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 this case, the candidate submerged herself into water as the minister spoke the form. The Sacred Congregation ruled that in itself, this invalidated the sacrament – both because it was a sort of self-baptism, and because it separated the speaker of the form from the action of washing.
This was addressed many centuries ago by Pope Innocent III, whose text on self-baptism is below.
Why is self-baptism a problem? St Thomas gives us a number of reasons. 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” or “I baptize myself.“
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. If the person used the correct form of words (“I baptise you, etc”], whilst baptising himself rather than another, the sign would be incoherent, and incapable of bearing the requisite meaning – and thus invalid.
If the word “you” was changed to “myself,” this would constitute a substantial change in meaning – but such changes change the nature of the sign ordained by Christ, and thus are not capable of bearing the symbolic meaning which he intends. As such, they invalidate the sacrament. St Thomas also gives us the example of Christ himself, who chose to be baptised by St John. Perhaps we could also consider that it is unfitting for one to give spiritual birth to himself.
Regardless of what one thinks of any of these arguments, the teaching of the Church and her approved theologians is clear and we must accept it.
A related issue occurs if someone were to baptise another in flowing water (e.g. a river or rain). In this case, if there is no physical contact between the minister and the candidate, we have a case of self-baptism comparable to the 1916 case. More can be seen here.
However, if one man says the words “I baptize you,” but the water is naturally flowing, or being poured by the candidate himself or another, then the minister’s words are false: he is by no means baptizing or washing a person. As such, there is no sign and therefore no sacrament. Such a putative baptism is invalid.
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. […] 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.
We respond that, since there should be a distinction between the one baptizing and the one baptized… [The person mentioned who had attempted to baptize himself] must be baptized again by another. […] If, however, such a one had died immediately, he would have rushed to his heavenly home without delay because of the faith of the sacrament, although not because of the sacrament of faith.
Pope Innocent III, Debitum pastoralis officii, 1206. Dz 413
[Ed: St Thomas considers which changes to the form would constitute a substantial change in meaning, thus invalidating the sacrament:]
In a case of necessity, several 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.
Likewise it would be a change of form to say, “I baptize myself”: consequently no one can baptize himself. For this reason did Christ choose to be baptized by John.
St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica III 66.5.a4
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.
No one can baptize himself. The administration is invalid when someone other than the minister pours the water and the latter pronounces the form. On the other hand, when a person is held by a minister under flowing water (fountain, gutter, rain) the baptism is valid, if the proper form is used. Likewise, 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
No one can validly baptize himself. Pope Innocent III so stated in the case of the Jew who immersed himself in water and pronounced the form, but he added that if the Jew had died at once he would have been saved owing to his faith in the Sacrament, though not to the Sacrament itself. The case of St. Thecla was similar.
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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