When the minister uses a wet thumb or sponge to “anoint” the candidate (so that the water does not flow)

DOUBTFUL: Seek conditional baptism.

Article on conditional baptism here.

As discussed, and as these quotes show, the water must flow over the skin of the head: as a result, this “wet thumb” method is at best doubtful. It is not clearly a symbolic washing of the body, and therefore it is not clear that it can signify the spiritual washing of the soul: and therefore it is doubtful.


There must be in the common estimation of men a true ablution or flowing of water […] It is required for validity for a true washing that the water flow, even though there be only a few drops (although merely one or two drops are doubtfully sufficient). It does not suffice merely to anoint the person to be baptized, e.g., with the thumb moistened with blessed water. To draw a wet cloth or sponge or wet fingers is at least doubtfully valid.

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

It is not sufficient for the water to merely touch the candidate; it must also flow, otherwise there would seem to be no real ablution. At best, such a baptism would be considered doubtful.

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

The proximate matter is the external washing of the recipient […] When one of these last two is used, the water must flow on the skin of the person’s head.

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

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. [When pouring] the water must flow directly on the skin. [NB This does not make the point in the same way, but the principle of ‘flowing’ is clear. Ed.]

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

The child had better be held with its face sideways, so that the water flows over its bare skin.

Adrian Fortescue, Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, Burns and Oates Ltd London 1919, 395.

Baptism is doubtful and must be repeated conditionally if administered by rubbing wet fingers across the forehead or by merely making the sign of the cross thereon with a wet finger. The same holds for the use of a damp cloth, sponge or wet hand when the water does not actually flow.

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

This may validly be done either by infusion, or immersion, or sprinkling, provided that the water touches the head of the person to be baptized and flows so as to express the action of washing. […] Merely to lay the wet hand or finger on the skin would not be valid Baptism, and even if the wet finger were moved over the skin the validity would still be doubtful.

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

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)

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

The action should truly be one of washing. The water must physically and directly touch the body, flowing over some part of it. A very small quantity of water will suffice for this – there is no necessity that an actual physical cleansing be accomplished. [NB It must be at least a symbolic cleansing, which requires the water to flow.]

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

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


Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Help the WM Review by donating today – all donations go directly towards helping us produce real Catholic research and studies.

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Your contribution is appreciated and helps us to keep things going.

Your contribution is appreciated and helps us to keep things going.

DonateDonate monthly