Questionable Baptism

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Questionable Baptism

ROME, 10 NOV. 2009 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I recently witnessed a baptism, and I am not certain if it was valid. During the baptism, the deacon grabbed the baby's father's hand and, while the deacon recited the baptismal formula ("Name, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"), he and the father both poured the water over the baby's head three times. I am the godmother of this child. I became concerned about the baptism before it took place, because when I and the parents participated in the preparation class, the deacon told us that in order to get other people involved in the baptism, he would have their baby's grandfather pour the water while he (the deacon) recited the baptismal formula. I was afraid that this change to the form of the sacrament might invalidate the baptism, so a couple of weeks before the baptism I asked the mother of the child to talk to the deacon and request that he himself pour the water and recite the words. The mother talked to the deacon a few days before the baptism, and the deacon insisted that it is OK for someone else to pour the water while he said the baptismal formula. The mother told me about this conversation on the day of the baptism. I, in turn, insisted that the deacon be the one to pour the water and recite the formula. In the end, as a kind of compromise, the deacon grabbed the child's father's hand and they poured the water together, while the deacon said the baptismal formula. I am wondering if the baptism of this child was valid since the form was changed. As the godmother, I feel like it is my obligation to ensure that this child was validly baptized. Also, would a baptism be valid if, in ordinary circumstances, a deacon/priest recited the formula while someone else pours the water, or vice versa? Along the same lines, can a person who has no arms or is unable to speak baptize a child? It seems to me that, in order for a baptism to be valid, the person administering the baptism must both pour the water three times and recite the valid baptismal formula. — E.R., San Clemente, California
A: This is a very grave situation and I recommend that our reader inform the deacon's pastor and the local bishop as soon as possible. In this particular case, the fact that the deacon did pour the water upon the child's head while saying the words makes it probable that the baby was effectively baptized; but this is not absolutely certain and a conditional baptism might be warranted.
Since, however, it would appear that the aforementioned deacon frequently had someone else pour the water while he recited the words of baptism, then there are certainly a number of children who have been baptized invalidly, and it is necessary to do everything possible to trace them and administer proper baptism.
For the rite of baptism to be valid it is necessary that the person who performs the ablution be the same as the one saying the Trinitarian formula. It makes no sense whatsoever to say, "I baptize you" if in fact someone else is doing the baptism. ("Baptism" means to bathe or dip.)
Sadly, this is not the first time that the above erroneous practice has occurred. In another country the Holy See ordered that several years of baptisms be repeated, or, rather, carried out for the first time.
The Church requires certainty with regard to the validity of the sacraments, and it is never permitted to proceed on the basis of probable validity of either matter or form of the sacrament.
Thus, on Feb. 8, 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed the related question of those ministers of baptism who changed the precise terms of the Trinitarian form of the sacrament. With the approval of the Holy Father it answered the following questions:
"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 expression forma absoluta means that the baptism is done without using any conditional phrases because there is no doubt that the original baptismal ceremony was invalid.

* * *

Follow-up: Questionable Baptism [11-24-2009]

There were several reactions to our Nov. 10 piece regarding an invalid procedure in carrying out a baptism. Readers desired to know how far a minister can deviate from the approved rite without invalidating the sacrament.

First of all, there should be no deviations from the approved rite. The present rite of baptism was developed from a pre-eminently pastoral standpoint. Likewise, national bishops' conferences have been granted wide leeway to make further adaptations in the light of each country's particular traditions. Thus, there should be no need for further personal embellishments by ministers in the name of pastoral efficacy but rather an intelligent use of the rich pastoral instrument they have at their disposal.

However, when such abuses do occur it is, thankfully, quite difficult to invalidate the sacrament of baptism as its minimum requirements are very basic.

These minimum requirements consist in the minister pouring water over the person to be baptized while saying the Trinitarian formula: "N., I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

Deviations in the form which do not change the essential meaning, such as: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit," or additions such as "Amen" or "Alleluia" are illicit but would not be sufficient to invalidate the sacrament.

Changes that modify the essential meaning of the Trinitarian formula, such as those mentioned in our previous answer, do invalidate the sacrament.

Deviations or errors in the matter such as failing to pour water three times or failing to immerse at least part of the head during a baptism by immersion would once again be illicit ritual failures, but they would not in themselves make the sacrament invalid.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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