Who baptizes? Sacramental Specificity in an Autocorrect World – Catholic World Report

Father Matthew Browne pours water over the head of 5-month-old Rocco Richard O’Toole during his baptism August 16, 2020 at St. Dominic Church in Oyster Bay, NY (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

“Do this in memory of me.” –Luke 22:19

For several years I have been observing the slow but steady erosion of my spelling ability. With the increasing ubiquity of spell checking, and especially the autocorrect features in word processing software, I subconsciously developed a sense that all I had to do was learn close to the words I want to type and leave the rest to the device I’m using.

It’s so easy to take a similar approach to the Christian life. The truth of God’s mercy is so overwhelming, so powerful, and so much at the heart of all Catholic teaching that it can have the psychological effect of overwhelming other truths.

In the minds and hearts of countless Catholics, no fewer theologians, and even many ministers, “mercy” seems to have become the name for a sort of divine auto-corrective attribute that inevitably and invisibly converts our “closing” into “good enough.” God’s mercy is gradually becoming seen as an ever-present force that turns attempts into achievements and gives promised rewards even when we don’t keep our promises.

This erroneous view of God’s mercy enlivens many of the reactions to recent reports of invalid baptisms, perhaps numbering in the thousands, being celebrated by a priest in the diocese of Phoenix, Arizona. Many have publicly criticized the church, accusing it of limiting and misrepresenting God’s mercy, which they say a one-word change from “I baptize” to “we baptize” cannot prevent.

Before we criticize such reactions to this scandal, it must be said that every man, woman and child must thank God for his great goodness and mercy! As the old song puts it, there is an expanse in God’s mercy, and we should all rejoice and find immense relief in that expanse.

At the same time, our gratitude for God’s mercy must never degenerate into arrogance, whether in these invalid baptisms or in any other aspect of God’s saving work. Salvation is a gift that God offers to the whole world, and He gives it freely, but He does not give it unconditionally.

In the new and everlasting covenant that God has made with us in His Son, Jesus Christ, He has made specific promises and called us to a specific response. God reveals himself to humanity in concrete words and deeds, to use the language of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of Vatican II, your verb. And God calls us to remain in communion with him through certain words and deeds, especially through the seven sacraments which are central to his saving work in the Church.

It may seem confusing to begin this article with a title that refers to the sacrament of baptism, followed by a scriptural verse from Christ’s institution of the Holy Eucharist. But in this verse we find a key to understanding the whole of sacramental economy.

“Do this” does not only express the entrustment of the Eucharist to those first priests, the apostles. The phrase also expresses the “thisness” of all sacraments, beginning with baptism. It expresses their Christological specificity.

As we say and do what Christ said, did, and gave, the sacraments work and save us. We do not invent the sacraments. We receive them from Christ in his church and serve them as stewards.

But can one word mean so much? In August 2020, we faced the same question here in the Archdiocese of Detroit, where I live and serve. Like the priest in Phoenix, one of our deacons chose to use the words “we baptize” instead of “I baptize.” Like the priest in Phoenix, this deacon certainly meant no harm. But as in the case of Phoenix, the spiritual lives of thousands of people were damaged.

Here in Detroit that damage was done both directly and indirectly by one of our young priests whom this deacon attempted to baptize illegally. This priest has since received the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion and Holy Orders. But for three years he had no idea that all of his sacraments, including his ordinations, were invalid, and that almost all of the sacraments he celebrated in the early years of his apparent priesthood were invalid.

Shortly before the outbreak of the baptismal scandal in Detroit, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the corresponding resolution on the baptismal formula:

First question: Whether the baptism conferred with the formula «We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit» is valid?

Second question: Whether those persons for whom this formula was baptized need to be baptized in absolute form?


To the first question: Negative.

To the second question: Positive.

Not since the distinction was made homoousios and homoiousios Has the elimination of an “I/i” made such a tremendous difference in the life of the Church!

It should be noted again that the offending clerics certainly thought they were doing a good deed when they changed the words of the baptismal formula. I happen to know the deacon involved in the Detroit case and think he’s a good-hearted man. The Phoenix Priest also seems sincere and truly contrite.

It is most unfortunate, even toxic, that for decades there has been a high degree of tolerance in the Church for tampering with the words and deeds we have been placed in trust for the celebration of the sacred rites by which Christ is present and active among us is.

The invalidation of so many sacraments by the reformulation of the words of baptism is an alarm that all Catholics should heed. This alarm signals a state of decay that can have ultimate consequences for those whose communion with the Church is hindered, as well as for those who commit, encourage, or applaud unauthorized changes in the rites of Christ and His Church.

The words we use in our sacramental celebrations are important. Sacraments combine actions with words to make Christ present and active among His people at all times and places. For example, the “I” of the formula “I baptize you” expresses the truth that it is Christ who baptizes in and through His servant.

Sacramental celebrations consist of definite words and actions, not to impose any kind of military ceremonial rigidity or to evoke the specter of magical rituals. After all, what is more magical than insisting on saying and doing what Christ has given us to say and do, or implying that even if a minister says the wrong thing, the right effect will still occur?

In all areas of human activity, especially in the more important ones, precision is essential. From brain surgery to international diplomacy, from athletics to cooking and everything in between, there are right and wrong ways to speak and act. Every way of speaking and acting has its own consequences.

Words in particular are threatened today by shifts in meaning and inaccuracies. But our words have consequences, big and small. Romano Guardini, in his book on eschatology, offers a most powerful reminder of the urgency of our concern for words:

A word is not just a sign to convey meaning. It is a living being that embodies spirit. Together with other words, it forms language, and language is the space in which man lives. It is from the world of mental images that the light of truth always shines upon him. When one word expires, we don’t just become unsure of the meaning of the other. One of the forms that make up our life has disappeared. A signpost has become illegible. A light has gone out and our intellectual day has grown darker. To restore to its original meaning a word which has been destroyed by careless use is a service to the whole of human life.

The heart of every truly Christian observer aches for those who have discovered the invalidity of their baptism. I have provided pastoral care to these people here in Detroit, and have also been asked for advice from time to time as to the validity of certain dubious baptisms. The need to keep the connection between theory and practice strong in these matters is very close to my heart.

The best service we can render to these victims of sacramental invalidity and to the whole Church is not to question the wisdom of the Church as to what constitutes a valid sacrament. Rather, we are called to do all we can to help those in need now of sacraments they thought they had already received and to advocate faithfulness in the celebration of the sacramental rites of Christ and His Church.

In his 1930 book The new and everlasting covenant, Dom Anscar Vonier writes that “the perfect expression of faith” is “to see the gift of God, to praise it, to sing of his glory”. May all Catholics, clergy and lay alike, be granted a clear conception of the sacramental gifts that God has given to His Church, praise Him for those gifts, sing of their glory, and faithfully celebrate them for the salvation of the whole world.

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