When the water is sprinkled and does not flow on the skin of the head

DOUBTFUL or INVALID (and illicit) – seek conditional or absolute baptism, as indicated by the facts of the case.

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

Sprinkling is not a licit means of baptising in the Roman Ritual.

In itself, sprinkling can be a valid means of baptising. However, it is all but abandoned and is fraught with risks. This is because sprinkling is very liable not to “be considered to be a ‘washing’ in the common estimate of a man” – not least because there is not likely to be enough water involved to constitute a washing.

If the water sprinkled does flow, this would constitute valid matter – although it may be doubtful or invalid for other reasons.

As we experience on Sundays, the water sprinkled in the Asperges is often insufficient to flow over our skin, and will not necessarily land on our heads, but rather the floor, our hair, our clothes – or, if we are unlucky, our missals. 

Accordingly, the manuals give the verdicts for the following circumstances:

The water was sprinkled and did not flow on the skin because:

  1. There was not enough water, so the droplets just stay on the skin – DOUBTFUL 
    • [The water must 1) flow, 2) on the skin, 3) of the head or the whole body – see the various other articles, but particularly this present article on the necessity of the water flowing.]
  2. It fell on the hair, rather than the skin of the head – DOUBTFUL. [See also this article on why water must flow on the skin of the head]
  3. It did not fall on the head, but some other part of the body – DOUBTFUL. [It must flow either on the head or the whole body]
  4. It falls solely on the candidate’s clothes; – INVALID – see below.
  5. It falls on the floor and does not touch the candidate at all; or – INVALID – see below.

All five of these cases are discussed and explained below.

Supporting The WM Review through book purchases

As Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases through our Amazon links. Click here for The WM Review Reading List (with direct links for US and UK readers).


Aspersion [sprinkling] is no longer employed. There must be in the common estimation of men a true ablution or flowing of water whereby the whole body or the head is washed. […] 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.) [In a baptism by sprinkling, it is very possible that not enough water will land on the person to flow on his head. Ed.] […]

Unless the skin is washed the baptism is invalid or at least doubtful and thus must be conferred again conditionally. […] The administration is invalid if given only on the clothes of the baptized. [As could feasibly happen in baptism by aspersion – Ed.]

Nicholas Halligan OP, The Administration of the Sacraments, Alba House 1964, 33 (Reminder: we earn through Amazon links)

It is to be noted that 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. If the water touches only the hair, the sacrament has probably been validly conferred, though in practice the safer course must be followed. If only the clothes of the person have received the aspersion, the baptism is undoubtedly void.

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

The proximate matter of Baptism is the use of the water by a genuine minister in such a way that in the common estimation of men an ablution has been performed. This ablution can take place in one of three ways: by immersion, sprinkling, or pouring. In the latter form of Baptism, a) the water must be poured three times, b) over the head of the person being baptized (except in cases of extreme need) ; c) the water must flow directly on the skin. […] 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 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. Not in the updated version.

A definite quantity of water is not required; it suffices that the water flow over the one being baptized. Several authors hold the flowing of one or two drops insufficient. […] Baptism is doubtful and must be repeated conditionally […] if administered by aspersion as when sprinkling with holy water if the drops do not flow over the skin but remain where they fall.

The water must touch the one to be baptized. Baptism is invalid if the water merely comes in contact with the clothes.

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. […] Care should be taken that the water touch the skin, as the Baptism would be of doubtful validity if it merely touched the hair.

Fr Thomas Slater SJ, A Manual of Moral Theology for English-speaking Countries Vol II, 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.) […] If sprinkling or pouring is used, 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, Vol. I and Vol. II Project Gutenberg, Imprimatur dated 1958. n. 2686

This may accomplished […] by sprinkling with a sufficient quantity so that it flows on the person. […] The following conditions must be observed: 1) The action should truly be one of washing. The water must physically and directly touch the body, flowing over some part of it. […] It must be a washing of the one to be baptized, i.e., of his body, either the entire body or its principal part, the head. The baptism of any other part would be of doubtful validity. […]. The water must touch the body itself, not merely the hair or the garments.

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

The proximate matter is the exeternal washing of the recipient. This can be done either by complete immersion, by sprinkling, or by pouring. When one of these last two is used, the water must flow on the skin of the person’s head.

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

Actual Baptism is administered by infusion, immersion, or sprinkling; the water must flow over the skin of the head, but the modes of infusion or immersion, or a combination of both or sprinkling, customary in the country, must be retained. […] This can be done, if water is poured on the forehead and allowed to flow over the crown of the head, care being taken to separate the hair if it is thick. […] Careless ministers sprinkled only the clothing of the infant; this was an invalid Baptism.

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

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 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.


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