When in 2020 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an instruction that the plural pronoun “we” was not to be used in the baptismal formula because it implies that the baptizand is baptized not by Christ but by the worshiping community, the decision was widely seen as a curiosity only of interest to very serious Catholics. A priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit, Father Matthew Hood, was found to himself have been baptized with the invalid formula, and both Father Hood and Michiganders who had received their own sacraments of initiation from him or the deacon who had baptized him, including a friend of mine, went through those sacraments again. The process was upsetting for these people and probably at least as upsetting for the priests and deacons whose careers and vocations were newly under scrutiny, but it seemed at the time like a small-scale issue. A Vatican dicastery identified a problem in the Church’s sacramental system; an archdiocese took action to rectify this problem to the best of its ability. These things happen and have probably always happened. Mike Lewis makes it clear that he assents to the CDF document in question, and so do I. Vigneron’s approach went relatively smoothly and, Father Hood said in an interview with Simcha Fisher, for his part he found that “the Lord was still present in [his] life, showing [him] in prayer that ]he] didn’t need to call [his vocation] into doubt.”
A more proactive approach is now being taken by Thomas Olmsted, Bishop of Phoenix, Arizona, who just in the last week or two has launched a diocese-wide push to track down anybody who was baptized by Father Andres Arango, who regularly used the invalid formula. This push is based on, among other things, video evidence of baptismal rites conducted after the proliferation of home video in the 1980s. The push is itself admirable in the same sense that Archbishop’s Vigneron’s was. If there’s an irregularity that can be conclusively identified and then rectified, the right thing is obviously to do so. However, Olmsted’s theological framing of the matter and its relative importance is causing serious issues of both hysteria among the faithful and scandal given to and by the secular press. There are even potential doctrinal problems with it, although they’re more in Olmsted’s emphasis and in a possibly unintended implication rather than in his words on the matter themselves.
On the Diocese of Phoenix website Olmsted has an explainer, part of which reads:
CCC 1257 says, “the Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. 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.”
Indeed, baptism is necessary for salvation in that the sacramental system of which baptism is the cornerstone and communion the keystone is the normative means by which God has chosen to save us. For an individual seeking to be saved, getting sacramentally baptized and then frequenting the other sacraments, especially communion and reconciliation, is the only sure path of which the Church is aware. This is a direct quote from the Catechism, so how could it be doctrinally problematic?
I contend that Olmsted’s choice of what to bold in his CCC citation, emphasizing this point over and over again when it comes to an invalid canonical form used in baptismal rites that were themselves undertaken in good faith, is unhelpful given the situation. (Read the section again without the bolding and see how the tone changes.) The Diocese of Phoenix’s explainer states that people who approach the sacraments and then just don’t get them, because a priest pushed the envelope or because the CDF took too long to make a decision about validity of form, “[do] not walk away empty-handed,” but Olmsted does not say what they do walk away with. It’s some kind of grace, but might not be the grace of the sacraments; in a letter attached to the Diocese’s explainer, Olmsted writes that “I do not believe Fr. Andres had any intentions to harm the faithful or deprive them of the grace of baptism and the sacraments,” implying that, intentions aside, he did deprive them of that grace. This might seem very technical, but then, this whole issue is very technical!
This distinction between grace in a general sense and the grace of the sacraments is where the potential theological error comes from. The Church teaches that baptism by desire and baptism by blood do confer the fruits of baptism (cf. CCC §1258); this is why there are canonized saints who died while still catechumens, and why catechumens who die today are given Catholic funeral rites. Even in the High Middle Ages, Peter Lombard distinguished the grace of a sacrament, “the thing itself,” and the material signs and symbols of the sacrament; for example, St. Dismas, the penitent thief who says to Jesus “remember me when You come into Your kingdom,” received “the thing itself” even though he didn’t participate in the baptismal rite.
Since the Catechism of the Catholic Church states not only that the desire for baptism produces the fruits of baptism but also that the fruits of baptism and the grace of baptism are synonymous (§1279), one hopes, and must in charity assume, that the implication to the contrary in Olmsted’s letter is an unintentional side effect of the way the sentence is structured. The only way to sustain the idea that the implication is intentional is to accuse Olmsted either of denying teaching on baptism of desire per se or of thinking for some reason that being baptized in a way that is later determined to be invalid is somehow worse for one’s salvation than not being approaching the baptismal font at all. If that were the case, why would anybody get baptized?
