In late 2020, it emerged that two priests had been required to seek baptism, confirmation and ordination after being invalidly baptised as infants.
What are the potential consequences of the breakdown of sacramental practice in the post-conciliar Church? How does this compare to the sacramental security enjoyed in the Catholic Church prior to the Second Vatican Council The full scale of the crisis of sacramental validity – which will vary widely from place to place – is as yet unknown.
“Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (Jn 3:5)
Part I: Moral certainty and conditional baptism
1. The sacrament of baptism is necessary for salvation. Baptism is “the outward washing of the body done together with the prescribed form of words” (ST III q.66 a.1). Baptism is valid when the required matter and form are used with the intention of doing what the Church does.
2. Baptism of blood and baptism of desire are extraordinary means of salvation, whereby a person receives certain effects of the sacrament of baptism, but not the sacrament itself (cf ST III q.66 a.11).
3. Only baptism by water confers an indelible sacramental character upon the soul. Only baptism by water makes it possible for the other six sacraments to be validly received. A person who is not baptised will not be validly confirmed or ordained, and will not validly receive the sacraments of Penance, Holy Communion, or Extreme Unction. A non-baptised person cannot enter into a sacramental marriage.
4. It is therefore of the greatest importance that each individual, and the Church as a whole, has moral certainty that a given Catholic has validly received the sacrament of baptism.
5. Moral certainty is that certainty which admits of no reasonable doubt. In this it differs from absolute certainty, which would exclude all possible doubt.
6. Prior to the Second Vatican Council the formation of priests placed particular emphasis on the valid administration of the sacraments. Priests knew the correct matter and form, and understood the far-reaching consequences of invalid sacraments. Clergy would be vigilant both of their own practice and that of others. The words and rubrics of the received sacramental rites helped ensure the valid celebration of the sacraments. Knowledge of the necessary matter and form of the sacraments, and especially of baptism, was widespread among the laity – who were often instructed how to baptise – and many would be able to identify invalid baptisms easily. Parish priests, religious superiors, local Ordinaries, and the Holy See were assiduous in securing sacramental validity and in taking appropriate action in the case of doubtful sacraments.
7. As a result of the above any individual who was baptised by a Catholic priest and whose baptism was recorded in the appropriate register possessed moral certainty of the validity of their baptism, of their membership of the Mystical Body of Christ, and of their ability to validly receive the other sacraments of the Church.
8. Since the beginning of the prolonged period of crisis following the Second Vatican Council the conditions enumerated in section 6 no longer exist throughout much of the Church. It can no longer be assumed that clergy have received appropriate formation in the celebration of the sacraments. It can no longer be assumed that they accept or understand the Church’s sacramental theology or what is required for the valid celebration of the sacraments. Experimentation with sacramental and liturgical forms has been widespread. Lay people are much less likely to be able to identify invalid sacraments and take effective action. Bishops and superiors have neglected to govern the clergy and have not maintained discipline effectively.
9. There are a number of clearly documented examples of invalid celebrations of the sacraments, including baptism. Other cases will no doubt come to light. Many lay people and clergy have had personal experience of priests using invalid or doubtfully valid forms of absolution, and having failed to adhere to the words and rubrics of other sacramental rites.
10. A particularly disturbing example is that of Father Matthew Hood of the Archdiocese of Detroit. He was “ordained” to the priesthood in 2017 but discovered in 2020, after watching a home video, that his baptism had been invalid because the deacon, Mark Springer, used the words “we baptise” instead of the correct form “I baptise.” The invalidity of his baptism – and of all the sacraments he thought he had received – was confirmed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He had to be baptised, confirmed, and ordained absolutely. All the Masses he had celebrated (more than 1000) and all the absolutions he had given were invalid. If he had not viewed that particular home video, this situation could have continued for many decades. If he had become a bishop he may have “ordained” dozens of “priests” who would have perpetuated the invalid celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and of the sacraments of Penance, Confirmation and Extreme Unction, not to mention a whole range of other deleterious spiritual consequences. Deacon Mark Springer had been invalidly baptising for a decade. How many of those who received invalid baptism will now be baptised? How many souls will be eternally lost? How many other priests and deacons followed the same practice as Deacon Springer, but have not been identified and perhaps will never be so?
11. On 16 September 2020 it was revealed that Father Zachary Boazman, of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, had been baptised, confirmed, and ordained after being invalidly baptised in the diocese of Fort Worth in 1992. As in the case of Fr. Hood, the form “we baptise” was used in place of “I baptise,” and Fr. Boazman only realised after watching a home video. How many other priests are in the situation of Fr. Hood and Fr. Boazman? It is highly unlikely that they are the only two examples.
