On August 6, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a response to two dubia (questions) about clerics performing baptisms with the words “We baptize you” instead of “I baptize you.” According to their response, changing the singular to the plural invalidates the baptism and anyone baptized this way must be re-baptized. The reason given is that baptism must “be performed not in one’s own name, but in the person of Christ.” The teaching of the Second Vatican Council is cited: “When anyone baptizes, Christ himself baptizes” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 7). These words paraphrase St. Augustine, who argued that

There is in Christ such uniqueness that, although many ministers may baptize, whether righteous or unrighteous, the sanctity of baptism cannot be attributed to anyone except the one upon whom the dove descended, of whom it is said, “He is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit” (cf. Matthew 3:14).[1]

This is part of Augustine’s broader campaign against Donatism, which was, as Augustine saw it, not a heresy but a schism. The Donatists cut themselves off from the rest of the Church on account of their moral purity as the members who had never lapsed during the persecutions of the early fourth century. They argued that clergy who had renounced Christ during persecution could never be re-admitted to the Church. Such priests had betrayed the holiness of their office and, as such, could not pass on holiness to others through the sacraments. After all, one cannot give what one does not have. Against this, Augustine formulated the idea—now Catholic dogma—that the holiness bestowed in the sacraments, including baptism, comes from Christ, not the minister. The minister’s personal or public sins, even including apostasy, are absolutely irrelevant. No one but Christ is truly holy, and the dictum that you can’t give what you don’t have does apply: only Christ can give holiness, for he alone is holy. The minister is merely a conduit of holiness that does not belong to him.

In the Middle Ages, this was codified into the Latin formula ex opere operato, which means “from the work having been worked,” where work refers to a sacrament. It means that the grace of a sacrament is independent of any considerations regarding the worthiness of the minister. The sacraments work automatically, one might say, because it is Christ who does the work. He has promised to do so. Unfortunately, at times this principle has often been abused to reduce the sacraments practically to magic formulas or incantations. As long as the sacred/magic words are said correctly, the sacrament is valid and God’s grace is bestowed. Such a distortion is alien to what Augustine was talking about. Regrettably, the danger of understanding the sacraments as magic spells is recurring right now because of confusion about the CDF decision.

On August 23, noted Catholic Twitteratus[2] Tommy Tighe tweeted:

Throughout the weekend Catholic Twitter was inundated with people doubting the validity of their own baptisms, in large measure because of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s imprudent decision to publicize the fact that one of their priests had just been re-baptized and re-ordained, and that anyone confirmed by him should contact them to be confirmed again. People were tweeting about reviewing home videos of their baptisms to double-check, fretting about the implications of discovering they had never been validly baptized!

What should one say about all this? First of all, it is important to note that the CDF’s decision was specifically approved by Pope Francis. As such, unlike some Vatican documents, it is part of his ordinary Magisterium.[3] That said, 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. The purpose was to get any priests or deacons who were doing this to quit it. The purpose in saying such baptisms are invalid was to re-affirm the fundamental Catholic theology of baptism, not to be a stickler. It is, in my opinion, regrettable that the CDF did not give an explanation of the second dubium about whether people need to be re-baptized (they do), as it did with the first dubium about whether the “we” formula is valid (it’s not). 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.

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. If your own child was baptized in this incorrect manner (or with the formula “in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier”), you can rectify the mistake by contacting a priest or deacon. In a life-or-death emergency, you may baptize someone yourself, even in your kitchen sink or bathtub.[4] (While baptism should ordinarily be performed by a clergyman, anyone may baptize in an extraordinary situation.[5]) Exceptions from the norms can also be granted by the local ordinary, and perhaps some bishops will discern that it would be prudent to grant dispensations in response to these extraordinary circumstances.[6] To do this without permission is illicit, though still valid.

