CHARLESTON, W. Va. — Praying at Mass in the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier is a vivid memory for Martha Mallan of Charleston, W. Va.
“There was a great deal of experimentation going on,” she recalled of the church she once attended in Richmond, Va. “The hosts for Communion looked like dark brown croutons.”
So when the Vatican reaffirmed Feb. 29 that baptisms using non-standard formulae are invalid, Mallan started to worry if her children were, in fact, proper Christians.
“Our youngest daughter is 26 now,” Mallan said, wondering if her daughter, currently not a practicing Catholic, would consent to being baptized.
As specified by the Vatican’s response, those baptized invalidly must be baptized in forma absoluta (the valid form). According to Edward Peters, who holds doctorates in both civil and canon law and teaches at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, that means conditional baptism will not suffice.
“If you’re not baptized, you’re not Christian,” Peters said. “When Rome says they’re invalid, it means they have zero effect. It takes the mandate of Jesus very seriously. And really, baptism couldn’t be easier: Along with the pouring of the water, all you have to do is get one sentence right.”
Additionally, any further sacraments would have to be conferred, since one may not receive a sacrament without baptism (Code of Canon Law, No. 842.1).
The invented formula of Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier — which does not appear in any approved liturgical book — was denounced as the Modalist heresy in the third century.
“The error,” Peters explained, “is identifying the persons by what they do, not who they are. You can even go back to the burning bush: ‘I am who am.’ God gives his identity — who he is — not what he does.”
Why some priests and deacons chose to deviate from the proscribed formula is actually mentioned in the Vatican response as the “so-called feminist theology” of non-biblical denotations of the persons of the Trinity.
“This is an agendized formula,” confirmed Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo. “I’ve heard it used even in the proclamation of Scripture. This sort of thing does not happen haphazardly or by mistake. Every Catholic school child learns how to baptize, in case of an emergency, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
“One of the casualties of this kind of language is that we ignore one of the most fundamental revelations of Jesus Christ: that he has a Father, that we have a Father, and that the relationship between them is the love that Christ bore to the world.”
Even with an error this serious, Bishop Finn thought that the majority of the faithful need not worry.
“This kind of abuse is likely to be limited to places the bishop knows well,” he said. “Bishops will make some inquiries discreetly, and they have the responsibility to bring the perpetrators of this practice, who have broken the laws of the Church, to profess faith in the practice of the Church.”
Still, in the early days of the Vatican’s response, the blogosphere buzzed with sensationalistic reports of hordes of children invalidly baptized, as anonymous hit-and-run commentators recklessly posted names of churches and pastors. Such reports generally took one incident and exploded it in tall liturgical tale fashion, as at Pax Christi parish in Eden Prairie, Minn.
“I don’t know who posted what or where, but we even got a call from a worried couple in Texas,” said Deacon Al Schroeder, who has served at Pax Christi for more than a decade. “I have always used the proper formula, but there was one deacon here many years ago who did use the invalid formula once. The bishop called right away and told him to stop. It hasn’t happened since.”
In Brisbane, Australia, Archbishop John Bathersby has been fighting the invalid form for nearly four years, and the Vatican’s response directly answers the request he initiated.
“When the matter broke in 2004, I indicated the normal formula should be used. It was only associated with one parish, and it was corrected. I’m not aware of the practice having been used in other parishes,” he said. “But it’s quite possible in more recent years that the one parish may have reverted. I will be talking with the administrator of that parish [and will] get an understanding of how many baptisms may be invalid.”
When in Doubt …
In Brisbane, the most rapidly growing area of Australia, the faithful travel between churches with great frequency, Archbishop Bathersby said. In an effort to reach everyone, his office has taken several steps.
“We have a dedicated phone number, cared for by a religious sister,” he said, and she knows how to respond to each situation. “There have only been about half a dozen phone calls so far. And in a letter I sent out to all the priests, I said if anyone has doubt they should be treated with the utmost sensitivity.”
Archbishop Bathersby expects the letter to be posted conspicuously in every parish.
The possibility remains — no matter where in the world — that someone invalidly baptized might die believing he was Christian.
“People are saying there must be a way around this,” Peters said, “because it’s not the fault of the baby, the parents or maybe even the priest.”
One concept coming up is Ecclesia supplet, the idea that where something has been deficient (proper words of baptism), the Church supplies what is missing (valid baptism). As Peters explained, however, Ecclesia supplet is the Church’s power to supply, under limited circumstances, jurisdiction for an act (Code of Canon Law, No. 144.1). And pretty clearly, this is not a case of jurisdiction: “The problem is that the Ecclesia cannot supplet invalid sacramental form; it just doesn’t reach that.”
But, Peters continued, there is no reason to despair.
“If that person died, God would provide for that child and would certainly look upon the actions of the parents who desired for their child to be baptized.”
He further clarified that while “baptism of desire” is not sacramental baptism, it has always been taught as a means of salvation. “God is the one who is allowed to work outside of his sacraments if he so chooses — not us.”
Bishop Finn agreed.
“In the end, the most we can hope for is a true innocence. We commend them in the same way that we do the unbaptized. The Church does not exclude them from God’s mercy.”
For those who might have doubts about their status, Msgr. Anthony Sherman, executive director of the Secretariat for Divine Worship of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, advised: “The first thing to do is go to your pastor. In many instances it can be addressed quickly. The mind of this document is not to send people around in circles: it’s to help them.”
Stephen Mirarchi is based
in St. Louis.