When the water is not applied to the head

DOUBTFUL: Seek conditional baptism.

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

As we have already discussed at length, the proximate matter of baptism is a washing of the body: and that if it is not a washing of the whole body, it must at least be a washing of its most noble part, namely the head. If this does not occur, the washing is not clearly symbolic of the washing of the whole body, and thus the symbolic washing does not clearly symbolise the washing of the soul. As such, it is not clearly valid.

It is difficult to understand why, under ordinary circumstances, a person would attempt to baptise someone by pouring water on any part other than the head. But the sorts of cases envisaged below are difficult births – e.g. so-called “baptism in the womb”, or when only the limbs of a dying baby have been delivered.

Other examples might be someone with a severely wounded head (e.g. all skin burnt away).

In all such circumstances, conditional baptism would have to follow if possible.

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).


It is probably valid if one were to baptize on the breast, neck or shoulder; probably invalid if administered on the hand, arm or the foot. [NB, in either case, conditional baptism must follow. Ed.]

Heribert Jone, Moral Theology, The Newman Press 1962, n. 467.3 (Reminder: we earn through Amazon links)

The head is the principal part where life integrally resides. Baptism is less certainly valid as the parts washed are less noble than the head. One baptized on other than the head in a case of necessity should be baptized later conditionally, if possible.

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

By the present authorized ritual of the Latin Church, baptism must be performed by a laving of the head of the candidate. Moralists, however, state that in case of necessity, the baptism would probably be valid if the water were applied to any other principal part of the body, as the breast or shoulder. In this case, however, conditional baptism would have to be administered if the person survived (St. Alph., no. 107).

[NB: Fanning takes a more liberal approach to the issue but acknowledges that the end results are the same, as a probable baptism must be repeated conditionally. Note that he refers to ‘principal parts’ of the body, not just any part. Ed.]

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

[When pouring the water, it must flow] over the head of the person being baptized (except in cases of extreme need). […] If the water was poured on some other part of the child, Baptism should be repeated conditionally afterwards, if this is possible.

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

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 (cf. Can. 746, §§ 2 and 3).

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

If sprinkling or pouring is used, the body of the recipient (i.e., the skin of his head) must be washed. […] But in case of necessity one may use the opinion that Baptism is valid when the water touches only the hair or some part distinct from the head, or even the afterbirth of a fetus. [NB, as stated elsewhere, the sort of necessities are considered in Can 746 CIC 1917, which also requires conditional baptism to follow when possible. Ed.]

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. 2686c

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. [NB: Slater does not appear to consider an attempted baptism to be even probable/doubtful if it fails to touch the head. Ed.]

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

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

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