Modern Rome and the Validity of the “We Baptize Thee” Formula

I never thought I’d be arguing the “pro” side for this kind of question. But on the bright side, I finally get a chance to poke holes in “conservative” theology!

You already know I’m no fan of “liberal” theology because of its fixation with secularization and the political. You may even know I’m no fan of “conservative” theology either, because of its fixation with obedience for the sake of obedience, without too much concern for consistency or limiting principles. But now let’s get to the story.

Recently, the Catholic world learned of the “invalid baptism” of one Father Matthew Hood, by reason that his baptizator, a Deacon Mark Springer, altered the essential form to say “We baptize you” rather than the rubrically-prescribed “I baptize you.”

This follows after a responsum ad dubium from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith declaring that this formula is invalid and those baptized thereby would have to receive the rite of baptism absolutely (in forma absoluta). We were told that Father Hood was afterward baptized, confirmed, and ordained absolutely in accordance with the directive given in this responsum.

Since the weekend, I’ve received messages asking for my opinion about this, and since Baptism is the “Gateway to the sacraments” and the sole necessary initiation for a Catholic magician, it’s worth discussing the subject here.

The Form of Baptism

To pick up any textbook on sacramentology is to learn that all seven Sacraments require three elements for validity: form, matter, and intent. The form consists of the words by which the Sacrament is confected, the matter consists of the instrument by which the Sacrament is confected, and the intent is broadly defined as “intending to do what the Church does.”

Of these three, the form is classically narrowed down to what’s known as the essential form, or the words that absolutely must be said in order for the Sacrament to be valid. In the Latin Church, the essential form of Baptism is “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (Ego te baptízo in nómine Patris, et Fílii, et Spíritus Sancti.)

The exact origin of this “Ego te baptizo” formula is unknown, but it is found in the Canons of St. Hippolytus dating from at least the fourth century (19:11) and appears in all the old Sacramentaries, telling us the formula was universal in the West at an early date.

Not all rites are required to have the same essential form, but all rites are required to follow a given set of principles; in the case of Baptism, that means the word “baptize” has to show up somewhere in the form (to express the intention), and the Baptism must be “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” in accordance with the Jesus’ dictate during the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19). This is why both Eastern and Western forms are valid baptisms, though the Western Rites tend toward an active voice (“I baptize thee”) and the Eastern Rites toward a passive voice (“The servant of God is baptized”).

What this means for us is that while the essential form of a Sacrament must follow certain principles in order to be valid, there is some leeway in the exact wording among various rites. Ideally, a celebrant would use the wording of his “home rite” (my term for the rite in which a person was originally raised and/or trained), but things don’t always work out as planned or hoped.

What If a Celebrant Changes the Wording?

I said that ideally a celebrant should use the wording of his “home rite,” but things don’t always work out as hoped. Sometimes a celebrant changes the words by accident, whether through poor eyesight when reading the text, attempting to do the ritual “by heart” but messing up the words at the essential moment, or some sort of distraction happens.

In a case like this, the principles to follow are laid out in De Defectibus in Celebratione Missae Occurentibus (Chapter V). Even though this specifically talks about the Mass, the principle likewise applies to all of the other Sacraments:

If the celebrant does not remember having said the usual words in the Consecration, he should not for that reason be worried. If, however, he is sure that he omitted something necessary to the Sacrament, that is, the form of the Consecration or a part of it, he is to repeat the formula and continue from there. (5:2)

A recent example of “forgetting the words” happened among the Sedeplenists of late, namely the episcopal consecration of Joseph Pfeiffer on June 29, 2020, where the consecrating bishop (Neal Webster) accidentally mangled the essential form, also known as “The Sixteen Words.” Fortunately the changes were mainly limited to repetitions, altering case and number endings on Latin nouns, and pauses, and of course Trad-World was all over it in the attempt to denounce the consecration as “invalid.” I will give my own opinion after we finish explaining the general principles.

