The water is administered separately to the words

VALID but ILLICIT if there is still moral simultaneity, i.e. one immediately following the other.

DOUBTFUL or INVALID if there is a substantial separation of the matter and form.

If concerned, seek further advice.

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

This circumstance calls for the exercise of ordinary human prudence and common sense. These two things are rare today, as is the ability to use them to judge concrete circumstances.

In 1916, the Holy Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments published an answer to a question on this topic. 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.

The authorities in the moral manuals below are added for interest, but the principle is settled by the Sacred Congregation. The application of the principle to a concrete case will turn on the facts, which will depend on the sorts of means of attaining moral certainty discussed by M.J. McCusker in his article, linked throughout this guide.

Why is this a potential problem? The form of a sacrament is what determines the matter. The proximate matter alone – namely the washing – could itself signify a number of different things. But the addition 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. Now, if there is a substantial separation between the washing itself and the present tense verbal determination of this washing, then the washing is undetermined, and the words are not determining any present act. As such, there is no determined sign of a washing, and therefore there is no sacrament.

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

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Common doctrine holds that the physical union of matter and form is not required for the validity of a baptism, but that a moral union suffices, which is considered as often as if ablution happens immediately before the form is brought to an end, so often if it happens immediately afterwards. This moral union seems to exist in the case that is laid out [before us], [Ed: in which the words were spoken and the water immediately applied] since the immediate succession between the pronouncement of the words and the descent of the woman into the pool is signified [Ed: note that the descent of the woman by herself is treated as a separate problem]. Hence from this summary there appears to be no reason for invalidating the baptism. […]

[However,] 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.

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.

The matter and the form must be morally united at one and the same time. For just as in physical substances the matter and the form together constitute one body, so it is essential for a similar moral union to exist at the same time between the matter and form in order to constitute one sacrament. Thus, for instance, Baptism is invalid if after pouring the water some interval is allowed to intervene before pronouncing the words of the form.

Dominic Prümmer, Handbook of Moral Theology, Mercier Press, Cork, 1956, n. 529.2 (Reminder: we earn through Amazon links)

The matter and form must be sufficiently united. For example, if a person poured the water and only after several minutes said: “I baptize thee, etc.,” there would be no sacrament. However, different union suffices for different sacraments. […]

The words must be pronounced while the ablution is being performed.

Outlines of Moral Theology, Francis J. Connell CSsR, The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, 1958. p 179, 189

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. […] Even when the same minister applies both matter and form, there is a substantial separation between these parts when the form is not spoken at the same time or for the same time that the matter is posited, and thereby, from the special character of the Sacrament, leaves the signification of the sacramental matter unsettled. This happens when the form is spoken too long before or too long after the presence or application of the matter […].

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. 2655b

There is a moral simultaneity like to the physical contemporaneousness [physical simultaneity] when the matter and form are partly present in the same instants of time, and perhaps such close succession that not more than a Pater or Ave could be said between them. This kind of union is the maximum in Penance and Matrimony, for absolution must follow after confession, and conjugal acceptance must follow after conjugal offer. It suffices in Baptism, Confirmation, Extreme Unction, and Orders; for these four Sacraments do not consecrate the matter (and hence some little separation is allowed), but they do signify in the present tense the bestowal of grace through the application of the matter (and hence any separation must be of the slightest).

“There is a purely moral simultaneity when the form follows the matter after a somewhat considerable interval of time has elapsed, but with a connection between the two based on human usage which carries the matter on in human estimation over to the time the form is employed. This suffices in Penance and Matrimony. […]

In Baptism, Confirmation, Extreme Unction, and Orders, it would seem on account of the danger of nullity to be a serious sin to exclude all physical simultaneity between matter and form (e.g., to pour all the water and then to begin the words: “I baptize thee, etc.,” or vice versa). In practice the Rubrics should be followed.

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. 2656b-c, 2657

The form should be pronounced whilst the water is being poured, or sprinkled, or the subject immersed, but if the ablution, etc., took place immediately after the form was begun or immediately after the form was completed, the Baptism would have been valid.

A protracted interval between the ablution, etc., and the pronouncing of the form, or between the several words of the form, renders the Baptism invalid.

Henry Davis SJ, Moral and Pastoral Theology – A Summary. Sheed and Ward, New York, 1952. 202-3

A union of matter and form is required and it must be such that it actually constitutes one individual sacramental sign […] In the other Sacraments a moral unity suffices, and this may vary according to the nature of the Sacrament. […] In Baptism, Con­firmation and Extreme Unction, there must be at least a partial union of matter and form. Should the form be spoken immediately following the application of the matter, one may theoretically consider the Sacrament as valid, but in practice the Sacrament should be repeated conditionally. The Sacrament is invalid if matter and form are separated for the space of an “Our Father.”

Heribert Jone, Moral Theology, The Newman Press 1962, n. 444

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.

The form is to be pronounced at the same time as the water is poured […] not only moral but also physical simultaneity of application of matter and form should be sought, since in practice the safer opinion must be followed, and this is the action prescribed. […]

Nicholas Halligan OP, The Administration of the Sacraments, Alba House 1964, 34, n. 2.13.c

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

[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

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.


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