Faulty Trinitarian Formula

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Faulty Trinitarian Formula

ROME, 22 FEB. 2011 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I recently attended a rite of profession of perpetual vows. I was disturbed by the actual profession formula that was used. I would appreciate your opinion. The profession of vows in this case was addressed to "Holy God, creator, redeemer and sanctifier." The theological inadequacies of this expression as a Trinitarian formula are clear to me. However, I have two questions: 1) Given that religious profession is a gift through which a person is deepened in their baptismal consecration, and given that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has recently ruled that any baptisms performed using the above erroneous Trinitarian formula are invalid, what, if any, are the consequences of this regarding the validity of the profession I witnessed? 2) Given the gross theological inadequacy of the Trinitarian formula used, could this situation also raise questions of invalidity on the basis of insufficient knowledge on the part of the person making the profession, or on the basis that this person has a seriously erroneous concept of God? — M.F., Suva, Fiji Islands

As our reader mentioned, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) answered the following questions on Feb. 1, 2008:

"First question: Whether the Baptism conferred with the formulas «I baptize you in the name of the Creator, and of the Redeemer, and of the Sanctifier» and «I baptize you in the name of the Creator, and of the Liberator, and of the Sustainer» is valid?

"Second question: Whether the persons baptized with those formulas have to be baptized in forma absoluta?


"To the first question: Negative.

"To the second question: Affirmative.

"The Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI, at the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, approved these Responses, adopted in the Ordinary Session of the Congregation, and ordered their publication."

The technical expression "in forma absoluta" is in contrast with conditional baptism. In other words, there is no doubt as to the invalidity of baptism using the above-mentioned formulas.
The CDF did not offer the theological reasoning behind its decision. But I think it is safe to say that it has less to do with the theological deficiencies of the formula than with the necessity to remain faithful to the essential elements directly mandated by Our Lord.

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that any change in the essential form of a sacrament renders that sacrament invalid. For example, if the minister were to say, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin" this would invalidate the sacrament. If the change did not vary the essential elements, it would be illicit but not invalid, as would be the case if one were to say, "I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and may the Blessed Virgin protect you."

Because the invalidity of the sacrament is based on altering the essential words of the form (and not so much on its theological deficiency) I would say that the use of this formula in a rite of religious profession would not in itself affect its validity. The profession as a juridical act takes on many forms in accordance with the spirituality of each institute, and a specific mention of the Trinity is not required. What is essential is the profession of the evangelical counsels in accordance with the dispositions of a specific religious institute within the Church.

It is also doubtful that this particular erroneous concept of God would invalidate the profession. The substitution of the traditional Trinitarian formula for these versions is a relic of a once-fashionable ideology masquerading as theology.

These expressions are not so much erroneous as incomplete. God is certainly creator, redeemer and sanctifier. However, substituting the Trinitarian Persons for divine actions impoverishes the biblical concept of God.

God the Creator is not quite the same as God the Father Creator. In the first case, we could be left with a deist watchmaker or some similar abstract concept, whereas the notion of Father Creator implies self-giving love and providence. Likewise, the concept of God the Son is far richer than that of redeemer, as it tells us more about the Father's love in sending the redeemer and the nature of redemption as not just forgiveness of sins but divine adoption in the Son.

Much more could be said but it would require a thesis. Although I do not believe that this formula invalidates the religious profession, I would recommend to our reader to see if is possible to enrich the religious in question with a more complete theological formation that would allow them to consciously renew their formulas.

* * *

Follow-up: Faulty Trinitarian Formula [3-8-2011]

Pursuant to our Feb. 22 piece on an erroneous Trinitarian formula, a reader asked: "A minister of the Church, while performing a baptism, became slightly flustered by noisy children. He began the baptism with: 'I baptize you in the name of God the Father' then realized he had added a word but decided to keep going on the same track, presuming it would be OK from the validity point of view: '… and of God the Son and of God the Holy Spirit.' Was the baptism valid?"

Yes. Although the formula was not the official text, it contained all of the essential sacramental words and the additions did nothing to alter their meaning.

By this I do not mean to say that the minister may arbitrarily change the words, provided that he conserves the essential elements. Rather, I simply underline the fact that in this particular case the actions of a flustered minister did not affect the validity of the sacrament.

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