Yet, what if a celebrant intentionally changed the words of a Sacramental formula? Would the Sacrament still be valid? Could the Sacrament still be valid? Fortunately De Defectibus comes to our rescue yet again:

If the priest were to shorten or change the form of the consecration of the Body and the Blood, so that in the change of wording the words did not mean the same thing, he would not be achieving a valid Sacrament. If, on the other hand, he were to add or take away anything which did not change the meaning, the Sacrament would be valid, but he would be committing a grave sin. (5:1)

So what we come away with is this: when a sacramental form is altered by accident, all the celebrant need do it repeat it correctly and everybody’s good to go. Yet when a sacramental form is changed on purpose, it could still be valid so long as the meaning of the form wasn’t changed, and by extension (we can extrapolate) the new from does not reflect an intention alien to the mind of the Church.

This brings us back to the case of Bishop Webster’s consecration of Father Pfeiffer. In his case the words were misread by accident, and so mangled as to render the form doubtful at best and invalid at worst. However there is little question Bishop Webster intended to do what the Church does, and would only have to repeat the Sixteen Words properly. According to a later sermon from Bishop Pfeiffer, this defect was corrected the following morning, and I’m content to let the matter rest there unless evidence is brought forward to the contrary. In any case I’ve had nothing to do with the Trad Movement since leaving it in 2008, so it has nothing to do with my life anyway. (Though ironically I’ve spotted a number of Trads hate-reading this blog and occasionally posting about me on their internet fora. Some people need to get a life!)

Now let’s come back to the case of Deacon Springer saying “We baptize you.” He allegedly used this formula over a period of 13 years from 1986-1999, during the time when the American hierarchy was more firmly under “liberal” control and variant baptismal forms were common; the most common of these forms was employed to avoid gendered language, and reads “I/We baptize you in the name of the Creator, of the Redeemer, and of the Sanctifier.” In other parishes considering themselves “liberal,” one could even find formulae referring to “The Mother” and other Goddess-type imagery; one must remember the WomanChurch movement was very active during this time and had many priests and bishops aligned to their cause (it wasn’t until the late 1990s and early 2000s when they, Call To Action, and other “Vatican II did go far enough!” movements suddenly found themselves outside the Novus Ordo Church’s good graces).

What I’m saying here is that Deacon Springer was far from unique, and the formula he used was much closer to being “by the book” than many of the other forms in use at the time he was ministering.

Make no mistake that the use of the word “We” instead of “I” reveals a specific theological orientation on Deacon Springer’s part, the same orientation that prompted ICEL and ICET to translate the Nicene Creed as “We believe” instead of “I believe” (the wording credimus/pistevomen was used at the Council, but when used liturgically the Creed always started with credo/pistevo). As one liberal priest explained it to me in ’98, “The shift from ‘I believe’ to ‘We believe’ is intended to reflect a move from the individual to the community,” which in turn reflects the communitarianism at the heart of contemporary “liberal” theology. However, changing “I” to “We” does not reflect an intention different from what the Church intends, and the words “baptize” and the three Persons of the Trinity were each named in the formula. By the principles of sacramentology, there is not enough here to declare the formula absolutely invalid.

What Was the Holy Office Really Talking About?

Yes. I’ve decided that from now on I will refer to the SCDF by their older name of “The Holy Office of the Inquisition,” because that name sounds much cooler. I mean seriously, which video game would you rather play: one about hooded robes and torture devices, or one about bureaucrats shuffling papers and self-important decrees almost nobody listens to?

So when we read the press about the “We baptize thee/Nos te baptizamus” formula being declared invalid – and then compare it with what Catholic sacramental teaching says on the matter – it’s easy to come away with the conclusion that neither Mr. Bergoglio nor his flunkies have so much as picked up a textbook on Sacramental Theology. Likewise if one only reads the part where it says “No, the formula is invalid and they must be baptized absolutely” (not the exact wording but the bottom-line effect), then that conclusion is more than justified.

However, the Holy Office is talking about “Nos te baptizamus” in a much bigger context. The explanation that accompanies said responsum says thus:

Recently there have been celebrations of the Sacrament of Baptism administered with the words: “In the name of the father and of the mother, of the godfather and of the godmother, of the grandparents, of the family members, of the friends, in the name of the community we baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Apparently, the deliberate modification of the sacramental formula was introduced to emphasize the communitarian significance of Baptism, in order to express the participation of the family and of those present, and to avoid the idea of the concentration of a sacred power in the priest to the detriment of the parents and the community that the formula in the Rituale Romano might seem to imply.
(emphasis mine)

The explanation then goes on to discuss parts of the Novus Ordo rite of baptism and how the community is already included and so forth, which doesn’t concern us for now because we’re only talking about the essential form. For those who wish to read the whole thing, it’s linked in the third paragraph of this blog post.

