Simplifying the Formula: A Note on the Validity of Baptisms

In June 2020, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a doctrinal note on the validity of baptism conferred with the formula “We baptize you in the name of the Holy Spirit” instead of the traditional “I baptize you in the name of the Holy Spirit.” Pushing back against “the deliberate modification of the sacramental formula” that was “introduced to emphasize the communitarian significance of Baptism . . . and to avoid the idea of the concentration of sacred power in the priest,” the CDF ruled that substituting “We” for “I” invalidates the sacrament.

At the time, with the world at the height of the first wave of the pandemic and the nation still reeling from the murder of George Floyd, the CDF’s note garnered little attention, even among Catholics. By 2021, conversation around sacramental theology had shifted to the now-infamous US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ proposed document on “eucharistic consistency,” with talk of baptismal formulas far off the radar.

This changed last month, when Fr. Andres Arango resigned as pastor of St. Gregory Parish in Phoenix, Arizona, for having used the “We” formula for years, potentially nullifying thousands of baptisms under the CDF’s ruling. Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix accepted the resignation and said that he does “not believe Fr. Andres had any intentions to harm the faithful or deprive them of the grace of baptism and the sacraments.” He also said that Fr. Arango remains a priest in good standing with the diocese. The story was picked up by national news outlets like USA Today, once again proving the media’s fascination with some of the church’s more arcane rituals.

In a very general sense, the situation in Phoenix provides insight into two countervailing trends in Catholic thought and practice. There are those in the church who might be alarmed at Fr. Arango’s inadvertent mistake—and who would, had they been under his pastoral care, be worried about the status of church-sanctioned confirmations and marriages that flow from the baptismal sacrament. And there are those who, perhaps taking a less tightly circumscribed view of the priest as sole arbiter of grace and channel of the Spirit of Christ who presides over the baptism, might focus instead on the intention of the words—and conclude that, so long as the priest is acting as a facilitator of the Spirit, such scrupulous attention to pronouns is unnecessary. They might even favor the more inclusive tone of the “We” formula. Rev. Stephen P. Newton, CSC, Executive Director of the Association of US Catholic Priests and campus minister of Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, advanced this view in a statement to students: “The Vatican’s argument is that it is not the community that is baptizing,” he wrote. “Nor is it even the priest, except in persona Christi—in the person of Christ, and Christ is an I, not a we. Not so fast, my friend. If we are the Body of Christ, Christ is a we.”

There are also those who may feel that the whole affair is a little overblown, even a little ridiculous, in light of all the other problems in the world and church today. Such an intense focus on the minutiae of the formula, their argument might go, betrays a lack of trust in the efficacy of the Spirit and risks tainting the work of the sacrament with an air of superstition: when we ground the sacramental moment too deeply in one priest’s power of incantation, we shift our attention from a mystery experienced together to the quasi-magical utterances of a single man. One is reminded of the Navarre Bible’s commentary on Acts 8:9–13, the episode of Simon the magician: “The Apostles do not perform miracles through powers which they have in their personal control [emphasis mine]; they always perform them by virtue of God’s power, which they obtain by means of prayer.”

By way of comparison, one is also reminded of the eucharistic theology of the Orthodox Church, where the moment of transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is less rigidly affixed to the actions of the priest. The “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” blog of Ancient Faith Ministries explains:

Roman Catholics believe that transubstantiation is the “change” that occurs in the “whole substance” of the bread and wine set apart for the Eucharistic mystery. This is a change that takes place at the words of institution or consecration (i.e. “This is My Body,” etc.). There’s some Scholastic language here, of course, but that’s the basic gist.

In the Orthodox tradition, you will find it taught variously that this change takes place anywhere between the Proskomedia (the Liturgy of Preparation)—which is now a separate service prior to both Orthros and the Divine Liturgy on a typical Sunday, though traditionally it is done during Orthros—and the Epiklesis (“calling down”), or invocation of the Holy Spirit “upon us and upon these gifts here set forth” . . . As such, the gifts should be treated with reverence throughout the entirety of the service. We don’t know the exact time in which the change takes place, and this is left to mystery.

There is a similar self-effacing in the Orthodox sacrament of baptism, where the priest uses the passive voice (“This Servant of God is baptized . . .”) instead of drawing attention to his own agency. The focus, again, shifts to the Holy Spirit as collectively experienced by those gathered “in His name.”

In an interview with the Washington Post about the “faulty pronoun” in the baptismal formula, Rev. Thomas Reese makes an important point. Vatican officials, he says, “think there’s a problem and issue a document to resolve it, and they do that without any wide consultation.” He continues, “The proper way to do this is to say: ‘This issue has been raised, this is something we are studying.’ Then invite theologians and canon lawyers to send in comments.”

Wherever one falls on the issue in Phoenix—alarmed, nonplussed, or somewhere in between—Rev. Reese’s call to greater synodality at all levels of the church is welcome. It would ensure we draw on the widest possible range of intellectual, spiritual, and ecclesial resources to discern and act upon our most pressing theological questions. And for those still trepidatious about their standing in the church, Rev. Reese offered some pithy pastoral advice: “If you do not know how you were baptized, don’t worry about it. Very few ministers used the wrong formula. If without your knowledge you were incorrectly baptized, God will take care of it.” ♦

Michael Centore
Editor, Today’s American Catholic

Photo: “Bautizo,” Alberto Poggioli / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

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2 replies
  1. Eugene Ciarlo W-1
    Eugene Ciarlo W-1 says:

    Furthermore, if one cares to be dogmatic and canonical, whatever happened to “ecclesia supplet,” if some human makes a mistake?

    Reply

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