Is it valid? The proximate matter of Baptism

The proximate matter of Baptism is the use of the water […] in such a way that in the common estimation of men an ablution has been performed.

Prümmer, Handbook of Moral Theology 1956, 552.3

Defects of matter (and related issues) and necessary actions

Explanation of this table follows below.

Defect:verdict:
The water is poured once, rather than in a threefold mannerVALID but ILLICIT. No action necessary.
The minister held the candidate under running waterVALID if the minister himself directs the water onto the candidate’s head – no action necessary.
Otherwise PROBABLY VALID (but therefore DOUBTFUL) – seek advice and conditional baptism.
The water only flowed on the hair, not the skin of the head.DOUBTFUL – seek conditional baptism.
The water did not flow – e.g., the minister used a wet thumb or sponge to “anoint” the candidate.DOUBTFUL – seek conditional baptism.
The water was not applied to the head, but some other partDOUBTFUL – seek conditional baptism.
The water was sprinkled and did not flow on the skin of the headDOUBTFUL or INVALID – depending on the facts of the case seek at least conditional baptism.
The water was administered separately to the wordsVALID but ILLICIT if morally simultaneous;
DOUBTFUL or INVALID if substantially separate.
Seek advice.
The water is poured by one person, and the words spoken by anotherINVALID – seek absolute baptism
The candidate applied the water to himself (whether saying the words or not)INVALID – seek absolute baptism
Image: Pietro Antonio Novelli (source)

Authorities for each defect and verdict can be found on the relevant pages.

Following some dramatic cases of invalid baptisms in 2020, many now seem to understand how defects of form (the words) can invalidate this sacrament. However, defects of the “proximate matter” (the application of the water) are less widely known. This guide analyses these various defects.

This is important because non-Catholic baptisms currently enjoy a widespread presumption of validity amongst Catholics, and conditional baptism is almost now unknown. It is now generally sufficient for a convert to claim that he was baptised and produce a certificate: in our anecdotal experience, no serious investigation is made into whether the requirements for validity were fulfilled – and in the absence of any evidence, validity is presumed. This is contrary to the the practice that existed in England and elsewhere before the Council, and it is worryingly optimistic about the cavalier approach some sects take with the sacraments.

Regrettably, as M.J. McCusker has demonstrated, the ordinary means of attaining moral certainty even about the baptisms of Catholics administered in the post-conciliar rites are also no longer sufficient in and of themselves.

We know and affirm that “Baptism is valid when the required matter and form are used with the intention of doing what the Church does.”1 Nonetheless:

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 [in the article], something may have occurred to render their baptism invalid. 

Moral certainty can therefore only be attained by further investigation.

We hope that this guide will show that there should be considerably more caution shown towards all putative baptisms which have not been administered in an integral and traditional Catholic rite, be it the Roman Rite, Byzantine, or otherwise – and that there should be wider access to conditional baptism for those who cannot attain moral certainty of the validity of their baptism.


Introduction

Baptism is necessary for salvation and for membership of the Church. As such, it is the easiest sacrament to administer: anyone can baptise; the form of words is simple; and the matter makes use of one of the most readily-available substances in the world.

Despite the simplicity of the sacramental rite, which must surely be the deliberate intention of Christ, careless and turbulent men have felt free to interfere with the received rite and render the sacrament invalid or doubtful.

In recent years, we have seen several high-profile stories about such “baptisms.” The cases that gave rise to M.J. McCusker’s article on conditional baptism revolved around defects of form – namely, the words used.

However, McCusker’s article has much wider scope than merely the form. To this end, this guide details the most common defects of the matter of baptism, along with some related issues.

Proximate Matter

The “remote matter” of baptism is water, which we can address at a later date. However, the proximate matter of baptism is a washing with natural water. The three means of doing this are:

  1. Immersion – this was common for centuries, and baptism still takes this form in the Eastern rites and some Protestant sects. In immersion, the whole body is moved through the water and drawn out of the font, and thus the water flows over the body.
  2. Sprinkling – the difficulty here is ensuring that there is enough water such that it flows on the body of the person and so constitutes a washing. In practice, this has fallen out of use and is fraught with danger.
  3. Infusion (pouring) – the water must flow over the either the whole body or its principal part, the head.

Sacraments are outward signs of inward grace, which effect interiorly what they signify exteriorly. The reason that it is necessary that the water flows over the skin of the person is that the interior cleansing from sin is only effected by the exterior cleansing of the body. If the body is not exteriorly cleansed (at least symbolically), then the sign of baptism is not present: and without the outward sign, there is no sacrament. If the outward sign is only doubtfully present, then the sacrament is also doubtful and must be repeated conditionally. All of the defects mentioned here are defects of that outward sign of the washing of the body, represented at least by the head.