If we look at this expanded formula, it’s not only an example of “liberal” theology’s tendency to secularize the sacred and “flattening” of perceived hierarchy, it also commits what Jewish theology refers to as shutfus, that is, “partnership.” In saying “In the name of the father, mother … community, we baptize in the name of the Father, etc,” the celebrant here is presuming to Baptize in the name of God and in the name of the community equally, therefore (perhaps unconsciously?) assigning an equality between the community and God. While Jewish polemicists accuse Christians of committing shutfus because of the Trinity (in fact most Jewish polemics I’ve seen tend to begin and end there), this expanded formula takes shutfus to a whole new level and brings the intention of the celebrant into question, as it adds more than enough into the form to reflect something alien to what the Church intends.

Now in reference to the Nos te baptizamus formula without these further embellishments, I wish I could go with the most charitable interpretation here and assume the Holy Office was speaking specifically about this expanded formula. The problem is, they already precluded me from doing that:

Moreover, to modify the sacramental formula implies a lack of an understanding of the very nature of the ecclesial ministry that is always at the service of God and his people and not the exercise of a power that goes so far as to manipulate what has been entrusted to the Church in an act that pertains to the Tradition.

Am I the only one here who sees the pot calling the kettle black? Tell me about omitting “Mysterium Fidei?” Tell me about how they approved ICEL’s intentional mistranslation of “Pro Multis” as “For All?” Tell me about how they not only changed the formula for Confirmation, but even altered the Eastern formula in the process? Or what about the 1968 essential form for the consecration of bishops, whose issue was so obvious that even the Episcopalians saw a need to correct it? (1979 Prayer Book, page 521)

Thus if, as the nice bureaucrats tell us, “modifying the sacramental formula implies a lack of understanding,” then these changes indicate post-Vatican II Rome to be even more lacking in understanding than Deacon Springer, whose likely only fault was being educated in the post-Vatican II system with all the lack of understandings just mentioned.

Rather, what I find myself looking for is what is not mentioned in the Holy Office’s response: there’s a lot of post-Vatican II gobbledygook about “sign-presence” and such, but not one word about the actual principles of sacramental theology!

What we have in this responsum is not a reasoned and balanced presentation in light of traditional sacramentology, but rather a decree of “You better do what we tell you or we’re going to call it invalid, because we said so!” Which brings us into yet another problem…

The Substance of the Sacraments

Another perennial teaching of the Church, is that “The Church has no authority over the substance of the Sacraments.” That is, the Church does not get to dictate what makes the Sacraments “work,” but rather she observes the principles and works within them. This is articulated clearly in several places, but for now I’ll just give two of the clearer examples:

The Council of Trent says this in its 21st Session, the Second chapter:

[The Council] furthermore declares, that this power has ever been in the Church, that, in the dispensation of the sacraments, their substance being untouched, it may ordain,- or change, what things soever it may judge most expedient, for the profit of those who receive, or for the veneration of the said sacraments, according to the difference of circumstances, times, and places.

In a word, the Church recognizes that she may make all kinds of changes to the rituals, but she may not touch the substance of the Sacraments.

Another, more recent enunciation of this principle can be found in Pius XII’s Sacramentum Ordinis of 1947, in which he tells us in the first paragraph:

… the Church has no power over “the substance of the Sacraments,” that is, over those things which, as is proved from the sources of divine revelation, Christ the Lord Himself established to be kept as sacramental signs.

This is the Church’s traditional position on how much power she has to change a ritual, or to declare a rite valid or invalid: she has no power over the substance of the sacraments, therefore she cannot declare valid what was once invalid, or vice versa; she can only observe and evaluate based on established principles.

However, we see places where the hierarchy has arrogated to itself power over the substance of the sacraments, most notably in the Canon Law concerning marriage. The essential form of marriage is “I do” (the celebrants are the couple, not the priest!), the matter is the mutual consent between the parties, and the intent should be obvious. Yet Canon Law claims that if the marriage is not performed in a church building, or one of their clergy isn’t the celebrant, or one of the parties didn’t spend $1500 or more on a “declaration of nullity” even when it’s obvious a former marriage was sacramentally invalid to begin with, then the hierarchy rules the Sacrament as invalid – stuff that has nothing to do with the substance of the Sacrament itself!