But what if you aren’t sure? This is where the scrupulosity and thinking about the sacraments as if they were magic becomes dangerous. This particular situation may seem unique, but it is always possible to form irrational doubts about sacramental validity. The Church teaches that for a sacrament to be valid, the minister must “intend to do what the Church does” (in the broad sense; this does not require knowledge of theology). If you, for example, perform a baptism as part of a play, that is not a sacrament. Even an atheist can baptize someone validly, provided that it is their intention to do so. They may not believe in baptism or even really understand it, but if they do understand that it is a ritual of the Christian religion that makes a person into a Christian, that is enough. If you follow a doubt-obsessed mode of thinking, however, you can always question whether the intention was correct. Maybe the priest was a fraud? What if he stopped paying attention during confession and mindlessly recited the words of absolution while thinking about baseball? Does that count? It does, actually—but a person suffering from scrupulosity will always doubt. That is the problem with this mentality.

Such doubts must be nipped in the bud because they are harmful to Christian life and spirituality. They encourage magical thinking and distract from the works necessary for salvation: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick, praying for others, etc. Unless you know that you were baptized invalidly, stop thinking about it right now. I cannot stop people who have video from checking it, but I recommend against it. Why? Consider that 99.9999% of the people who have ever been baptized have no such video. I don’t have video of my own baptism, let alone those of my children—and they were baptized in the age of smart phones! Again, to worry about this is thinking of the sacraments as magic. It is contrary to the theology of St. Augustine that the CDF cited in opposing saying “we baptize” in the first place.[7]

But, if such formulas are invalid, how can we know that we have received the sacraments? On a certain level, this is reminiscent of the long-debated topic in epistemology (a branch of philosophy) about how we can know we aren’t dreaming or otherwise living in an illusion. This was most famously explored by the philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, and—more recently—in The Matrix. Some would say we cannot know we are not dreaming, but I believe we can, even though I find explaining how we know to be exceedingly difficult to the point of impossibility. On that level, no one can be absolutely certain that any sacraments they have received are valid, just as you cannot be absolutely certain that you aren’t living in an illusion. But who in their right mind makes their decisions in life based on this kind of “doubt”? Unless you think you should change the way you live just in case you’re living in “the Matrix,” you should not change the way you live the Christian life just in case you weren’t validly baptized.

Moving from epistemology to theology, Catholic theologians give two relevant responses to the problem. After all, scrupulosity will always raise the doubt: but if I’m not validly baptized, I didn’t receive the gift of the Spirit, and I can’t truly receive the Eucharist (you can eat it, of course, but the spiritual fruits are inaccessible to the unbaptized or unbelieving), etc. The first principle is called Ecclesia supplet, which in Latin means “the Church supplies.” In sacramental theology, the principle means that the Church supplies whatever is lacking due to human error. In canon law it is used narrowly to deal with doubt or error regarding matters of jurisdiction (CIC 144 §1). A 2007 blog post by anti-Francis canonist Ed Peters seems to imply that the principle of Ecclesia supplet is limited to this canon. But canon law is not a source for theology (rather, canon law must use theology). Although I am sure there are fruitful debates among theologians about what exactly the Church can and cannot “supply,” the basic principle is simple enough. For example, a senile priest might get confused during the Eucharistic prayer and accidentally either omits or distorts the epiklesis (invocation of the Holy Spirit) or the words of institution (“This is my body,” “This is the cup of my blood”). Does the bread and wine therefore fail to become the Body and Blood of Christ? No. The Church supplies what was missing due to human error.

Now someone (like Peters) may object that, if this is the case, the Vatican would not instruct people to be re-baptized. To this I have two replies: firstly, that claim is unsubstantiated. The CDF has not addressed this issue; it merely said that people who were baptized with the wrong formula should be baptized again with the right formula. Nothing was said about whether the Church is or is not able to supply what is lacking. Just because the Church can supply this missing element, it does not necessarily follow that the sacrament should not be re-administered correctly when possible. Ecclesia supplet is not a substitute for administering the sacraments correctly. After all, if a person is known to have been baptized invalidly, it only makes sense to redo it validly. The Magisterium has said nothing either positive or negative about Ecclesia supplet in such cases. In my opinion, the principle applies here, but I am open to hearing any evidence to the contrary, if it exists.

