I’m Worried That My Baptism Was Invalid — Am I Still a Pagan?

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: “In case of necessity, any person can baptize provided that he have the intention of doing that which the Church does and provided that he pours water on the candidate’s head while saying: ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’” (CCC 1284)

Felice Riccio, “The Baptism of Constantine,” ca. 1575
Felice Riccio, “The Baptism of Constantine,” ca. 1575 (photo: Public Domain)

Q. I was baptized in NYC in the '60s. The Irish priest who performed the ceremony was a drunk. According to the family, he regularly slurred words during Mass – they joked that he forgot the words and so mumbled. If the words are not clearly pronounced, the Baptism is not valid. Should I re-do all of my sacraments to stay on the safe side. I live in Western North Carolina but my parish is too liberal – so I don't trust my priest’s answer. — Name withheld

A. Clear pronunciation is not a condition for a valid baptism. Though mumbling or stumbling through the words of a sacramental formula is rude to the recipients and disrespectful of the sacrament, an indication — in the absence of some pathology that compromises oral expression — of a sloppy and irresponsible priest, nevertheless they are not impediments to the confecting of sacramental grace.

If the baptismal formula is tampered with, then the baptism could be invalid. We are probably familiar with the recent Phoenix case where a priest for years used the formula “we baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” rather than “I baptize you …” Bishop Thomas Olmsted ruled that all the baptisms performed using “we” were invalid, which apparently was thousands. This is not your scenario, so do not heap a burden upon your conscience that you are not sure God wants you to carry.

What then is required for a valid sacrament?

Three elements, according to the Council of Florence (1438-1445), are required: “things as the matter, words as the form, and the person of the minister who confers the sacrament with the intention of doing what the Church does” (emphasis added). The Council says, “if any of these is lacking, the sacrament is not effected (non perficitur)” (Exultate Deo). 

The necessary “thing” (res) is natural water (Trent uses the phrase “true and natural water”, Canon 4, 1547). The formula (the “words”) is “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” And the minister, the “person,” is the one conferring the sacrament “with the intention of doing what the Church does” (Exultate Deo). Trent infallibly repeats these three, including the last phrase “with the intention of doing what the Church does.” The Roman baptismal ritual for children promulgated by Pope St. Paul VI in 1969 refers to the minister’s “requisite intention,” meaning precisely what Florence and Trent mean by “with the intention of doing what the Church does.”

What is it that the Church does? The Church saves souls by making baptism available to every rightly-disposed person. Following Scripture and definitive Tradition, baptism is confected by the immersion in (or pouring of) water over the head of the elect by a minister who simultaneously repeats the correct formula. The minister must intend that the person be baptized. He need not be in a state of grace, nor need he have great faith. Pope Leo XIII taught: 

A person who has correctly and seriously used the requisite matter and form to effect and confer a sacrament is presumed for that very reason to have intended to do what the Church does (Apostolicae curae, 33, emphasis added).

What is excluded, however, is the resolve not to do what the Church does, for this would constitute a moral act preventative of the activity of sacramental grace, like a man who confesses a sin he resolves not to cease committing. In 1690, Pope Alexander VIII condemned the Jansenist error: 

A Baptism is valid when conferred by a minister who observes every external rite and form of baptizing, but within, in his heart, resolves to himself: not to intend what the Church does (see here). 

One may wonder whether the doctrine of “ex opere operato” implies that such non-intending is relevant given that sacraments are validly conferred even by priests in unrepentant mortal sin. The answer is No, the doctrine does not exclude rightful intention as a necessary condition for valid baptism. Why is this?

The work (opera) must be a human act. A robot or a recording of a priest’s voice, for example, couldn’t confect the Holy Eucharist; and nor could they be used to baptize. If Baptism is a human act, and acts, as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, are specified by their intentions (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 1, a. 3), then to intend not to baptize is, well, not to baptize, even if certain external behaviors are correct. 

Aquinas says these behaviors must be “determined to one purpose,” namely, to confect the sacrament, and such determining is actualized “by the intention” of him who performs the sacramental rite. This intention is externally expressed by the words pronounced in the sacraments (ST, III, 64, a. 8c).

A priest in mortal sin can validly baptize because he can fulfill all three conditions without being in a state of grace: use proper matter (water), state the proper formula (“I baptize you …”) and intend to perform the priestly duty of confecting a sacrament. As is said in moral theology, you get what you intend.

If, however, a liquid other than water or the incorrect baptismal formula is used, then the baptism is invalid, that is, it never comes into existence. This is very consequential as an invalid baptism invalidates any subsequent sacrament, including confirmation, marriage and holy orders.

So unless you have grounds for doubting the priest’s intention, you should presume, following Pope Leo’s teaching, the validity of your baptism. 

If, however, you have good reasons for doubting his intention, then you should get conditionally baptized, which if your first baptism was valid, will do nothing, but if it was not, then you will receive the sacrament (see Code of Canon Law, 869 §1). In addition, in the face of such doubt, you should receive all other sacraments germane to your state in life, receive them, that is, conditionally.

If you or the folks in Phoenix or anyone else has well-grounded doubts about the validity of their baptism and so of subsequent sacraments that they believed they received, do not fret. God can and does confer grace outside the ordinary sacramental order. The very fact that you are concerned about this question tells us that God’s grace is at work in you. Is it baptismal grace? Presumably. But even if it is only a kind of anticipatory grace, called “prevenient grace,” it can be salvific for you and anyone desirous of receiving true baptism. Both you and they should never fear that God’s saving grace has not been at work in your lives.

A genuinely Catholic approach to baptism sees salvation as something communal and embodied.

Water Is Thicker Than Blood

COMMENTARY: Our baptism into Christ’s passion and death purifies our political passions and saves us from deadly idolatry.