[SIDE NOTE: Ever since some random dude named Marty nailed 95 Thesis and took away their indulgence money, I’m convinced annulments are their new cash cow. Fortunately some dioceses are more reasonable about this than others, while some are outright greedy.]

Now in regard to marriage, it’s easy to point to a mitigating factor: the well-being of both spouses (especially any spouse in a weaker position), and the protection of any children who may come from the union. But that’s a separate consideration from the substance of the sacrament and cannot be legislated under pain of invalidity.

Back to the responsum at hand, we have a hierarchy which has pretended to possess power over the substance of the Sacraments (as witnessed in the Novus Ordo changes), which openly claims in this responsum that anyone who changes the words is “ignorant,” and yet which refuses to discuss the actual principles governing word-changes and sacramental validity.

This, finally, brings us to the problem with “conservative” theology: just like “liberal” theology, it ignores Tradition any time Tradition holds up a “Stop” sign to its agenda. And the agenda of “conservative” theology is to enforce obedience for the sake of obedience, without reference to consistency and without the inconvenience of limiting principles.

Thus again I stand by my conclusion from above: the formula “We baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” can be considered tentatively valid at best and doubtful at worst, though a proper following of the principles prevents us from concluding it as absolutely invalid. That said, the general principle is that doubtful Sacraments are to be treated as invalid and re-administered conditionally at the first opportunity.

Now let’s take a look at the next important question.

What About Father Hood’s Sacraments?

I think we’ve talked enough about the principles governing sacramental validity and modern Rome’s history for overstepping its authority on the subject. It’s time we start talking about practical considerations for the people to whom Fr. Hood ministered for three years?

Right off, I would point out that any baptisms Father confected and marriages he officiated are valid, full stop. This is because even an unbaptized person can baptize validly (we’ll get to this in a moment), and the priest is merely a witness at marriages while it’s the couple who confect the Sacrament themselves.

When we talk about the other Sacraments, that’s when it gets tricky. If he was invalidly baptized, then he would not have been validly confirmed, or validly ordained, or even a Catholic standing at the altar. However, he wouldn’t be the first in that situation.

During the Reign of Pope Innocent II (1130-1143), the Pope was presented with a dubium from the Bishop of Cremona, asking about the fate of a priest who hadn’t been baptized. Part of the letter, titled Apostolicam Sedem, is preserved in Denzinger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum:

To your inquiry we respond thus: We assert without hesitation (on the authority of the holy Fathers Augustine and Ambrose) that the priest whom you indicated (in your letter) had died without the water of baptism, because he persevered in the faith of holy mother the Church and in the confession of the name of Christ, was freed from original sin and attained the joy of the heavenly fatherland. Read (brother) in the eighth book of Augustine’s “City of God” * where among other things it is written, “Baptism is ministered invisibly to one whom not contempt of religion but death excludes.” Read again the book also of the blessed Ambrose concerning the death of Valentinian * where he says the same thing. Therefore, to questions concerning the dead, you should hold the opinions of the learned Fathers’ and in your church you should join in prayers and you should have sacrifices offered to God for the priest mentioned. – DZ 388

Note that not one word was said about the validity of the Sacraments that priest confected, or the need to have repeated baptism, or so forth, but only that “Baptism is administered invisibly to one whom not contempt of religion but death excludes.”

As a practical matter, it would take a lot of presumption to assert this about Father Hood or any person living, and I assert nothing as being for certain. But as he clearly loved his faith enough to put up with seminary and the traps and pitfalls of pastoral ministry that came afterward – and God is capable of bestowing sanctifying grace outside the Sacraments – I wouldn’t exclude it from the realm of possibility, either.