Perhaps more importantly, the issue is not about people who know they were baptized invalidly. I am talking about people who are doubting without clear evidence. For such people, the principle Ecclesia supplet certainly applies. Since there is almost always no way to check whether it was done correctly, in the very unlikely event that it was done wrongly without anyone knowing, the Church supplies what was lacking. This is a different case than with those who know that it was done invalidly and therefore can now avail themselves of a valid baptism. The Church has no need to supply what is lacking since it can be obtained through the ordinary means.

The second, more fundamental, principle to be invoked is that, although God has bound himself to the sacraments (hence, the doctrine of ex opere operato), God is not bound by them. This is stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and even italicized for emphasis: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his own sacraments” (CCC 1257). In other words, God can give out his grace and salvation however he wishes. As Jesus says: “The Spirit blows where it wills” (John 3:8 RSV). We also know that “God desires all people to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4). If God wants everyone to be saved, as he says, why would he deny it to someone on a technicality? Damnation can only come about through free human choice to sin gravely. “For this one must voluntarily turn away from God (mortal sin) and persist in that state all the way to the end” (CCC 1037). Someone else’s mistake is by definition involuntary. To say that God would deny someone his grace—let alone damn them—for someone else’s fault borders on blasphemy since it contradicts God’s essential goodness. Theologian Greg Hillis put it well in this tweet:

Another way of thinking of this is called votum sacramenti, which means “desire for the sacrament.” This is mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1258-59 in reference to its two traditional categories: baptism of blood and baptism of desire. Both refer to people preparing for baptism but who happen to die before the scheduled day. The Church teaches that the desire (votum) for the sacrament is sufficient for salvation. The same is true for people in mortal sin who are for any reason unable to go to confession (such as during a global pandemic). The desire to receive confession, coupled with perfect contrition, provides the necessary grace. None of these is a replacement for the sacrament (although baptism of blood is imaged as a kind of alternative baptism), but simply an acknowledgment of God’s infinite goodness, which is always absolutely unconstrained.

We must understand that the sacraments aren’t magic formulas by which we are saved or damned. That requires performing the works of mercy (salvation) or obstinate perseverance in mortal sin (damnation). The CDF’s decision was meant to underscore the importance of the Catholic/Augustinian understanding of baptism as Christ who baptizes and to stop clerics from misbehaving. The document was in no way was meant to sow doubt about the validity of people’s baptisms. If you know you were mis-baptized, you should be re-baptized correctly. If not, you should move on with your life. If you are still worried, you should comfort yourself (and others) with the fundamental principles of Catholic theology: in cases of human error, the Church supplies (Ecclesia supplet) what is lacking in the sacraments; when the sacraments cannot be obtained, desire for the sacrament (votum sacramenti) is sufficient; and, most importantly, God desires all people to be saved and is absolutely free; he is not limited by the sacraments in the slightest, even though he has promised us his grace through them. The doctrine of ex opere operato does not mean they are magic rituals; it means that the power of the sacrament has nothing to do with the (un)worthiness of the minister. It is Christ who baptizes. It is Christ who absolves our sins. It is Christ who feeds us with his own body and blood.

[1] St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 6,1,7 (PL 35, 1428): quamdam proprietatem in Christo talem futuram, ut quamvis multi ministri baptizaturi essent, sive iusti, sive iniusti, non tribueretur sanctitas baptismi, nisi illi super quem descendit columba, de quo dictum est, “Hic est qui baptizat in Spiritu Sancto.”

[2] I can assure you this is the correct masculine singular of Twitterati.

[3] It is not, however, infallible, since the Roman curia does not share in infallibility, which belongs to the whole Church and is exercised by extraordinary dogmatic definitions.

[4] The Eastern Churches, incidentally, use the formula “[Name] is baptized” rather than “I baptize,” so this whole issue is irrelevant for them.

[5] CIC 860 §1, “Apart from a case of necessity, baptism is not to be conferred in private houses, unless the local ordinary has permitted it for a grave cause.”

[6] See CIC 861 §2, “When an ordinary minister is absent or impeded, a catechist or another person designated for this function by the local ordinary, or in a case of necessity any person with the right intention, confers baptism licitly.”

[7] See footnote 13 in the CDF document, which cites “S. Augustinus, In Evangelium Ioannis tractatus, VI, 7.”

Image by Leonardo Espina from Pixabay

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