‘If It’s Just a Symbol To Hell With It’

COMMENTARY: Flannery O’Connor’s Stark Defense of the Eucharist Applies to Baptism Too

The Baptism oil painting
The Baptism oil painting (photo: Pietro Longhi 1755 / Public Domain)

American novelist Flannery O’Connor once said, “If it's just a symbol, to hell with it,” in response to a friend who described the Eucharist as a “pretty good symbol.” These words came to mind as I read the non-Catholic media reaction to the invalid baptisms in the Diocese of Phoenix. 

Like the Holy Eucharist, baptism is much more than a symbol to Catholics. It is an outward, visible sign of an interior, invisible reality: Baptism washes away sin. We have an obligation to baptize because Jesus told us to. And we have an obligation in obedience and love to baptize correctly. Given that the non-Catholic media does not believe in sin or in the divine authority of Jesus, it is no wonder they are befuddled. 

Phoenix is not the first diocese in which clergy have used the wrong words in the sacrament of Baptism. Both in the Dioceses of Dallas Fort Worth and Detroit, the minister said, “We baptize you.” The prescribed form for administering the sacrament is “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” 

Why is the difference between “I” and “we” so significant?” The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explains, quoting Vatican II: “When a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes.” 

The CDF continues: 

When celebrating a Sacrament, the Church in fact functions as the Body that acts inseparably from its Head, since it is Christ the Head who acts in the ecclesial Body generated by him in the Paschal mystery…. the Church has safeguarded the form of the celebration of the Sacraments, above all in those elements to which Scripture attests and that make it possible to recognize with absolute clarity the gesture of Christ in the ritual action of the Church. The Second Vatican Council has likewise established that no one “even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.”

Jesus told us that baptism is necessary for salvation. We perform baptisms because Jesus told us to. We have no right to fool around with the direct specific commands of the Son of God. We are not the ultimate authority. Jesus Christ is. This is incomprehensible to the moral relativists in the media. 

So, they huff and puff. “Are all those invalidly baptized people in Phoenix going to hell?” Bishop Olmstead of Phoenix in his letter to the diocese, explains: 

“While God instituted the sacraments for us, He is not bound by them.  Though they are our surest access to grace, God can grant His grace in ways known only to Him. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, God has bound Himself to the sacraments, but He is not bound by the sacraments. This means that while we can be certain that God always works through the sacraments when they are properly conferred by the minister, God is not bound by the sacraments in that He can and does extend His grace in whatever measure and manner He wills. We can be assured that all who approached God, our Father, in good faith to receive the sacraments did not walk away empty-handed.”

When and how exactly God saves us in unusual situations, we cannot know. But we do know that the sacraments are the ordinary means that Jesus instituted to give us grace. When you think about it, it is amazing how much God promises us and how little he asks of us. (And we can’t even get the words right!) The Church is correct in instructing people that they should get baptized. And if you weren’t baptized correctly in the first place, come on back and we will get it done right!  

This is another sticking point that no doubt distresses the non-Catholic media. We cannot save ourselves. Having good intentions or being a “good person” is not enough. God saves us. And yet, for reasons that are not entirely clear to us, God wants our participation in his saving work. He didn’t need to institute the sacrament of baptism. He didn’t need to die on the cross. When it comes right down to it, he didn’t need to create us in the first place. From birth to death, God wants us to participate in his work. 

The invalid baptisms in Phoenix were a mistake, but as far as I can tell, an innocent mistake. A poorly trained priest evidently thought there was no harm in adlibbing his way through a ceremony, even with the proper books open in front of him. And to his credit, Father Arango is taking full responsibility for his mistake.  

It saddens me to learn that I have performed invalid baptisms throughout my ministry as a priest by regularly using an incorrect formula. I deeply regret my error and how this has affected numerous people in your parish and elsewhere. With the help of the Holy Spirit and in communion with the Diocese of Phoenix I will dedicate my energy and full-time ministry to help remedy this and heal those affected.  

No excuses. No explanations. No weasel words. Just a straightforward statement. “I was wrong. I’m sorry I hurt you. I am going to do my best to make things right.” 

How different from the “apologies” we’ve become accustomed to from people in public life! Honestly, I just want to say, “Father, you’re in the wrong century. Nobody in our time talks like this!” I just want to hug this priest, and his bishop, too!

And this is one last irritation to the non-Catholic media: Father Arango and Bishop Olmstead are focused on correcting the wrong they have done. Not minimizing it. Not expecting the injured parties to overlook it and “move on.”  Admitting a mistake is a radical countercultural act in our age of moral relativism. Men who make amends rather than excuses are men of authentic virtue and a rebuke to our habits of cheap grace and virtue signaling.

“If it’s just a symbol to hell with it.” If it’s just a symbol, as the nonbelieving world concludes, the Church’s attention to detail seems over-wrought. Flannery O’Connor’s defense of the Eucharist didn’t just end with “to hell with it.” She went on to say, the Eucharist “is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” That’s how it should be.

Baptism is not just a symbol. And the fact that it is real and that we take it seriously is precisely what the modern world cannot fathom.  

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