Troubling the Waters by Korey D. Maas

Troubling the Waters

The subtleties of sacramental theology rarely make headlines, even in the Christian press. It was therefore something of an anomaly when, in late August of last year, local, national, and even international outlets hurriedly published articles attempting to explain the intricacies of sacramental "form," "matter," "intention," and "validity." The immediate impetus for this sudden and surprising interest was (as a Detroit Free Press headline announced) the revelation that a "Catholic priest finds his baptism was invalid."

That priest was Father Matthew Hood, who'd had good reason to believe he'd been baptized thirty years earlier. Indeed, in April of last year he'd actually watched a video of the ceremony. Though he noticed then that the deacon administering the rite had said, "We baptize you" instead of the more familiar "I baptize you," local superiors assured him that he could presume his baptism was valid.

But less than four months later—and with no obvious connection to his own case—the Vatican officially declared that such baptisms were not in fact valid. It suggested that any use of the plural pronoun arose from "debatable pastoral motives," and that the intention "to express the participation of the family and of those present" might obscure the confession that "when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes." Because the baptizing minister acts as the "sign-presence" of Christ, it was explained, he may not instead "declare that he is acting on behalf of the parents, godparents, relatives or friends."

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Korey D. Maas is an associate professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.

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