12. Another instructive example is that of the parish of St. Mary’s in the Archdiocese of Brisbane, Australia. In 2004 the Archdiocese announced that invalid baptisms – “in the name of the redeemer, the liberator, and the sustainer” – had been taking place for the last ten years in the parish and admitted that hundreds of children in the Archdiocese were in fact not baptised. Despite this the parish priest was not removed until 2009, after the Archbishop admitted (in August 2008) that he was still unsure “whether they baptise the correct way” in the parish. The breakdown of teaching, practice, and discipline in the post-conciliar Church is such that for 15 years invalid baptisms could take place publicly, close to the centre of one of Australia’s largest cities, without any effective action being taken.
13. As a consequence of this disintegration of Catholic teaching, practice, and discipline many Catholics can no longer have moral certainty that they have been validly baptised simply because there is a record of a baptism in a register. There are reasonable grounds for considering that, as a result of the factors enumerated above, something may have occurred to render their baptism invalid.
14. Moral certainty can therefore only be attained by further investigation.
15. In many cases moral certainty will be attained because of factors such as the following: (i) an adult convert has a clear recollection of his own baptism, (ii) parents, godparents, or other adults present at an infant baptism are morally certain of what they witnessed, (iii) the individual has later, personal, knowledge of the character and practice of the priest, (iv) other reliable individuals can testify to the character and practice of the priest, (v) the priest has a well-established reputation for adherence to the correct matter and form of the sacraments, and so on. In these cases, the factors enumerated in sections 8-11 no longer offer grounds for reasonable doubt and moral certainty has been attained.
16. In a small number of cases clear evidence will be found of practices that render baptism invalid or doubtfully valid. In these cases, it should be relatively easy for the individual concerned to receive absolute or conditional baptism as required.
17. However, it will often be the case – especially after many years have passed – that there is no reliable witness who can testify to what took place. There may also be no priest or lay person who can give reliable testimony of an individual priest’s character and practice.
18. In such a case the individual concerned has no moral certainty as to the validity of his baptism. He may presume, almost certainly correctly, that the overwhelming majority of baptisms have been valid, but he will also know that a significant minority of priests and deacons cannot be relied upon to have baptised validly, because of the disintegration of doctrine and discipline in the Church. Thus, in the absence of corroborating evidence, reasonable doubt remains and the validity of the baptism remains a probable opinion only.
19. The fact that the vast majority of baptisms are highly likely to have been valid in no way removes the reasonable grounds for doubt provided by the facts related in section 8-12. These can only be removed by the kind of verification specified in section 15.
20. As baptism by water is necessary for salvation (except in the extraordinary circumstances of baptism by blood and desire), for membership of the Church, and for the valid reception of all other sacraments, Catholics who lack moral certainty not only may, but must, receive conditional baptism followed by conditional confirmation, and, if necessary, conditional ordination.
21. The contention of sections 8-19 is supported by the traditional practice of the Church of conditionally baptising the majority of converts from Protestantism, including from denominations which possessed a baptismal rite that was certainly valid.
The Westminster Synod of 1852 commanded that:
“All converts from Protestantism be baptised conditionally, unless it is most surely ascertained from evidence beyond all doubt that all that regards the matter and form of the sacrament was duly performed.”
In Ireland a Synod at Maynooth in 1875 determined that:
“Converts to the Catholic religion in our territory are conditionally baptised because it is evident that there are very many among the Protestants who disregard baptism and others who administer it without using the proper matter and form. This usage we wish to be maintained unless it is quite evident from trustworthy testimonies that the person in question has been validly baptised.”
The Holy Office decreed in 1878 that the baptism of a convert must be investigated. If found to be valid it was to be accepted without conditional baptism, if doubt remained the sacrament was to be conferred conditionally.
