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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Roman Catholic Church Adopts Sectarian Baptismal Stance

Image by Jercy Rhea Senecio from Pixabay

The year began with the fires in Australia and the onset of a global pandemic, and has continued through tornadoes, earthquakes, more fires, and no end of terrible injustices against marginalized people. Fortunately, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has remained laser-focused on what really matters. For instance, this past June they declared that in English the only valid baptism formula is, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." They also made clear that this rule is retroactive, invalidating any baptisms that did not conform to these precise words. According to Religious News Service, if even 'I' is changed to 'we,' the baptism is invalid. Yes, indeed, the Roman Catholic Church is really on the cutting edge...of something. What follows is a selection of quotes from the RNS article, with my comments.

This caused absolute chaos in Detroit, where the Rev. Matthew Hood saw in a video of his 1990 baptism that Deacon Mark Springer used the “We” formula. As a result, Hood was not a Christian, let alone a priest, because he could not be validly ordained a priest if he was not validly baptized. 
 
Hood’s situation was quickly remedied on Aug. 9 with his baptism and on Aug. 17 with his ordination. But the archdiocese is trying to track down everyone baptized by Deacon Springer, who served in Detroit from 1986 to 1999. How many other priests and deacons around the country used "We" is unknown. 
 
But since his ordination in 2017 was invalid, people who went to Hood’s “Masses” did not really attend Mass and did not receive consecrated bread at Communion. It also means that his absolutions in confession were not sacramental. His confirmations and anointing of the sick were also invalid. When he performed these sacraments, he was not even a Christian, let alone a priest. 
 
Thankfully, his baptisms were valid because a non-Christian can perform a valid baptism.

That seems pretty bad, right? It could be worse, if you believe in these things:

In a worst-case scenario, there might even be a bishop who was invalidly baptized. Not only are his Masses, confessions and confirmations invalid, so too are his ordinations. That means the men he ordained are not priests and all of the sacraments they performed are invalid. 

By tinkering with such fine details around the foundational sacrament of orthodox Christianity the Congregation has managed to create massive chaos. Entire swaths of the church are possibly no longer validly part of the church. Catholics might not really be 'Christians' by the current definition of their church. Priests might not be priests, and every Mass they ever said was in error. 

This is all nonsense, of course. First because none of it is real in the sense of being based in factual reality. Second because if the underlying beliefs truly were real , then it'd ridiculous to think that a group of men could undo the work of God with their definitions. What they're probably trying to get at is that it's not their rule, but the reality of what works that's at issue. If they go back on this declaration, it can only be as an admission of error on their part, and the Catholic hierarchy isn't great at admitting to error. 

I can't help but wonder what this will do to their ecumenical relations.

In addition, the Orthodox churches have never used the Roman church’s formula. They use the passive voice: “May this servant of Christ be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit;” or, “This person is baptized by my hands in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Such Orthodox baptisms have been recognized as valid by the Roman Catholic Church since the Council of Florence in 1439.

This puts the Congregation at odds with a church council. Can they really mean that the exact phrase beginning with 'I' is the only correct way to state the baptismal formula? It would be strange for them to say that it's exclusively valid way, but for Roman Catholics only. And if they make an exception for the Orthodox, then why not for the Protestants? When I left the Roman Catholic Church I joined a Presbyterian parish. The pastor asked me prior to joining whether I'd been baptized, and I said that yes of course I had been, in the Catholic church. That was enough for him, in keeping with the ancient decisions of the Christian church about what makes a baptism valid. Later on, after leaving the mainline, I was baptized by immersion. That was aligned with my newfound understanding of the proper mode of baptism. In the eyes of more traditional Protestant churches as well as the Catholic and Orthodox communions, that was an unnecessary 'rebaptism.' Now, the Congregation has managed to really muddle things.

Now, there is one such declaration they've made that I agree with, in the sense that they're reasoning from a Trinitarian standpoint.

This isn’t the first time the formula, which the congregation holds was mandated by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, has been tested. Some priests have tried gender-neutral nouns: “I baptize you in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier.” Others used “Creator, Liberator and Sustainer.”

This newer phrasing has reportedly become popular among mainline churches, particularly among clergy attempting to avoid the patriarchal tone of 'father/son' language. The trouble is that it reflects a Modalist theology. Modalism denies that God is three persons in one being, affirming instead that there is one God who reveals himself in three different 'modes.' Speaking of a 'Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier' certainly looks like a boiling down of the persons of the godhead into modes. 

As a Unitarian Universalist this really isn't my ballgame. We don't require any form of baptism, though we do have some few congregations that practice it. King's Chapel in Boston, for example, christens infants when parents request it, and despite being Unitarian in theology they have always used the Trinitarian formula, as it is the one found in the Gospel of Matthew, and about which most of Christendom agrees. It's possible that some UU congregation has used a variety of the Modalist formula, though that really doesn't matter, since we have no commitment to any definition of God's nature. We don't even agree among ourselves that any gods exist. 

If this decision within the Roman Catholic Church stands, I'll be interested to see how it's applied in ecumenical relations and how it plays out in rebaptisms and invalidated sacraments.