The abbot dipped his right thumb in the chrism and made the sign of the cross on my forehead,

He said, “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.”

I responded, “Amen.”

The abbot then said, “Peace be with you.”

I responded, “And also with you.”

As I turned and began to walk away, the abbot reached out his hand and lightly grabbed my shoulder so he could see the nametag pinned to the cheap red polyester gown I had to wear for the occasion. “George,” he said with a look of slight embarrassment on his face, reading the name of my confirmation saint. I returned to my pew, with my sponsor walking behind me. For the rest of the Mass and many times afterwards, I puzzled about whether it had been done validly. After all, the Rite of Confirmation says that the bishop (or in my case, the abbot) says the name of the confirmandi at the beginning of the anointing.

I remember a few oddly-specific things about my confirmation day all the way back in 1993, when I was in the eighth grade: that my sponsor was my Aunt Kathy; that we lined up two-by-two by height, and as one of the tallest in my class, I was at the back of the line; that the two tallest were also invited to bring up the gifts at the offertory; and that the confirmation was delayed by nearly an hour because the auxiliary bishop scheduled to do our confirmation had a flight delay and was stuck in St. Louis or someplace. This meant they had to call in a pinch-hitter, who at the time was the Benedictine abbot from St. Anselm’s Abbey in Washington, DC.

Even though it was an honest mistake, the fact that he realized his mistake and said the name at the end—rather than repeat the entire formula from the beginning when he caught it—made me worry even more. He had the opportunity to re-do it if he wanted to, just to ensure it was correct, but he didn’t. I could have asked him to re-do it, but I didn’t. My thought process might seem silly or pedantic to most people, but for someone raised in a strict, rules-based religious environment, it can be agony. Such environments can foster scrupulosity, which is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that involves pathological guilt or obsession over sin, morality, or other religious matters.

Fortunately, my own experiences with scruples have not been as serious as those of many others, who can become crippled by fear of hell over mere fleeting thoughts or unintentional mistakes. As an adult, my relationship with my wife, the spiritual direction of an excellent pastor, and the example and teachings of Pope Francis have helped me and largely freed me from the agony of scrupulosity.

It had been a while since I’d thought about the abbot’s verbal flub, but it’s come back to me again as more and more responses to the story of a priest in Phoenix begin to pile up. Last week, the diocese announced that all the baptisms done by Fr. Andres Arango, from his 1995 ordination up until June 17, 2021, were deemed invalid. According to the diocesan website, “The diocese is working closely with Fr. Andres and the parishes at which he was previously assigned to notify anyone who may have been baptized invalidly.” This search involves tracking down thousands of people whose baptisms are deemed null. It encompasses many parishes in several dioceses and in multiple languages and countries over 26 years.

This is the third widely-publicized case of invalid baptisms to receive wide news coverage in the US since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a “Responsum” to two questions regarding the validity of baptisms in which the minister begins with the words “We baptize you” rather than the approved formula, “I baptize you.”

To the 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?”) the Congregation’s response was “Negative.” To the second (“Whether those persons for whom baptism was celebrated with this formula must be baptized in forma absoluta?”), the Congregation answered “Affirmative.” In other words, the CDF stated that such baptisms were completely null and void, and—in case there was any doubt—stated that anyone who has been baptized under this formula must be baptized according to the correct formula. A plain reading of the text makes clear that there is no question. Such people are deemed unbaptized by the Church. According to the Catholic understanding, they aren’t even Christians. By affirming that such baptisms must be in forma absoluta, the CDF leaves no room for other possibilities, such as “valid but illicit,” or for the possibility of conditional baptism.

Before going any further, I want to make it clear that I grant religious assent to the 2020 CDF document. Underneath the responses to the two questions are the unmistakable words, “The Supreme Pontiff Francis, at the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, On June 8, 2020, approved these Responses and ordered their publication.” This papal approval means the document is magisterial, because the Church teaches that “the documents issued by this Congregation expressly approved by the Pope participate in the ordinary magisterium of the successor of Peter” (Donum Veritatis 18). While such teaching is not definitive, the faithful are required to grant it assent.

Additionally, we are asked to grant submission to the papal Magisterium “according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking” (Lumen Gentium 25). What seems to have not yet been made entirely manifest are the pope’s mind and will regarding how Catholics should address such situations and the specific pastoral implications of this magisterial judgement.

It is for this reason that I hope to join with those faithful who, “in a spirit of cooperation and ecclesial communion, present their difficulties and questions, and thus positively contribute to the maturing of reflection on the deposit of faith,” as St. John Paul II described in a 1995 address to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I do not at all intend to take what John Paul describes as “the public stance of opposition to the Magisterium, which is described as ‘dissent’; the latter tends to set up a kind of counter-magisterium, presenting believers with alternative positions and forms of behavior.”

