The water is poured by one person, and the words spoken by another

INVALID: Seek absolute baptism.

Article on conditional baptism here.

As noted elsewhere, the Holy Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments published an answer in 1916 to a question on this defect. The case was complex because it involved two or three defects, namely:

  • The separation of the words and the washing;
  • One person saying the words and another performing the washing; specifically
  • The candidate performing the washing on herself.

Each of these defects is addressed in its proper article in our guide, but in brief, the Sacred Congregation answered that the separation of the matter and form can render the sacrament invalid, and that an administration will certainly be invalid if the same person does not say the words and apply the water.

This answer was promulgated in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, which is the official commentary of the Holy See and is the means by which laws and texts are promulgated to the whole Church. As such, this answer is authoritative.

In addition, St Thomas Aquinas addresses this case in two places in the Summa Theologica. The authorities in the moral manuals below are added for interest, but the principle is settled by the Sacred Congregation.

Why is this a problem? The fullest explanation is found in St Thomas Aquinas. In brief, the sacraments are the work of Christ as the principal agent, making use of a minister as his instrument and immediate agent.1 Elsewhere, St Thomas writes that “The man who baptizes offers but his outward ministration; whereas Christ it is who baptizes inwardly.”2 This, in turn, is why the minister says “I baptize you” rather than “We baptize you”:

By this form, “We baptize thee,” the intention expressed is that several concur in conferring one Baptism: and this seems contrary to the notion of a minister; for a man does not baptize save as a minister of Christ, and as standing in His place; wherefore just as there is one Christ, so should there be one minister to represent Christ.

Summa Theologica III 67.6

The combination of the minister washing the candidate and the speaking the words of the form – namely the words “I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” – determines that this ablution is a Christian baptism.

This is because the form determines the matter. The proximate matter alone – namely the washing – could itself signify a number of different things. As St Thomas Aquinas writes:

Since a man may be washed with water for several reasons, the purpose for which it is done must be expressed by the words of the form. And this is not done by [just] saying: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”; because we are bound to do all things in that Name (Colossians 3:17). Wherefore unless the act of baptizing be expressed, either as we do, or as the Greeks do, the sacrament is not valid.

Summa Theologica III 66.5.a2

Note that Halligan makes an interesting distinction below. If someone other than the minister pours the water but the minister intervenes with his hand or some other instrument and directs the water onto the candidate, then this will be valid. Why? Because the minister’s intervention establishes the case that he is the one doing the washing, and if he uses the correct form then the sign is intact.

Note also the outlier that proves the rule: Henry Davis SJ. He says that in the extreme case envisaged by St Thomas in the lengthier quotes below, two separate persons may administer the sacrament but it must be conditionally repeated as soon as is possible. This of course means that it is doubtful.

However, if one man says the words “I baptize you,” but the water is poured by someone else, then his words are false: he is by no means baptizing or washing a person. As such, there is no sign and therefore no sacrament. Similarly, if there is water flowing but the person washing the candidate does not determine the sacramental nature of the sign through the form, then there is not a clearly sacramental sign, and therefore no sacrament. Such a putative baptism is invalid.

With gratitude to Murray Rundus for having the Sacred Congregation document professionally translated, and writing on this topic at One Peter Five here and here,


Authorities

The even stronger and inevitable difficulty against the validity of the baptism in this case [of the minister saying the words, but someone else applying the water] has arisen out of the application of the matter […]

Catholic doctrine most certainly holds that the matter ought to be placed by one and the same minister at the same time as the form of the baptism is offered just so, for instance, the form: I baptize you, I wash you would serve a falsehood. [Ed: In other words, if someone else applies the water, it is not true for the minister to say “I baptize you”: the truth, rather, is that “This other person baptizes you,” which is a problem in and of itself. The text then quotes St Thomas Aquinas, which we will put separately below]

The Roman Ritual (tit. 2, cap. 1, n. 10), summarizing in a few words the Catholic doctrine around the aforementioned union that must be done by one and the same subject, prescribes: let the same man be the one applying the water and pronouncing the words.

But in the case laid out [before us], by no reason is it signified that any minister outwardly acted in order that the matter be applied merely by any subject, on the contrary the opposite is expressed. Namely, it is said: [the minister] himself has not poured out the water, nor submerged the bride, but, after the words have been spoken, she submerged herself. It is therefore clear that the baptism, from this summary, ought to be considered invalid.

Sacred Congregation of the Discipline of the Sacraments in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 1916 p 478-9. Available in Latin here and English translation published by One Peter Five here.

Several cannot baptize one at the same time: because an action is multiplied according to the number of the agents, if it be done perfectly by each. So that if two were to combine, of whom one were mute, and unable to utter the words, and the other were without hands, and unable to perform the action, they could not both baptize at the same time, one saying the words and the other performing the action.

On the other hand, in a case of necessity, several [candidates] could be baptized at the same time; for no single one of them would receive more than one baptism. But it would be necessary, in that case, to say: “I baptize ye.” Nor would this be a change of form, because “ye” is the same as “thee and thee.” Whereas “we” does not mean “I and I,” but “I and thou”; so that this would be a change of form.