As the Catholic Encyclopedia (1907) explains:
“If there were one authorized mode of baptizing among the sects, and if the necessity and true significance of the sacrament were uniformly taught and put in practice among them, there would be little difficulty as to the status of converts from the sects. But there is no such unity of teaching and practice among them, and consequently the particular case of each convert must be examined into when there is question of his reception into the Church. For not only are there religious denominations in which baptism is in all probability not validly administered, but there are those also which have a ritual sufficient indeed for validity, but in practice the likelihood of their members having received baptism validly is more than doubtful. As a consequence converts must be dealt with differently. If it be certain that a convert was validly baptized in heresy, the sacrament is not repeated… If it be uncertain whether the convert’s baptism was valid or not, then he is to be baptized conditionally. In such cases the ritual is: “If thou art not yet baptized, then I baptize thee in the name”, etc… Practically, converts in the United States are almost invariably baptized either absolutely or conditionally, not because the baptism administered by heretics is held to be invalid, but because it is generally impossible to discover whether they had ever been properly baptized. Even in cases where a ceremony had certainly been performed, reasonable doubt of validity will generally remain, on account of either the intention of the administrator or the mode of administration. Still each case must be examined into (S. C. Inquis., 20 Nov., 1878) lest the sacrament be sacrilegiously repeated.”
In England, as in the United States, conditional baptism was generally performed very freely. For example, in 1957 in the diocese of Salford, England, priests were instructed that:
“All converts must be baptised at least conditionally, unless it is certain that they have already been validly baptised. Priests shall not decide in favour of the validity of a Baptism conferred in heresy without consulting the ordinary.”
In the period since the Second Vatican Council there has been a lack “of unity of teaching and practice” in the post-conciliar Church similar to that which prevails in many Protestant denominations. It is this which necessitates individual examination of each person’s baptism, rather than an unquestioning reliance on baptismal registers.
The willingness of the Church to conditionally baptise converts from Protestantism, without any particularly protracted process of investigation, provides a clear and convincing precedent for clergy to conditionally baptise Catholics who, due to the crisis prevailing in the Church, lack moral certainty regarding the validity of their baptism.
Part II: Reply to potential objections
Many of these objections have already been substantially dealt with above but it will be useful to consider them in more detail here.
1. Lack of positive probable doubt
It may be suggested that conditional baptism would only be appropriate if there is concrete evidence that a particular baptism, or the routine practice of a particular priest, indicated invalidity and that in the absence of such evidence the doubt raised is merely “negative” and therefore cannot be grounds for conditional baptism.
This argument could be rendered: “If there is a record of the baptism, and it was performed by a minister within the Catholic Church, it must be regarded as valid unless evidence comes to light that it is otherwise.”
This was a perfectly reasonable position to hold prior to the Second Vatican Council because, as argued above, structures existed to protect sacramental integrity and provide the required moral certainty.
It is the breakdown of these structures that provides grounds for reasonable doubt. It is certainly true that the scale of abuses will differ from place to place. In some parts of the world it is likely that there have been thousands of cases, whereas in other parts of the world there may have been few or even none. The argument contained in this paper is therefore not perhaps equally applicable in all parts of the world.
And yet, baptism is so essential to salvation, and the very existence of the Church, that bishops should be assiduous in arriving at moral certainty and not merely assuming that no problem exists in their diocese or locality.
The crisis in the Church, which provides the grounds for doubt, is universal, even though the way it manifests is not uniform.
There were undoubtedly baptismal records for Fr. Matthew Hood and Fr. Zachary Boazman, and on that basis, they were “confirmed” and “ordained.” Yet, the recorded “baptisms,” and many like them (we know of hundreds), never in fact took place. The consequences of relying on a certificate – and thus failing to acknowledge the potential impact of the ecclesiastical crisis on sacramental integrity – were devastating for hundreds of men and women who received invalid sacraments – including at the moment of death. If Fr. Hood or Fr. Boazman had been “consecrated” as bishops, the situation would have been even more catastrophic.
In much of the world, it is no longer safe or reasonable to assume the validity of a baptism simply because a record of it exists. There must also be (i) reliable witnesses to the event or (ii) moral certainty that the specific priest or deacon concerned could be relied upon to baptise validly.
Only when the unity of teaching and practice has been restored will it be possible once again to assume that the Church’s registers give an accurate account of valid sacraments.
2. Baptism cannot be repeated without sacrilege
It may be objected that repetition of the sacrament of baptism is sacrilegious and therefore great caution must be applied before having recourse to conditional baptism.
It is certainly true that the three sacraments which confer an indelible sacramental character – baptism, confirmation, and holy orders – cannot be repeated.
However, in conditional baptism there is never any intention to repeat the sacrament, or to confer for a second time that which has already been received, and the possibility of doing so is deliberately excluded by the form used.
We have already seen that the traditional practice of the Church in regard to converts has been to confer conditional baptism very freely in order to eliminate any reasonable doubt of invalidity, including when the convert comes from a denomination which officially uses a certainly valid rite.