What’s the fuss?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments” (CCC 1213). This is reinforced in the Code of Canon Law, which states, “A person who has not received baptism cannot validly be admitted to the other sacraments” (CIC 842 §1). In other words, Catholicism teaches that one must be baptized in order to be considered a Christian, and only the baptized can validly receive any of the other six sacraments. This means that if an unbaptized person receives the Eucharist or goes to confession and the priest says the words of absolution, the Church teaches that no sacramental grace is received.

The Catechism also teaches, “The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation. ‘Sacramental grace’ is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ and proper to each sacrament. The Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God” (CCC 1129). Likewise, “Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are ‘reborn of water and the Spirit.’ God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments” (CCC 1257).

The Church does teach about the possibility (and arguably, in some cases, the probability) of God working outside the sacraments to save people in his great mercy, but also stresses that when and how God saves the unbaptized is unknown to us. Indeed, besides Baptism, “the Church does not know of any means” of salvation (CCC 1257). This lack of knowing is perhaps best articulated in the Catechism’s teaching on whether unbaptized children who have died are saved: “the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God … Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children … allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism” (CCC 1261).

The prevailing views of the Church on this matter have varied throughout the centuries, as Adam Rasmussen has explained in his series on “Hope of Salvation,” but there are factors that make cases affected by the 2020 CDF responsum unique and present a nightmare for Catholics prone to scrupulosity. It is for this reason that I hope and pray that the Magisterium of the Church—the pope and the bishops in communion with him—look deeply at these specific circumstances to discern whether the Holy Spirit is calling the Church to revisit the doctrinal and pastoral questions, and is perhaps even pointing the way to the possibility of doctrinal development.

The problem of “We”

One of the reasons why the 2020 ruling comes as a shock to many is the lack of prior statements regarding the importance of the word “I” (or, perhaps more specifically, rejection of the word “we,” since there are other valid formulas that don’t begin with the words “I baptize”).

The only other known Vatican document that deals with this issue is a 2003 response from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW) to a substantively identical question. The response, by an unnamed undersecretary of the Congregation, goes to great lengths to assure the letter writer that the baptism was valid. He writes,

“Please be assured that the form that you describe, and in the manner that you describe it, does not cast into doubt the validity of the Baptism conferred. That is, if the three divine Persons are named specifically as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the use of the first person plural does not invalidate the conferral of the Sacrament.

The liceity of such a celebration, however, is quite another matter. This matter should not cause the faithful any distress as regards their own participation, but it is the responsibility of the celebrant of Baptism to confer the Sacrament in a way that is licit as well as valid, and any infraction such as the one you describe should be brought immediately to the attention of the local Bishop … It would be important to make clear in any such communication that your concern pertains to liceity rather than to the validity of the Sacrament.”[1] (Emphasis added.)

Of course, the letter does not carry the authority of the more recent CDF ruling. This means that while it served as an official Vatican response for 17 years, its assurance that the validity of the sacrament is not in doubt and that faithful should therefore not be distressed have effectively been nullified. Further, the 2020 CDF ruling does not offer practical guidance for those who are worried their baptisms are invalid.

The two 2020 cases that received attention involved men serving as parish priests, one in Michigan and the other in Oklahoma, who had been baptized according to the invalid formula. In both situations, the young and recently-ordained priests reviewed home video footage and discovered that the deacons who baptized them used the “We baptize” wording.

These cases were quite sensational because only validly ordained priests can serve as ministers of certain sacraments, such as the Eucharist, Penance, and Anointing of the Sick. A priest can also serve as the minister of Confirmation under certain circumstances as well. That means that every confession, every Mass, every Confirmation, and every Anointing was deemed invalid by the Church. (Some have argued that even marriages celebrated by these priests were invalid, but it seems that any problems with this sacrament can be solved through radical sanation by the bishop or the pope.)

In the Michigan and Oklahoma cases, I thought publicizing this information about these priests was imprudent. After all, it’s not as if they could go back in time and re-validate all the Masses these priests said in the past. One can also imagine the heartache family members of the deceased might experience upon finding out that the Last Rites of their loved one were invalid. Confirmations these priests had celebrated, if any (it is rare for a new priest to do them), could be handled discretely, as could any anointings where the recipient was still living.