Formerly this cleansing of the body was done literally, by the immersion of the whole body. But as we said, and as is proved throughout various works, a symbolic washing is sufficient. It must at least, as is our Latin practice today, be a) a washing of the body, namely the skin and not the hair; and b) of the most noble part of the body as representative of the whole, namely the head. The various defects listed above simply fail, in one way or another, to be a washing of the skin of the head. The university textbook below expresses the point clearly:

“The proximate matter of baptism is the exterior washing of the body with water. As the very name [‘baptism’] of this sacrament indicates; as the effects it is supposed to symbolize declare; as the constant liturgical practice of the Church attests – the ceremonial action which constitutes this sacrament is one of washing, symbolic of the interior cleansing of the soul.” 

Donlan, Cunningham & Rock, Christ and His Sacraments, 1958. pp 335

The table above (and below) contains a list of the typical defects, along with the verdict found in a selection of moral theology manuals and elsewhere. Each defect is a link which will lead the reader to a more detailed collection of excerpts from these manuals which establish the points.

Objections

This may all seem pedantic. Perhaps some find it hard to believe that God would allow someone to be punished with an invalid baptism because of the incompetence or malice of the minister, and assume that this must be pedantry. This is a flawed objection in several ways.

Firstly, life is full of examples of God tolerating evils, whilst drawing wonderful goods out of them.

Second, while we concede that having unknowingly been deprived of a valid baptism is an evil that must be addressed, we are not arguing that such persons are damned as a result: on the contrary, persons suffer the pains of the damned on account of their own sins, and God always provides sufficient grace for each man to be saved.

Third, these points are the necessary result of the Church’s sacramental theology. As the Penny Catechism tells us, “A Sacrament is a outward sign of inward grace, ordained by Jesus Christ, by which grace is given to our souls.” There are accidental changes that may occur with the administration of the sacraments which do not affect validity, and we are not talking about these here. We are talking about those defects which, in the judgement of the Church and her approved theologians, are sufficient to substantially change or destroy the outward sign ordained by Jesus Christ. If we were to claim that Christ validates invalid sacraments simply based on the good will of the recipient, we are radically departing from the whole sacramental theology of the Church. Such a departure will have very unpleasant consequences in all sorts of ways.

Finally, the fault is entirely on the side of those departing from the rites of the Church. If these incompetent or wicked persons followed the minimum simple rite established by our Lord, and if ordinaries exercised a basic level of vigilance over those baptising (or receiving converts) then these explanations would be superfluous.

Conditional Baptism

As M.J. McCusker’s essay states, it was standard practice for adult converts to be conditionally baptised on their reception into the Catholic Church, unless there was positive proof that their baptism was valid. The burden of proof lay on those seeking to prove the validity of a baptism in a non-Catholic sect, because of the great importance of being validly baptised. The result of this and subsequent conditional baptisms were that that all converts enjoyed moral certainty of being truly baptised. Since Vatican II, the presumption has shifted to one of validity, and the prospective convert generally needs to produce some evidence of a defect in order to have the situation rectified. This practice of conditional baptism has largely disappeared today, although traditionalist groups do still maintain it.

More concerning, however, are cases of invalid or doubtful baptisms in the post-conciliar structures. Most traditionalists presume the validity of baptisms done according to the post-conciliar reformed rite. It is certain that this reformed rite is capable of being used to administer a valid baptism, because it maintains the essential form and matter intact. However, it is far from certain that the individual minister will follow his liturgical books: it is also far from certain that he will know about or be concerned at the defects of matter listed above. In fact, there are many cases of ministers departing even from the reformed rites, and it is reasonable to be concerned that this may have happened for any given baptism, unless there is some evidence to the contrary.

McCusker explains the situation and concludes, as quoted above,:

“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.”

We (the editors) are already aware of several persons who have benefitted from this guide. This includes an adult convert who was putatively baptised by a conciliar priest, but such that the water did not flow upon his skin. This priest, now deceased, had a reputation for orthodoxy.

Further – as another example – we are aware of an English protestant group who were routinely baptising with an invalid form of words in 2010. As far as we can see, protestant baptisms enjoy a presumption of validity and it is unlikely that the form of words would be discovered if these persons were to enter the average RCIA programme.

This problem is more widespread than people realise and has very serious implications.

We hope that making this guide available will give clarity to those who lack moral certainty regarding their baptisms – for which, see McCusker’s article – to have their situations resolved.

Is there a problem with your baptism?

If you think that you or someone you know was baptised in this defective manner, then take action. Take a look at this essay on conditional baptism, and speak to a traditional Catholic priest. You can also contact us here.



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  1. A very standard idea affirmed in McCusker’s article here. We only mention it to make clear that none of our points are denying this axiom.

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