Baptism Blunder: The Curious Case of Father Matthew Hood

COMMENTARY: His baptism being invalid, so too were his confirmation and his ordination and many sacraments he administered. This situation strikes to the very core of what the sacraments are, and what the Church is.

(photo: Ruslan Lytvyn/Shutterstock)

Conferring a valid baptism is not rocket science. The Church teaches that all that is needed is some kind of washing with water, and the simple words, “I baptize you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

It isn’t complicated, and it isn’t supposed to be. Indeed, it’s so simple that literally anyone can do it. When necessary, parents can baptize their children, and vice versa. In dire circumstances, non-Christians can even baptize each other.

It is, in terms of its effects, the most powerful sentence that a person can utter. It is the bedrock of the Church’s great commission, to go forth and make disciples of all nations, and — one would think — after 2,000 years of practice, it should be hard to get it wrong. And yet....

Last month, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a clarification, noting that baptisms using the formula “we baptize you” instead of “I baptize you” are invalid. 

Last weekend, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit issued a pastoral letter on the strange case of Father Matthew Hood, who was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit three years ago — or so he thought.

It turned out Father Hood had been baptized (or rather hadn’t) using this invalidating phrase. His baptism being invalid, so too were his confirmation and his ordination. His ordination being invalid, so was every Mass he had celebrated, every confirmation, every sacramental absolution he had imparted.

For his own part, Father Hood has taken this rather shocking turn of events in an exemplary spirit, using the occasion to show real love for the sacrament, gratitude for his place in the Church, and joyful dedication to his priestly vocation.

But more broadly, his case has caused a stir among many Catholics, in Detroit and further afield.

Many, perhaps unnecessarily, are now asking questions about their own baptisms. Others have insisted that the episode highlights the twin sins of legalism and scrupulosity in the Church.

Surely, some are now saying, this whole situation shows how absurd the Church is behaving. No one, they say, doubts the intention of the deacon who (didn’t) baptize Father Matthew nearly 40 years ago. Surely the handwringing over an “I” here or a “we” there is pharisaic, and the mess and heartache it has caused unnecessary?

In fact, the situation cuts to the very core of what the sacraments are, and what the Church is.

“Say the black, do the red,” the old saying goes, and for good reason. The sacraments are not a spell, an incantation to be recited as an act of conjuring. But they are an act of profound communion, with the Church and with Christ himself.

In its response on the subject last month, the CDF noted that the specific question of whether a “we” can baptize was addressed by St. Thomas Aquinas, who answered that such a formula was contrary to the very nature of the minister of the sacrament. This same principle was repeated by the Second Vatican Council. “When a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes,” the Council said in Sacrosanctum Concilium, and this person-to-person interaction is central to the sacrament.

Comparing the common sacramental theology of Trent and Vatican II, the CDF concluded:

“The two Councils are therefore in harmony in declaring that they do not have the authority to subject the seven sacraments to the action of the Church. The Sacraments, in fact, inasmuch as they were instituted by Jesus Christ, are entrusted to the Church to be preserved by her.”

What does this mean for the baptism at the back of a church on a Sunday? It means that when the minister invokes a different formula, “we baptize,” he is announcing an intention and understanding different to the one given to and preserved by the Church.

It is a step away from her authority to guard and keep, but never change, the sacraments, which were left to her as the means of salvation.

It is a deviation in kind with those who have tried to baptize in the name of “the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier,” another fad that was found to be equally invalid.

The intention may be to effect what the Church effects: conferring baptism. But it implicitly rejects the guardianship of the Church over the sacrament, and her judgment over how it can be caused to happen. It is to say, in word and deed, that you know better than the Church, understand more than the Church. It is to claim an authority over the sacraments that the Church does not even claim for herself.

Nulla salus extra ecclesiam (there is no salvation outside the Church) is a phrase which has fallen out of all favor in the Church over the last 60 years. But it is worth remembering: To accept that salvation comes from the sacraments, rooted in baptism, is to accept the authority of the Church that has taught this belief for two millennia; and to break with one is to break with the other.

Words have meaning. In the sacraments, they have immense power: to configure a person to Christ, to consecrate the Eucharist, to forgive sins.

We are stewards of mysteries beyond our comprehension. But Christ was clear: there are wise stewards, and there are foolish ones. 

Ed Condon is the Washington bureau chief for Catholic News Agency.