The most complicated situation to resolve would be the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but we must remember that when the penitent is properly disposed, sincere, and contrite, this sacrament forgives all sins. This includes ones they have forgotten—and presumably those unknowingly confessed to an invalidly ordained priest as well. So future confessions would absolve any sins confessed to the invalidly ordained priests. That said, there could be situations where a person may die before their next confession. The question, then, is whether we are confident that God will work outside the sacraments to forgive someone who sincerely believed they had received God’s mercy.

Adam Rasmussen wrote about the Detroit case in August 2020. He affirmed the ruling of the CDF, saying “If a person knows as a matter of fact that they were baptized invalidly, then they should, in obedience to the pope’s decision, get re-baptized.” But he also pointed out that “the CDF neither instructed nor encouraged anyone to check up on their baptism. That was not the purpose of the decision, and it does not even address it.” He argued that the purpose of the decision was “to re-affirm the fundamental Catholic theology of baptism, not to be a stickler.”

Adam went on to speculate, “Most likely, this issue will be forgotten over the coming weeks because only ‘very online’ Catholics will have heard of it in the first place. But if it begins to snowball (if, say, other dioceses follow the dubious precedent set by Detroit), the CDF—or, better, Pope Francis himself—may need to intervene to re-assure people not to doubt the validity of their baptisms.” Thanks to Bishop Olmsted’s statement last week, we can be assured that this issue will not be forgotten.

The great search begins

This Phoenix case raises the stakes dramatically. Rather than baptizing individuals who express concerns and produce evidence that their own baptisms were performed invalidly, Bishop Olmsted has authorized an initiative to track down anyone who is believed to have been invalidly baptized by Fr. Arango. Fr. Arango, for his part, will be dedicating his ministry to this effort going forward.

Given the number of people affected, the timespan, and the number of places where these baptisms took place, it is quite certain that not everyone will be successfully tracked down. Presumably, many of them have already died, believing wrongly that they had received the grace of the Sacraments.

If the response of the Diocese of Phoenix to this CDF decision do indeed reflect the manifest will of the pope, the implications are staggering. If we already know of three Catholic ministers (Fr. Arango and the two deacons who invalidly baptized the two priests) who used the invalid formula, there is no reason not to suspect this is only the tip of the iceberg. Presumably they didn’t each individually invent this alteration to the official formula on their own. I’d imagine they learned it from someone. If they learned it from a seminary professor or formation director, does that mean that other priests and deacons were taught the same thing? Baptism leaves an indelible mark, but sadly we can’t see it with our eyes. How many of those we believe to be priests and bishops were unknowingly baptized with this formula?

If this is as urgent as Bishop Olmsted’s statements suggest, perhaps we as a Church should do what Fr. Arango is doing—quit our other ministerial and charitable works in order to devote our “energy and full time ministry to help remedy this and heal those affected.” Or maybe, to be on the safe side, during this year’s Ash Wednesday Masses, we can line up a second time so the priests and deacons can conditionally baptize us. I’m only slightly joking. Who among us can be absolutely sure that our baptism was valid? I can’t. I was an infant, I was baptized in 1979 by a permanent deacon, and my parents and godparents are dead.

Some commentators took it upon themselves to offer the assurance that the CDF ruling doesn’t give, including Deirdre Reilly of Real Clear Religion, who wrote, “You are indeed a part of the true body of Christ, even if legalism in the Catholic Church deems you unbaptized thanks to a one-word error.” Others, such as canonist JD Flynn, seemed to think that this decision helps prove Pope Francis’s orthodoxy, asserting, “The pope, whether revisionist clerics like it or not, is a Catholic. And it seems that’s finally ticking them off.” Others seemed to find the entire kerfuffle ridiculous.

But many of the reactions to this decision and its potential implications go far deeper than arguing about legalism or scoring ideological points. The reverberations of the CDF decision, especially if Pope Francis and the CDF agree with Bishop Olmsted on the way it should be implemented, has the potential to disrupt the lives of many thousands more Catholics (or, more appropriately, “non-Christians,” which is their status according to the decision). And for many more Catholics prone to scrupulosity, it’s agony.

I think Lawrence Downes put it best in a recent opinion piece, saying, “As the sticklers are preening and cynics are cackling, regular folks are agonizing. It’s appalling that the burden falls so heavily on the faithful instead of the local church and the bosses in Rome.”

The Church and Sacramental Validity

Doctrinally, sacramental validity is extremely important to Catholics. We have clearly defined doctrines on the necessary form, matter, and intention required for valid celebration of each of the sacraments, and if invalid, we believe that sacramental grace is not received. While anyone can, in theory, baptize, it is necessary for validity that they baptize with water, use the proper words, and intend to do what the Church does. Typically, instruction on proper form places emphasis on using the “Trinitarian Formula” (In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), which is common to most Christians. Proper pronoun usage has not been as serious a concern until now.

