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 necessary actions

Explanation of this table follows below.

A single pouring rather than a threefold pouringVALID – but illicit. No action necessary.
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 candidateDOUBTFUL – seek conditional baptism.
The water was not applied to the head, but some other partDOUBTFUL – seek conditional baptism.
The water was administered separately to the words.DOUBTFUL or INVALID – seek conditional or absolute baptism.
The water was sprinkled and did not flow on the skin of the headDOUBTFUL or INVALID and illicit method – seek conditional or absolute baptism.

Authorities for each defect and verdict will be forthcoming.

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, his article has much wider scope – and to this end, we are pleased to provide a brief guide of the most common defects of the matter of baptism.

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.
  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 I 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 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.

I am aware that this may all seem pedantic. If everyone always followed the simple rite established by our Lord, and if ordinaries exercised a basic level of vigilance, then these explanations would be superfluous.

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 could be positive proof that their baptism was valid. This practice 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. There is a much greater presumption of validity in baptisms done according to the post-conciliar reformed rite. While it is certain that this reformed rite maintains the essential form and matter intact, 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.

McCusker explains the situation and concludes:

“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 are already aware of several persons who have benefitted from the guide above when it was circulated privately. 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.

We hope that making it available on the WM Review will lead those who realise that they lack moral certainty regarding their baptisms – for which, see McCusker’s article – to have their situations resolved.


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