St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III 66.5.a3

Objection: Suppose a child to be in danger of death, and two persons present, one of whom is dumb, and the other without hands or arms; for then the mutilated person would have to pronounce the words, and the dumb person would have to perform the act of baptizing. 

Answer: The integrity of Baptism consists in the form of words and the use of the matter. Consequently, neither he who only pronounces the words baptizes, nor he who dips. Wherefore if one pronounces the words and the other dips, no form of words can be fitting. For neither could one say: “I baptize thee”: since he dips not, and therefore baptizes not. Nor could they say: “We baptize thee”: since neither baptizes. For if of two men, one write one part of a book, and the other write the other, it would not be a proper form of speech to say: “We wrote this book,” but the figure of synecdoche in which the whole is put for the part.

St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III 67.6. o and a3

One and the same person must employ the matter and apply the form. Wherefore, Baptism is invalid if one person pours the water and another pronounces the words. (Cf. AAS 8-478 sq.)

Heribert Jone, Moral Theology, The Newman Press 1962, n. 445

Validity also requires that one and the same person apply the water and pronounce the words. The washing may be done by in­fusion or by holding the one to be baptized in standing or flowing water (e.g., in a spring or in the rain).

Heribert Jone, Moral Theology, The Newman Press 1962, n. 467.3

No one can baptize himself. The administration is invalid when someone other than the minister pours the water and the latter pronounces the form. Likewise when several minister partially and severally cooperate in the essential part of the rite. On the other hand, [the baptism is valid] when someone other than the minister pours the water, but the latter with his hand or with some other instrument directs the water upon the person to be baptized.

Nicholas Halligan OP, The Administration of the Sacraments, Alba House 1964, 33-4

The ablution must be performed by the person who pronounces the words. When immersion is used (as in the Baptism of a fetus), emersion (the drawing of the recipient out of the water) must also be performed by the minister to complete the significance of washing.

Outlines of Moral Theology, Francisl J. Connell CSsR, The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, 1958. p 189

In the form of this sacrament, the act of baptism must be expressed, and the matter and form be united to leave no doubt of the meaning of the ceremony. […] The essential conditions are that the person pour water upon the one to be baptized, at the same time pronouncing the words.

William Fanning, ‘Baptism’, in The Catholic Encyclopaedia, 1918

Ordinarily speaking, the matter and the form must be applied by one and the same minister. There are some exceptions, as, for example, the the sacrament of Penance where the penitent supplies the proximate matter and the priest pronounces the form. [Ed: but evidently, Baptism is not one of these exceptions.]

Dominic Prümmer, Handbook of Moral Theology, Mercier Press, Cork, 1956, n. 529.4

[T]he same minister must pronounce the form and pour the water […] From what has been said it would be easy to recognise which forms would be invalid and which valid.

Dominic Prümmer, Handbook of Moral Theology, Mercier Press, Cork, 1956, n. 552.3.

[The words and the pouring both] must be performed by the one baptizing. The words of the form clearly indicate this. […] This formula, so full of meaning and of such vital importance for the effects it causes, should be pronounced as the water is being poured on the head of the one to be baptized. It is not necessary that water be poured all the time during the saying of the words, but at least while some of the words are being said the sacred action of washing should take place.

Thomas Donlan OP et al, Christ, and His Sacraments, The Priory Press, Dubuque, Iowa, 1958, 335-7

Since the matter and form are parts of a single composite sign, it is sacrilegious to invalidate a Sacrament by substantial separations, which destroy the continuity or unity of signification. […] There is substantial separation between the matter and form, if the former is applied by one minister and the latter is spoken by another, although the form declares that the matter is applied by the speaker of the form: for example, if Titus pours the water while Claudius says: “I baptize thee, etc.”

Callan and McHugh, Moral Theology: A Complete Course Based on St. Thomas Aquinas and the Best Modern Authorities, Project Gutenberg, Imprimatur dated 1958. n. 2655b

The body of the recipient (i.e., the skin of his head) must be washed (i.e., the water must touch the head and flow thereon) by the baptizer (i.e., the person who pronounces the words must pour or sprinkle the water).”

Callan and McHugh, Moral Theology: A Complete Course Based on St. Thomas Aquinas and the Best Modern Authorities, Project Gutenberg, Imprimatur dated 1958. n. 2686c

The form should be pronounced by the minister while he pours the water, and it is clear that if one pronounced the words while another poured the water, or if one baptized one’s self, the Baptism would be invalid.

Fr Thomas Slater SJ, A Manual of Moral Theology for English-speaking Countries Vol II, Burns Oates and Washbourne, London 1925, 77.

In extreme necessity Baptism may be given if one person pours the water and another pronounces the form (Lehm. II, 21, note, quoting Cajetan and Suarez). The latter gave the case of a dumb person pouring the water and a person bound in chains pronouncing the form. But Baptism must be repeated afterwards in the usual way conditionally.

Henry Davis SJ, Moral and Pastoral Theology – A Summary. Sheed and Ward, New York, 1952 202

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.

Back to the Proximate Matter of Baptism


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  1. (ST III 66.5.a1).
  2. ST III 67.5.a1