Further, we believe that many sacraments are only possible thanks to Apostolic succession, meaning “the transmission by means of the sacrament of Holy Orders of the mission and power of the Apostles to their successors, the bishops” (Compendium of the CCC 176). The Church asserts that every Catholic bishop, priest, and deacon can trace their ordination back to the Apostles at the Last Supper through an unbroken line. We believe that some Christians with whom we are not in communion, including the Eastern Orthodox, have preserved true Apostolic Succession, and we therefore believe that their other sacraments, such as the Eucharist and Penance, are valid as well.

We believe that some Christians, however, such as Anglicans and Methodists, have broken this chain. Therefore, we do not consider their Eucharist sacramentally valid.

The Catholic Church has typically publicly expressed confidence in its sacramental rites. Conditional baptisms, for example, are only permitted “after a serious investigation” (CIC 869 §1). At ordinations of new priests, the rite stipulates that other than the celebrating bishop, only concelebrating priests—and not other bishops present—may lay hands on the newly ordained priest during the ordination Mass. In the ordination of bishops, it is often emphasized that the purpose of having two co-consecrators in addition to the principal consecrating bishop is to symbolize that the newly ordained bishop participates in the college of bishops, and that only one consecrating bishop is required for validity. And anyone who has gone through the annulment process understands that the Church begins from the presumption that their prior marriage is valid.

Many detail-oriented Catholics easily become obsessed by these rules, processes, and nuances. Radical Traditionalists who reject Vatican II and the validity of recent popes can often cite numerous perceived deficiencies and errors when comparing the pre-Vatican II sacramental rites with those that followed the council. They construct elaborate arguments that suggest the Church’s legitimacy is akin to the popular tabletop game Jenga—pull out the wrong block and the entire tower collapses.

Bishop Olmsted’s response to the invalid baptismal formula merits a Vatican response because it feeds such a mentality. In Catholicism, the faithful are subject to a constant and agonizing tension between a rigid, rules-based approach to the faith and one that is more focused on an intentional relationship with God than on stopping everything to obsess over tiny details.

The Dangers of Scrupulosity

Pope Francis has made clear, time after time, that the rigid approach is not authentic and is unhealthy for the spiritual life. He understands the pain this approach can cause to people and those around them. For example, in a May 2020 homily, he said, “The spirit of rigidity always brings turmoil. ‘Did I do this all right? Did I not do that all right?’ Scrupulosity. The Spirit of evangelical freedom brings you joy because that is exactly what Jesus did by His resurrection: He brought joy! Our relationship with God, our relationship with Jesus is not a relationship of ‘doing things’: ‘I do this and You give me that.’”

In her biography of Blessed Rutilio Grande, Rhina Guidos describes how the Salvadoran Jesuit suffered with scruples for years, due to his mind being filled with worry that his ordination to the diaconate had been invalid, something that he expressed regularly to his priest-counselor, the Jesuit Marcellino Zalba. She writes, “In Father Rutilio’s case, he was obsessed with the possibility of not having followed the formula with precision, even after being continuously comforted. The episode, however, led him to suffer over the incident for a long time, and he kept shooting letters back and forth with Father Zalba, who was becoming agitated over the exchange to the point that he angrily tore up correspondence. Irritated, ‘Zalba told him to stop this foolish agonizing and humble himself to accept the gift he had been given … but it did not exorcise from his soul’ the doubts.”[2]

Some traditionalists might argue that such issues might be avoided if we simply returned to the older rites. It is worth noting, therefore, that Blessed Rutilio was ordained in the 1950s, according to the pre-conciliar form. The issue is not liturgical, but psychological and spiritual. But many Catholics will experience similar distress when they receive a phone call from the Diocese of Phoenix in the months and years to come, informing them that their Christian faith had been missing something integral all along.

In reflecting on the years Fr. Grande suffered from agonizing scrupulosity, Guidos translates a passage from another of Fr. Grande’s biographers, Rodolfo Cardenal, who asserted that “fidelity to the life of Tilo demands that the story of his weakness be told.”[3] It is in this spirit that I share my own story, and humbly ask Pope Francis to give the faithful more guidance on how best to carry out this magisterial decision.


[1] Roman Replies & CLSA Advisory Opinions 2003, pp. 17-18.

[2] Guidos, Rhina. Rutilio Grande: A Table for All (People of God) (pp. 46-47). Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Guidos, Rhina. Rutilio Grande: A Table for All (People of God) (p. 47). Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition.

Image: Adobe Stock. By Надія Коваль.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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