There is another instructive example of recourse to conditional baptism: the traditional practice of conditionally baptising infants previously baptised by a lay person e.g. in danger of death.
There must have been many occasions when clergy conditionally baptised children who had been baptised by lay people who it was known could be trusted to baptise correctly, e.g. experienced midwives. Nonetheless, these children were still conditionally baptised by the clergy.
Priests did not need to scruple over repeating a sacrament, they acted rightly in administering conditional baptism so that nobody might have any doubt, in the present or the future, that the individual concerned – perhaps a potential priest, bishop, or Pope – was truly a member of the Catholic Church.
3. “Trust in God”
A lay person who raises concerns about the validity of their baptism might be accused of being scrupulous and be encouraged to simply “trust in God.”
A faithful Catholic will trust that God will always impart sacramental grace when the correct matter and form is used with the correct intention. He will not blindly trust in men, when the evidence of his own experience teaches him that a significant number of the post-conciliar clergy cannot be trusted to act correctly when it comes to celebrating the sacraments.
Nobody who has experienced the frequency with which post-conciliar clergy alter the form of absolution, or liturgical texts, or expound a heretical understanding of the sacraments, could reasonably be expected to trust, prior to further investigation, that any given priest used the correct matter and form at their baptism.
To ask any individual to accept without question that a post-conciliar cleric, of whose personal integrity they know little, certainly baptised them validly, is unreasonable.
4. “Baptism of desire”
Concerned lay people may also be told that they have nothing to worry about because if they were not validly baptised, they will receive baptism of desire.
Baptism of desire is an extraordinary means of salvation. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that it was possible that
“a man receives the effect of Baptism by the power of the Holy Ghost, not only without Baptism of Water, but also without Baptism of Blood: forasmuch as his heart is moved by the Holy Ghost to believe in and love God and to repent of his sins: wherefore this is also called Baptism of Repentance” (ST III q.66. a.11).
In this baptism of desire, or repentance, man cooperates with God and receives sanctifying grace prior to receiving the sacrament of baptism. However, as stated above, baptism of desire does not confer an indelible sacramental character, and does not allow the valid reception of the other sacraments.
Every Catholic must have moral certainty that they have received valid baptism by water.
5. “The sacraments cannot be so easily invalidated!” OR “The Church supplies!”
Each sacrament has matter and form. The matter of baptism is the washing of the body with water. This can occur by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling. In the Roman rite the form of sacrament is “I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” In the Byzantine rite the form “The servant of God [N] is baptised in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” is used.
If invalid matter and form is used the sacrament will not be conferred. The Church cannot “supply” anything to make up for the lack of the required matter and form. Only jurisdiction – which is required for the valid celebration of certain sacraments – can ever be supplied by the Church, in certain circumstances, to enable the celebration of sacraments that would otherwise be rendered invalid by its lack.
6. “If we conditionally baptise lots of people it will cause scandal and confusion”
The sacrament of baptism is necessary for salvation. The hierarchy of the Church has the responsibility to guard those entrusted to it and ensure that not one is lost (cf Jn 6:39). The hierarchy has already caused scandal and confusion by failing to ensure the integrity of the celebration of the sacraments. It would be an even greater failing if bishops and priests were to refuse to act to remedy this failure by refusing to acknowledge the existence of significant numbers of invalid celebrations of the sacraments and by denying conditional sacraments to those in need of them.
If there is the slightest reasonable doubt that a baptism (or confirmation or ordination) was invalid, the clergy are obliged to administer conditional baptism (and conditional confirmation or ordination).
For the past sixty years the Catholic Church has been enduring the worst crisis in her history. Many clergy, poorly formed or adhering to heretical doctrine, have failed to ensure the integrity of the sacraments. There are many documented cases of sacraments, including baptism, having been celebrated invalidly. The full extent of the problem is unknown, in large part because of the breakdown of ecclesiastical discipline.
This crisis in and of itself creates reasonable doubt as to the validity of many baptisms that cannot be verified by reliable testimony of either (i) what took place on a particular occasion, or (ii) the established integrity of the celebration of the sacraments by the particular minister involved.
All Catholics who have a reasonable doubt, which still remains after a sufficient (and not overly prolonged) investigation of the facts, ought to receive conditional baptism and conditional confirmation and, where necessary, conditional ordination.
“See, here is water: what doth hinder me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36)
11 September 2020
Amended 17 September 2020
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