“Do this in memory of me.” –Luke 22:19
For a few years now, I have observed the slow but steady corrosion of my spelling ability. With the rising ubiquity of spell-check and especially auto-correct features in word processing software, I have subconsciously developed a sense that I only need to get close to the words I intend to type, leaving the rest to whatever device I am using.
It is so very easy to take a similar approach to the Christian life. The truth of God’s mercy is so staggering, so powerful, and so much at the heart of all Catholic doctrine that it can have the psychological effect of overwhelming other truths.
In the minds and hearts of countless Catholics, not a few theologians, and even many clerics, “mercy” seems to have become the name for a kind of divine auto-correct feature, one that invariably and invisibly turns our “close” into “good enough.” God’s mercy comes to be seen as an omnipresent force that turns attempts into accomplishments and gives promised rewards even when we fail to keep our promises.
This erroneous view of God’s mercy animates many of the responses to recent reports of invalid baptisms, perhaps numbering in the thousands, celebrated by a priest of the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona. Many have publicly criticized the Church, accusing her of constraining and misrepresenting God’s mercy which, according to their view, cannot be thwarted by a one-word change from “I baptize” to “we baptize.”
Before critiquing such responses to this scandal, it needs to be said that every man, woman, and child must thank God for His great goodness and His mercy! As the old hymn puts it, there is a wideness in God’s mercy, and we should all rejoice and find tremendous relief in that wideness.
At the same time, our gratitude for God’s mercy must never corrode into presumption, whether in the case of these invalid baptisms or in any other aspect of God’s saving work. Salvation is a gift God offers the whole world, and He gives it gratuitously, but He does not give it unconditionally.
In the New and Eternal Covenant God has established with us in His Son Jesus Christ, He has made specific promises and calls us to a specific response. God reveals Himself to humanity in specific words and deeds, to use the language of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum. And God calls us to abide in communion with Him by means of specific words and deeds, especially the seven sacraments that are at the heart of His saving work in the Church.
It may seem a bit disorienting to begin this article with a title that references the Sacrament of Baptism, followed by a scriptural verse from Christ’s institution of the Holy Eucharist. But in that verse, we find a key to understanding the whole of the sacramental economy.
“Do this” expresses not only the entrustment of the Eucharistic to those first priests, the apostles. The phrase also expresses the “this-ness” of all of the sacraments, beginning with Baptism. It expresses their Christological specificity.
It is in saying and doing the things said, done, and given by Christ that the sacraments operate and save us. We do not invent the sacraments. We receive them from Christ in His Church and serve as their stewards.
But can one word make that much difference? Back in August, 2020, we faced this same question here in the Archdiocese of Detroit, where I live and serve. Like the priest in Phoenix, one of our deacons chose to use the words “we baptize” instead of “I baptize.” Like the priest in Phoenix, this deacon surely meant no harm. But as in the Phoenix case, the spiritual lives of thousands of people were harmed.
Here in Detroit, this harm was inflicted both directly and indirectly, through one of our young priests whom this deacon had invalidly attempted to baptize. This priest has since received the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, and Holy Orders. But for three years he had no idea that all of his sacraments, including his ordinations, were invalid, and that almost all of the sacraments he celebrated in the first years of what appeared to be his priesthood were invalid.
Shortly before the baptismal invalidity scandal erupted in Detroit, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the relevant decision concerning the Baptismal Formula:
First question: Whether the Baptism conferred with the formula «We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit» is valid?
Second question: Whether those persons for whom baptism was celebrated with this formula must be baptized in forma absoluta?
To the first question: Negative.
To the second question: Affirmative.
Not since the distinction was drawn between homoousios and homoiousios has the elimination of one “I/i” made such a tremendous difference in the life of the Church!
It is worth pointing out again that the offending clerics surely thought they were doing something good when they changed the words of the formula of Baptism. I happen to know the deacon involved in the Detroit case, and believe him to be a good-hearted man. The Phoenix priest also seems both sincere and truly contrite.
It is extremely unfortunate, even toxic, that there has for decades been a high level of tolerance in the Church for fudging the words and actions we have received in trust for the celebration of the sacred rites by which Christ is present and active among us.
The invalidity of so many sacraments through the re-formulating of the words of Baptism sounds an alarm all Catholics ought to heed. This alarm signals a state of decay that can have ultimate consequences for those whose communion with the Church is impeded, as well as for those who perpetrate, promote, or applaud unauthorized changes to the rites of Christ and His Church.
The words we use in our sacramental celebrations matter. Sacraments combine actions with words to make Christ present and active among His people in every time and place. The “I” of the formula, “I baptize you,” for example, expresses the truth that it is Christ Who baptizes in and through His minister.
Sacramental celebrations are composed of specific words and actions not to enforce a kind of military ceremonial rigidity or to raise the specter of magic rituals. What is more magical, after all, to insist upon saying and doing what Christ has given us to say and do or to suggest that even when a minister says the wrong thing, the right effect will happen anyway?
In all fields of human activity, especially those of greater consequence, precision matters. From brain surgery to international diplomacy, from athletics to cooking, and everything in-between, there are right and wrong ways of speaking and acting. Each way of speaking and acting brings its own consequences.
Words, in particular, are under threat today by shifting meanings and imprecision. But our words have consequences, great and small. Romano Guardini, in his book on eschatology, offers a most powerful reminder of the urgency of our care for words:
A word is not merely a sign to convey a meaning. It is a living thing, embodying spirit. In company with other words it makes up language, and language is the room in which man lives. It is the world of mental images from which the light of truth is ever breaking upon him. When a word decays, it is not merely that we become uncertain of each other’s meaning. One of the forms that compose our life has perished. A signpost has become illegible. A light has been extinguished and our intellectual day made darker. To restore to its original meaning a word that is being destroyed by careless use is a service to the whole of human life.
The heart of any truly Christian observer aches for those who have discovered the invalidity of their baptisms. I have given pastoral care to these people here in Detroit, and have also been consulted from time-to-time about the validity of certain doubtful baptisms. The need to keep strong the bond between the theoretical and the practical in these matters is very much on my own mind and heart.
The best service we can give to these victims of sacramental invalidity and to the whole Church is not to question the Church’s wisdom about what constitutes a valid sacrament. Rather, we are called to do all we can to help those who now find themselves in need of sacraments they thought they had already received, and to stand for fidelity in celebrating the sacramental rites of Christ and His Church.
In his 1930 book, The New and Eternal Covenant, Dom Anscar Vonier writes that “the perfect expression of faith” is “to see the gift of God, to praise it, to sing its glories.” May all Catholics, clergy and laity alike, be granted clear vision of the sacramental gifts God has given to His Church, praise Him for those gifts, sing their glories, and celebrate them faithfully for the salvation of the whole world.
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