cleric - bishop, priest, or deacon - it also allows “a catechist or someone else designated for this function by the local ordinary [diocesan bishop]” to confer baptism when the ordinary minister is impeded or absent.

Certain elements of every sacrament, the “essential matter and form,” are required in order for the sacrament to be valid — to be regarded by the Church as having actually taken place.

In the case of baptism, all that is needed is an unbaptized person who will be baptized, some form of washing with true water, and the invocation of a personal and Trinitarian formula  - “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Unlike other sacraments, there are no requirements about who the minister must be in order for baptism to be celebrated validly. 

In fact, canon law actually allows that anyone “with the right intention” can baptize licitly in case of necessity, so, when the need arises, a non-Christian can actually baptize another non-Christian.

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So, is this Diocese of Essen move a big deal?

It’s certainly novel, in a reasonably stable European diocese, for the bishop to decide to appoint extraordinary lay ministers of baptism on a stable basis. 

But, in many parts of the world, some Catholic communities can go for months without seeing a priest, and parishes stretch across enormous territories — and these are the kinds of situations canon law has in mind when it talks about bishops appointing catechists and others to perform baptisms when the ordinary minister is absent.

But some people would certainly argue that the Bishop of Essen has stretched the idea of an ordinary minister’s “absence.” It would not normally include the decline in vocations reported by the Diocese of Essen and other German dioceses.

In fact, as long as Sunday Masses are celebrated regularly in most parishes of the diocese, it would probably be hard to argue that the traditional idea of “clerical absence” has occurred. This is because canon law recommends that baptism ordinarily be celebrated on Sunday, or, if possible, at the Easter Vigil. 

Every Sunday Mass and Easter Vigil has an ordinary minister of baptism present — the celebrating priest. So, while there might not be as many priests in the diocese as the bishop would like, if Sunday Masses are still being celebrated, the situation would not seem to fit in with the ordinary canonical idea of absence.

So why do it then?

The diocese stressed the need for “individual accompaniment” in preparing individuals, or in the case of babies, their parents and godparents, for baptism. 

Overbeck said Saturday that the lay baptismal ministers would provide people preparing for baptism with an “experience [of] lived unity of the celebration and administration of the sacrament of baptism with the accompanying pastoral care.” 

In other words, the bishop wants to see baptismal formation done by the same person who does the baptizing — and with a shortage of priests, the bishop seems to think his clergy doesn’t have that kind of time.

Of course, some people might point out that it’s not necessary for the minister of baptism to provide sacramental preparation. Indeed, canon law says the entire reason for baptismal sponsors (often called godparents) is to “assist an adult in Christian initiation,” and to “help the baptized person to lead a Christian life.” 

But the reality is that parents and godparents are often in need of sacramental formation themselves, and bishops have been asking for more ways to recognize the necessary catechetical ministers.

In May 2021  Pope Francis put the ministry of catechist on a more formalized and defined footing with his motu proprio Antiquum ministerium.  

The pope allowed the role of catechist to be formally instituted in dioceses across the world. 

But, curiously, while catechists are recognized in canon law as acceptable substitutes for baptisms when clerics are unavailable, Overbreck did not commission the 18 lay ministers as catechists last weekend. Instead he created a separate category of ministry. It’s not clear why. 

Antiquum ministerium does require that catechists “receive suitable biblical, theological, pastoral and pedagogical formation to be competent communicators of the truth of the faith and they should have some prior experience of catechesis.” 

It is possible that the four-day training course given to the Essen baptismal ministers was deemed insufficient to make them “catechists” properly speaking.

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Is this just about ‘diversity’?

While it would be cynical to assume that Bishop Overbeck was creating a new stable class of extraordinary ministers of baptism for novelty’s sake, the diocese stress in its own press release Saturday that the new ministry show how “the Diocese of Essen is becoming more diverse.”

“Even though the 18 new baptism ministers are initially limited to three years in their new office and exercise them within the framework of a special permit under canon law, they make the image of pastoral care in the diocese of Essen even more diverse,” the diocese said. 

“In many places, for example, believers have been working with women and men at celebrations of the Word of God or funerals, some of whom are volunteers in these areas. In the past twelve months, three women have also taken on leadership responsibilities in the parishes of the diocese as parish officers.”

Overbeck is a leading voice for the German bishops’ “synodal way” and has long been a champion of radical reform in the Church. 

He has called for married priests, the ordination of women to the priesthood, and said he would not discipline any priest in his diocese who blessed a same-sex union in a church. Those proposals contradict either the universal discipline of the Latin Church or the core doctrinal teachings of the universal Church.

Next to that, appointing lay baptismal ministers is a novelty, but one actually far closer to the Church’s theology and discipline than Overbeck’s other “innovative” ideas.

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