Is it valid? The proximate matter of Baptism

Valid Sacraments
Doubtful Baptisms – reflections on the necessity for widespread access to conditional sacraments
Is it Valid? The Proximate Matter of Baptism – a comprehensive guide to possible defects
Is the Church Infallible in her Discipline? by l’Abbé Hervé Belmont
What are the implications of conditionally repeated sacraments? – Text by Mgr Robert Hugh Benson, with commentary

“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 (NB: we earn commissions through these Amazon Links)

Defects of matter (and related issues) and necessary actions

This article is about the validity of baptism – not salvation per se.

In this project as a whole, we are simply reporting the teaching of theologians on sacramental theology. Some may condemn all this as legalism or scrupulosity.

Nothing could be further than the truth. Morality is based on reason, and not on fear. However, those who level such criticisms at this method of theology as a whole should be aware of the implications of dismissing areas of settled Catholic theology (discussed here). In any case, the reply of Bl. Edmund Campion may have some application to those who condemn this settled, traditional theology of the sacraments as legalistic or pharisaical:

“In condemning us you condemn all your own ancestors – all the ancient priests, bishops and kings – all that was once the glory of England, the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.

“For what have we taught, however you may qualify it with the odious name of treason, that they did not uniformly teach? To be condemned with these lights – not of England only, but of the world – by their degenerate descendants, is both gladness and glory to us.”[1]

Those who think that this is pedantic nonsense are invited to produce alternative authorities – as well as an explanation as to how the outworking of this traditional sacramental theology could be both a) false and harmful and yet b) not only tolerated, but approved and used in a widespread way, by Rome and the Church at large, for such a long period.

Anyone with reasons for concern about his own baptism should make contact with a traditional Catholic priest to discuss the matter.

Explanation of this table follows below – note that this is a contents page and a summary, and taken alone may seem quite strange. In fact, this article explains the principles behind this topic, and each link will take you to a set of pre-conciliar authorities giving the opinions and explanations of these theologians.

Please read the essay below and each link for full explanations and context.

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 – viz., it did not flow on any skin of the head (not even the scalp itself).DOUBTFUL – seek conditional baptism.
The water did not flow at all – 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)


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.

However, the problem may extend even further.

As my co-editor M.J. McCusker has argued elsewhere, the ordinary means of attaining moral certainty even about the baptisms of Catholics administered in the post-conciliar rites seem no longer to be sufficient in and of themselves.

To be clear, 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 McCusker continues:

“As a consequence of this disintegration of Catholic teaching, practice, and discipline, it seems that 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.”

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Baptism itself

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 sign of 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 (Reminder: we earn through this link)

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.

If you think that you have cause for concern, then speak to a traditional Catholic priest.


Some may find it hard to believe that God would allow someone to be “punished” because of the incompetence or malice of the minister, and conclude that all this must be pedantry. This is a flawed objection in several ways.

First, let’s note that we are talking about suffering the evil of an invalid baptism here – not the evil of damnation. These are completely distinct concepts.

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

Thied, 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, those who are damned suffer the pains of Hell on account of their own sins, and God always provides sufficient grace for each man to be saved.

Fourth, 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:

“13. As a consequence of this disintegration of teaching, practice, and discipline, there are many Catholics who will find it difficult to attain moral certainty that they have been validly baptised on the basis of a baptismal register alone. There may seem to be reasonable grounds for considering, as a result of the factors enumerated above, that something may have occurred to render their baptism invalid. The existence and degree of doubt will vary very widely based on the time and place of the baptism.

“14. In many cases moral certainty will only be attained by further investigation.”

We are aware of 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 – which just shows how far the problems extend.

As another example – we are aware of an English protestant group who, at least in 2010, were baptising with a form of words which the Roman Catholic Church considers to be invalid.[2] But today, protestant baptisms seem to enjoy a presumption of validity, and it is unlikely that the use of this problematic form would be discovered were any former adherents to enter the average RCIA programme.

This problem appears to be more widespread than many 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.

Anyone with concerns should discuss them with a traditional Catholic priest. We are just providing information in the abstract, and this cannot and does not take the place of a priest.

Valid Sacraments
Doubtful Baptisms – reflections on the necessity for widespread access to conditional sacraments
Is it Valid? The Proximate Matter of Baptism – a comprehensive guide to possible defects
Is the Church Infallible in her Discipline? by l’Abbé Hervé Belmont
What are the implications of conditionally repeated sacraments? – Text by Mgr Robert Hugh Benson, with commentary

Is there a problem with your baptism?

If you think that you or someone you know was baptised in a 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.

[1] Taken from Evelyn Waugh, Edmund Campion, Ignatius Press, San Franciscio, 2005, p 193.

[2] The form used was: “N., we baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, and in the name of Jesus.” It does not seem likely that the addition of “in the name of Jesus” would cast doubt on the form. The problem lies in the use of the first person plural, as is now well known. This was witnessed by one of the editors in 2010, on one day, for several baptisms at Trinity Church (formerly Peniel Pentecostal Church), Essex.

  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.

One thought on “Is it valid? The proximate matter of Baptism

  1. What do you make of Bishop Sanborn’s seminary newsletter of January 2023 where he says he will now consider ALL Novus Ordo baptisms (back to about 1970) as doubtful, and unless positive evidence of validity is discovered, conditional baptism is needed ?

    The WM Review

    Thanks for your message. We aren’t really sure. If it goes too far (not saying it does or doesn’t) then at least it takes the problem seriously.

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