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Issue Date:  March 21, 2008

Wrong language renders baptism null

Gender-neutral words mean sacrament must be redone, Vatican says


Words make a difference -- so much of a difference that they can make a sacrament invalid, according to a declaration from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published Feb. 29. The congregation said gender-neutral language makes baptisms null. Formulas used by some Christian churches to replace the phrase “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” are not valid in Catholicism, the Vatican ruled.

The official note, approved by Pope Benedict XVI, said those baptized with alternative Trinitarian formulas, such as in the name “of the Creator, and of the Redeemer and of the Sanctifier” or “of the Creator, and of the Liberator and of the Sustainer” must be rebaptized if they wish to remain Catholic or to convert to Catholicism.

Responding to a formal inquiry about using modified forms of the baptismal rite that replace “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” with other descriptions, the Holy See stated that baptisms conducted in Christian churches without the proper Trinitarian form were invalid. Asked whether people who were initiated with a rite using these formulas would now need to be baptized “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” the congregation answered: “Affirmative.”

“Persons who were baptized or will be baptized in the future with the formulas in question in reality are not baptized,” said Cardinal Urbano Navarette in a commentary commissioned by the doctrinal congregation. “These adults who want to be baptized properly must receive the instruction prescribed for all preparing for baptism and they should receive baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist during the same Mass.” The most serious consequence, he said, is likely to be seen in the area of marriage where no sacrament exists if both spouses had been baptized with an invalid formula. In a separate commentary also commissioned by the doctrinal congregation, Msgr. Antonio Miralles, a professor at Rome’s Pontifical Holy Cross University, said “expressions that invalidate the conferral of a true baptism cannot be tolerated by the church.” He said the church has no authority “to change that which Christ himself instituted” when he told his disciples to go out and baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

Capuchin Fr. Tom Weinandy, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Doctrine, commented: “I think if you are over the age of 45 or 50, you have nothing to fear.” Those in the younger generations shouldn’t “have a huge amount of fear” either, he added.

“If you are not validly baptized,” and thus not validly married, “a person needs to get rebaptized and remarried,” Weinandy said. However, unless a witness at the baptism knows that an incorrect formula was used, it is assumed they used the right formula. “The presumption is … that the baptism is valid.”

The Vatican “wants to make sure the formula is the proper formula,” Weinandy told Catholic News Service. Instances in which a baptism has been considered invalid have been “very, very, very few and far between,” he said.

That may be the case in the United States. However, the Catholic archdiocese of Brisbane, Australia, admitted in a March 6 article in the city’s newspaper, The Courier-Mail, that dozens, even hundreds, of Catholics may have been illicitly baptized “in a bungle the church is now trying to correct.” The archdiocese’s chancellor, Fr. Jim Spence, was quoted saying that one parish was known to have used nontraditional formulas for baptism prior to 2004, when the priests in that parish were ordered to revert to the traditional words. “Some people may be unaware their baptisms were wrongly administered,” said Spence. A phone number was listed in the article for Catholics to call if they had concerns.

Revising the formula for baptism can “undermine faith in the Trinity,” the Congregation said. The traditional formula is an “adequate expression of Trinitarian faith” and a response to Christ’s command. “Approximate formulae are unacceptable,” Weinandy said.

The Vatican document was signed by Cardinal William Levada and Archbishop Angelo Amato, the prefect and secretary, respectively, of the congregation.

Fr. Lawrence Mick, a priest of the Cincinnati archdiocese, author and consultant on the liturgy, told NCR: “Practically, if there is a known community in the area that has made a point of nontraditional baptism words, pastors will ask where one’s baptism took place, but otherwise how would one know when to question?”

“Words are the heart of ritual activity and have a tremendous impact on faith formation,” Eileen Burke-Sullivan, professor of sacramental theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., told NCR. “By and large, Catholic priests and deacons presiding over infant and adult baptisms will continue to use the required formula. Problems may arise in the catechumenate wherein someone has been baptized by a Christian church that did not employ the right formula.”

This recent clarification would relegate some persons from other communions to the status of non-Christian because they haven’t been baptized with the right formula, she said. (Presently the Catholic church recognizes most baptisms performed in other Christian churches.) “We should care about this for ecumenical reasons. Unity is a gift of the Spirit in Christianity that can be stifled by asserting one group’s way of doing something is better than the larger group’s wisdom.”

It’s really an inclusive language issue, Burke-Sullivan said. “There are probably better ways to promote gender balance and faith development in this highly divisive climate of the church now.”

“If someone knows for a fact they were baptized with another formula, they should say something,” said Charity Sr. Susan Wood, theology professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. She said she was pleased with the Vatican announcement, adding that the pastoral response should be “to be aware of what’s correct and why and move forward honoring the tradition of the church.”

The last Vatican decree on sacramental wording occurred in 2001 when the congregation and other offices ruled that the eucharistic prayer, or “anaphora,” used by two sister churches in the Eastern Syrian liturgical family was valid even though it did not include the traditional words of institution used by the Western church. The “anaphora” of Addai and Mari used by the Assyrian and Chaldean Catholic churches does not include the phrases “This is my body” or “This is the cup of my blood.” The Vatican assured Catholics who fulfilled the conditions to receive Communion consecrated at an Assyrian Eucharist using the anaphora of Addai and Mari that they are receiving the one true body and blood of Christ.

In the light of Catholic teaching on the centrality of words of institution in the eucharistic prayer, some asked how the church could authorize such a rubric. “Rome has always respected tradition, and Addai and Mari are nothing if not traditional. Scholars are unanimous in agreeing it is one of the most ancient anaphoras in continuous use in the age-old Eastern Syrian Christendom of Mesopotamia since time immemorial,” said Jesuit Fr. Robert F. Taft, an expert on Byzantine liturgies.

“That was a different issue really,” Mick said, “more about what constitutes the proper form for consecration and transubstantiation. It remains to be seen how the declaration on baptism will play out pastorally in churches.”

Rich Heffern is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is John L. Allen Jr. contributed reporting to this story.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2008

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