One might be tempted to throw the early-martyr baby out with the Arizonan-baptizand bathwater and say “okay, well, maybe the unbaptized are just all damned and that’s why you should get baptized anyway.” This position is a heresy called Feeneyism. In the early-to-mid-twentieth century, Catholics in New England were bedeviled with a heresiarchal Jesuit priest named Leonard Feeney, an antisemitic radtrad avant le lettre who believed that absolutely nobody who had not been sacramentally baptized could be saved. (Feeney exempted Jews who lived before the time of Jesus from this turbocharged gatekeeping, but he did not exempt Native Americans who lived before the time of Columbus.) Feeney explicitly denied baptism of blood and baptism of desire to the point of claiming that in the case of canonized catechumens God must have provided them with a priest and water for baptism at some point before their deaths after all, only for some reason this didn’t make it into any of their hagiographies. Evelyn Waugh, himself no fan of perceived liberalization in Church teaching or practice, writes of Father Feeney in the following extremely uncomplimentary terms (from The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, pp. 292-293; the addressee of the letter was Waugh’s wife Laura):
I went one morning by appointment & found him surrounded by a court of bemused youths of both sexes & he stark, raving mad. All his converts have chucked their Harvard careers & go to him only for all instruction. He fell into a rambling denunciation of all secular learning which gradually became more & more violent. He shouted that Newman had done irreparable damage to the Church then started on Ronnie Knox’s Mass in Slow Motion saying ‘To think that any innocent girl of 12 could have this blasphemous & obscene book put into her hands’ as though it were Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I asked if he had read it. ‘I don’t have to eat a rotten egg to know it stinks.’ Then I got rather angry and rebuked him in strong words. His court sat absolutely aghast at hearing their holy man addressed like this. And in unbroken silence I walked out of the house. I talked to some Jesuits later & they said that he is disobeying the plain orders of his provincial by staying there. It seemed to me he needed an exorcist more than an alienist. A case of demoniac possession & jolly frightening.
Father Feeney was excommunicated in 1953 and reconciled with the Church in 1972; due to his age and health he was not required to recant the views for which he had been excommunicated, which seems to me like an oversight given that “Feeneyite” schismatic or para-schismatic communities still exist in backwoods New England, especially in New Hampshire. The fact that Father Feeney was excommunicated for excessively exclusivist views on salvation before the Second Vatican Council should give some indication of how extreme his position was.
And yet the implications of much of the current hysteria are astonishingly similar. The only alternative interpretation that comes to mind for me right now is that the presumption of validity obtained before the advent of video technology, but now that such technology does exist it has been superseded by an obligation to do intensive archive research to make sure everybody’s sacraments are in order. Any argument along these lines has huge ramifications up and down the economy of salvation. For example, Thomas Olmsted, being a bishop, has received quite a number of sacraments of initiation himself; can we be absolutely sure that every link in that chain has been completely valid and licit in form and matter? The website Catholic-Hierarchy.org gives Olmsted’s principal consecrator as the late Bishop Eugene Gerber of Wichita, whose principal consecrator was Bishop David Maloney (also of Wichita), whose principal consecrator was Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi (then Apostolic Delegate to the US), and so on through a long chain of mostly-Italian functionaries until, presumably, in the mists of Antiquity we hit one of the Twelve Apostles. A position that explicitly rejected the presumption of validity would entail either that any irregularity at any stage of this process would make Olmsted himself a faux bishop or that the invention of Betamax in 1975 changed the sacramental system so that this became the case. I really can’t think of any other readings.
It’s also difficult to know what a comprehensive solution would be if the global Church adopted a consistent “just in case” approach—conditionally baptizing every living Catholic in the world, possibly in mass baptisms like those of Frankish tribes of old that converted along with their kings? Some sort of worldwide general absolution in an Urbi et Orbi? Mormon-style baptisms for the dead just to make sure all those catechumen saints and saints whose childhood priests might have flubbed a pronoun are actually in heaven?
There are probably hundreds of priests who said the words of baptism the way Father Andres did, many of whom are probably long-dead. It would require a Stasi-like corpus of audiovisual archive material and a tech-conglomerate-like willingness to aggressively mine it to have a hope of catching most of these instances. Yet if we commit ourselves to the position that such instances absolutely have to be ferreted out or else millions of Catholics might be missing something necessary to salvation, the whole system falls apart. We need to trust that when there isn’t an easy way to rectify this kind of situation God’s mercy is sufficient–more than sufficient.
Suggesting that an invalid baptism cannot give the grace of baptism rightfully causes scandal because it undermines Who God has told us He is. If a person desires baptism (and, as in this case, the priest intended to give them baptism in a manner he reasonably thought was valid; Mike Lewis’s piece on this issue, linked above, discusses a 2003 document implying that the “we” formula was then thought to be valid even within the Vatican), then the conclusion that the person did not receive the grace of baptism implies that God is bound by the sacraments and weighs our outward rituals over what is in our hearts. The cascading effect on everything from the salvation of individuals to the apostolic succession is incalculable. This can’t possibly be the correct interpretation. The gates of hell are not going to prevail against the Church because of, of all things, a mix-up between singular and plural first-person pronouns.
The secular media is reporting on this as if a crypto-Feeneyite position is not fringe but orthodox and widely accepted among observant Catholics. To be fair to the secular media, the collective freak-out going on in the American Catholic media gives them plenty of reason to think this. Olmsted’s explanation of the situation, intentionally or not, has played straight into the worst aspects of Catholicism in the US today: the obsession with “getting” bad priests and attempting to figure out ideological or liturgical “tells” for who the bad priests are, the adoption of data mining techniques as a legitimate way to intervene in controversies within the Church, the assumption that canon law is the same thing as moral theology and moral theology is the same thing as the Catholic faith, and so on. But this is not itself a normal situation for a country’s local church to be in or a normal series of priorities for a country’s local church to have, and we must not begin to think as if it is.
Image: Detail from “The Baptism of Constantine” by Giulio Romano and Giovan Francesco Penni. From Wikimedia Commons.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.