Another interesting tidbit comes from Leo XIII’s bull Apostolicae Curae – you know, the one your Anglican friends hate and your Catholic friends only quote selectively. In one of those parts your Catholic friends never quote, we find this in paragraph 33:

A person who has correctly and seriously used the requisite matter and form to effect and confer a sacrament is presumed for that very reason to have intended to do (intendisse) what the Church does. On this principle rests the doctrine that a Sacrament is truly conferred by the ministry of one who is a heretic or unbaptized, provided the Catholic rite be employed.
(emphasis mine)

In particular, Pope Leo is talking about the principle that even a unbaptized person can validly confect baptism provided they use the proper form and matter, and have at least a virtual intent to do what the Church does. I would not extend this to talk about the other Sacraments, however the Pope’s words hint at no such limitation. While this has implications for other interpretations of Apostolicae Curae in relation to Anglican orders and especially those of the Anglo-Catholics, it’s well outside of this blog post’s scope to treat in any detail here. (I’ll only point out that historically this document turned out not to be an endpoint to Catholic-Anglican dialogue, but rather an unlikely beginning.)

If we were to take Pope Leo’s words to the broadest interpretation (most likely much broader than he intended), then it’s possibly to make a case for the principle of economy, namely that Christ can supply what the minister is lacking (this concept gets thrown around a lot within the Trad Movement’s justifications of its own existence, usually alongside or mixed up with misunderstandings of the word epikeia).

Again, understand that I make no theological assertions here, only speculations with full knowledge that I could be very wrong. However, the risk of being wrong is the price one pays for trying to explore all known sides of the question.

Yet what we have here is a possible theological pathway by which Father Hood’s Sacraments could have been valid in spite of his irregular situation. Of course I say possible, not probable, and the prudent course would be for Father to redo every Sacrament he’s ever done if the opportunity exists to do so. This particularly applies to any confirmations his Ordinary allowed him to confect, as anybody who confessed to him will be “squared away” the moment they make their next confession.

As to the Masses he would’ve pretended during that time (note the difference between pretense and simulation), it will be impossible to re-celebrate the 150+ Masses he would’ve said – assuming every Sunday for three years – so for that he’ll just have to move forward while asking forgiveness for any idolatry that may have been inadvertently committed with a piece of cis-substantiated bread at the altar. (However such idolatry was unintentional on the part of all parties involved; the good news is this indicates a lack of intentio malitiae and therefore rules out the possibility of mortal sin).

In any case, the remaining question yet to be addressed is whether Father Hood is a valid priest even now since his ordinator, Allen Henry Vigneron, was “consecrated” in 1996 according to the 1968 ordinal. (I tend to favor validity for both Hood and Vigneron and may someday write a blog post discussing my reasoning. But for now, just rest assured there a LOT of issues regarding this stuff that the “normies” haven’t the slightest clue about!)

What Lessons Can We Learn from This?

Well, THAVMA readers, the first lesson you can learn from this is that while I may have walked away from the Trad Movement 12 years ago, my contempt for the Novus Ordo Church continues unabated (even if for different reasons now). But this isn’t about me and never has been.

This is about a man whose universe was turned upside down because Rome made an arbitrary decree without even referencing its own historic principles, and then expected everybody to obey without questioning. We can even tell of the arbitrariness in this article, where Father Hood tells part of what happened after he saw the video of his baptism:

“When I heard the words, at first, I thought, ‘That doesn’t sound right,’” Fr. Hood recalled. “So I reached out to a professor at the seminary, Dr. (Robert) Fastiggi, and I also sent it to Michael Trueman (the Archdiocese of Detroit’s chancellor) and Msgr. (Ronald) Browne, a canon lawyer, just to ask.”

At the time, there was no clarification from the Vatican, and given the Church’s longstanding practice of presuming validity of the sacraments unless shown otherwise, the four decided Fr. Hood was likely safe.

Father Hood reached out to experts, who said he “was likely safe.” When modern Rome arbitrarily said otherwise, we know the rest of the story.

I feel a great deal of sympathy for Father Hood, even though my status as an occult writer means that sympathy will not be returned. Likewise – and no matter what differences we may have in theology or ideology – I pray that he will find peace and happiness in his ministry going forward.

About Agostino

Originally from Queens, N.Y., and having grown up in Dayton, OH, Agostino Taumaturgo is a unique figure. He is the product of the unlikely combination of coming from a Traditional Roman Catholic background and a spirituality-friendly home. It was in this home that Agostino first learned the basics of meditation, prayer, and spiritual working. In time Agostino completed his theology studies and was ordained to the priesthood and was later consecrated a bishop. He has since left the Traditional movement and brings this knowledge to the “outside world” through his teaching and writing, discussing spiritual issues and practical matters through the lens of traditional Christian theology.
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