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Why are thousands of baptisms deemed invalid?

When is a baptism not a baptism?

When the cleric presiding at the ceremony alters the ritual language in such a fundamental way that it undercuts its meaning, according to the Vatican.

And even the altering of a single, crucial pronoun can render a baptism invalid, it says.

A Roman Catholic priest, Father Andres Arango, resigned Feb. 1 as pastor of his parish in Phoenix, after acknowledging he had been using the incorrect baptismal formula during more than two decades of priestly ministry in Arizona, California and Brazil.

Arango used the formula, “We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” instead of the prescribed singular pronoun: “I baptize you …”

Theologically, that makes all the difference, the Vatican ruled in 2020, because it’s not the “we” of the congregation doing the baptizing, but rather the “I” of Jesus Christ, working through the priest.

Now the Diocese of Phoenix is putting out a call to anyone who underwent the ritual under Arango to receive “valid” baptisms — and potentially other rites of initiation. The diocese estimates that thousands were affected.

What is the significance of baptism, and why is it important for it to be valid?

Baptism is the basic rite of initiation into the Christian faith. In Catholic theology, baptism is considered a sacrament — a visible rite conveying spiritual grace — and is “necessary for salvation,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “The church does not know of any means other than baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude” — that is, heaven.

For a sacrament to be valid, it has to be presided over correctly, the church teaches.

“Baptism for us is for salvation, so it’s a big deal. We need to make sure to make it right,” said Jay Conzemius, moderator of the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s tribunal and past president of the Canon Law Society of America.

Has this come up before?

Yes. Cases have arisen in Michigan and Oklahoma of priests who learned their baptism was invalid.

The Vatican in June 2020 issued guidance declaring that the formula “We baptize you …” was invalid and that anyone who baptized using it must be re-baptized properly.

The Vatican said then that some unnamed priests were using the “We” formula to make the baptism more of a communal affair involving parents, godparents and the community in welcoming a new member into the Catholic Church. But in an explanatory note accompanying its decision, it recalled that when a priest baptizes someone, it is actually Christ performing the sacrament, not the community.

“Modifying on one’s own initiative the form of the celebration of a sacrament does not only constitute a liturgical abuse … but a wound inflicted upon the ecclesial communion,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in the note .

The Vatican clearly knew that its ruling would cause upheaval, but for such a fundamental sacrament which concerns the salvation of a soul, it felt the need to insist that freelance variations were not only unacceptable but invalid.

Is the Church saying that anyone invalidly baptized is going to Hell?

No, according to church officials and theologians.

“Even if we want to make sure that everything is done as the rite needs to be done, what needs to be emphasized just as loudly is the notion that God isn’t constrained by the errors that a priest might make,” said Gregory Hillis, professor of theology at Bellarmine University, a Catholic school in Louisville, Kentucky.

“Nobody’s assuming God’s going to say, ‘Well, I’m sorry, you got the first person plural rather than the first person singular,’” Hillis said.

Added Monsignor Stephen Doktorczyk, vicar general for the Diocese of Orange, California: “There’s a saying that God works through the sacraments, but he is not limited to the sacraments.”

What other impact does this have?

If a person’s baptism is deemed invalid, then subsequent rites such as confirmation and, in the case of priests, ordination are also not valid as sacraments.

A priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit discovered in 2020 that the deacon who baptized him as an infant used “We” rather than “I.” He had to receive a valid baptism — and confirmation and ordination, since those hinged on a valid baptism. And the archdiocese also worked to arrange sacramentally valid baptisms for those whose rites he had presided at without knowing he wasn’t validly ordained.

Have some priests altered the baptismal formula in other ways?

Yes, which may explain the Vatican insistence on verbal precision in 2020. It issued a near-identical instruction in 2008, again because of variations on the baptism formula being used by some English-speaking priests.

Then, some priests were trying to tamp down the patriarchal nature of the rest of the formula by substituting references to “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” with phrases like “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.”

Again, the Vatican declared such baptisms were invalid and needed to be done properly.

Is all of this really worth it, especially when many are distancing themselves from organized religion?

Words matter, Catholic officials say.

“The church cannot change what Christ himself has instituted,” wrote Monsignor Antonio Miralles, a sacramental theologian at the Pontifical Santa Croce University, at the time of the 2008 ruling.

But there are real-world consequences of doctrinal rulings — like trying to track down thousands of people with the upsetting news that their sacramental history was invalid — said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and columnist for Religion News Service.

He would have preferred a Vatican ruling that such baptisms were valid even if not “licit,” or done by the book — in which case the priest might face discipline but the faithful would be unaffected.

“That’s the problem when you get a bunch of bureaucrats in a room without thought to the pastoral consequences of the decision,” he said.