ASK FATHER: Baptism with slight separation of matter and form… valid? Am I baptized?

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

I was born to Southern Baptist parents and baptized at age 7 by immersion. I clearly remember standing waist-high in a pool of water… the Baptist minister pronounced the Trinitarian formula and AFTER WHICH, he immersed me. (YouTube “Baptist baptism” and you’ll see what I mean)

At the rather precocious age of 13, I converted to the the Catholic Church on my own. The pastor and RCIA teacher only asked for my baptismal certificate which simply states I was baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There was no further inquiry into the timing of matter and form. I didn’t think anything of it.

[…]

Recently I came across a 19th century decree from the Sacred Congregation of Rites ruling baptisms in sects that separate form & matter are invalid. Is that still in force? How could I possibly be validly baptized if the formula was fully pronounced before my head was the least bit wet?

I’ve lost a lot of sleep recently wondering whether I’m technically a Christian at all. What are your thoughts?? Should I be baptized SINE or SUB conditione? Or am I missing something and just being scrupulous/ pharasitic?

After some consultation, I think you can be confident in the validity of your baptism. The temporal separation of matter and form was minimal, and part of the same act. If the minister had pronounced the baptismal formula, then proceeded to deliver a sermon, and then immersed you, the separation of matter and form would have been such as to render the baptism invalid. The brief separation, while not optimal, doesn’t seem to be sufficient to render your baptism invalid.

Baptism is arguably the most important moment in an individual’s life. Christ tells us that baptism is necessary for entrance into the heavenly kingdom. As for those who die unbaptized? We simply don’t know. We can trust the mercy of God, but we have to acknowledge His justice as well, and the clarity of Christ’s demand to go out and baptize all nations.  God can save whom it pleaseth Him to save.  We don’t place limits on Him.  If He does save the non-baptized, we don’t know how He does it.

There was a time in the Church when all converts, regardless of their previous faith and prior baptismal experience were at a minimum conditionally baptized. In a spirit of ecumenical fervor (warranted or unwarranted?) and out of a recognition that a valid baptism cannot be repeated, ever, the Church cautioned Her priests to be more careful when receiving those who were baptized outside the Catholic Church. If those baptisms were valid, they cannot be repeated and to do so “conditionally” was deemed imprudent.

Considering the baptismal practices of some of the mainline Protestant congregations, the judgment of prudence might Swing in another direction.

We are confident in the judgment of Our Mother, the Church, who has solicitude for us and for the sacraments. If She says we’re validly baptized, we should rest confident in Her judgment and continue to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. Pray for the continued grace to live out the call to holiness you received at the time of baptism, and which was strengthened at your confirmation, and regularly draw spiritual nourishment through your reception of Our Lord in Holy Communion.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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9 Responses to ASK FATHER: Baptism with slight separation of matter and form… valid? Am I baptized?

  1. Imrahil says:

    And would it be a sin to conditionally rebaptize someone in such a situation

    a) if the parish priest does it, in order to prevent the tiniest possible ground for scruples,

    b) if some layman friend does it, intending to do what the Church does, for the same reason plus “let’s better do it at once, it’s valid after all, the Church has accepted your baptism in any case after all, no need to bother Father about it (and he might say no, of course)” ?

    [Of course, there might arise the further complication that if the Baptism had been invalid, so would the Confirmation unless also repeated conditionally – and that can certainly not be done by a layman, and I’m not even sure about presbyters in that regard.]

  2. TheDude05 says:

    The fact that he can remember that from 7 years old is impressive to me. I was Baptized in the baptist church as well and while I can remember being immersed and I remember the Trinitarian formula being used, I can’t remember where it was used if it was as I was being immersed or right before. The thing that still sticks in my mind was the pastor saying he would not let me drown and not to fight him (I was 19 and had the pastor by 50lbs).

  3. little women says:

    I remember learning from a very good priest, that there must be any movement of water on the skin while the formula is being recited. Therefore, the common protestant practice of the candidate standing in the water while the formula is being recited is valid because if someone is standing in water, there is going to be at least minimal movement of the water on the skin. What do you say, Father?

    [Okay.]

  4. pigg0214 says:

    Can someone explain to me how a Baptist baptism is valid since neither the recipient (who has reason) nor the minister of the Sacrament professes to have the intent (which is needed for validity) to do as the Church does by not intending to wash away Original Sin?

  5. pelerin says:

    I don’t remember being asked if I had been baptised before when I was received into the Church 50 years ago. As Fr Z writes I don’t think that question arose due to conditional Baptism being the norm at that time but I can understand how new converts must feel wondering but never quite knowing for sure if their non-Catholic baptism was valid.

    I am so pleased that Conditional Baptism was still offered 50 years ago as I think I would have been a worrier like the former Southern Baptist mentioned as most of us would have been baptised as infants and consequently would have no memory of the event. However being 21 at the time of my Conditional Baptism I remember it vividly and still have the white mantilla I wore for the occasion although like myself it is slightly jaded round the edges!

  6. Luvadoxi says:

    In Presbyterian baptism the minister sort of cups water between three fingers and touches the child’s head. I’m not sure any runs or drips. I’m hoping this worked.

  7. Conditional baptism exists as a mercy to clear any doubt of a baptism not done by the Catholic Church. This is not re-baptism, which is forbidden. The form is “I conditionally baptize you…”

    Unfortunately today, fear of paperwork for ‘re-doing’ a baptism holds most priests back. Oh there is also the risk of embarrassing another religion or an individual. This is baptism. Its crucial. Why is this so hard?

    The argument is that anybody can do a baptism. Yes this is true. The Church teaches that baptism is done by a priest unless in cases of emergency. That is the old traditional teaching. I hope that counts. lol Back in the day, a priest would conditionally baptize those done in emergency, just in case there was any error in form, matter, or intent. And then the priest would add the exorcism and the rest of the old ritual. This is because baptism is so important, so crucial, so basic to being in the Church and getting all those graces open only to the baptized…and that Beatific Vision thing that seems underrated today. ha.

    But really, why risk this? What is the big deal? Can’t we go back to the conditional baptism routine from before the 60s? My father, a baptized Congregationalist was conditionally baptized in the 50s. No questions, ifs ands or buts. Nobody got indignant or insulted…this applied to everyone entering the Church. This was routine. Easy. Simple. Direct.

    In regard to anybody can baptize, there is a difference between a Jewish doctor and a Protestant minister. A doctor or any person baptizes a risky infant for the sake of the Catholic parent – whether he believes in Catholicism or not, his action is on behalf of the Catholic, thus the intention suffices. [and a priestly conditional baptism can still be done just in case – its also better for the paperwork!] But I don’t understand how non-Catholic baptisms of other denominations can be assumed valid. These are folks who deny the Catholic Faith, the Eucharist, Primacy of the Pope, the Immaculate Conception…folks who formally declare themselves anything but a Catholic.

    Baptism of desire and of blood is still controversial. That might not cover us. Conditional baptism is a mercy in this case. The Catholic belief of No Salvation Outside the Church is real and being in the Church requires real baptism. The problem is that with all this wishy-washy baptism of desire, oh if you are a good person, oh if you do your best, invincible ignorance, …blah blah blah…you’ll get to heaven. What this confusion does is convince folks that No Salvation Outside the Church is moot because, wellllll, everybody is really in the Church anyway, you’ll get baptized in some arcane way in desire or sincerity or something, and everybody is saved. So don’t worry.

    I understand now why Our Lady of Good Success predicted that in this age it would be very difficult to get baptized. People LOOK like they are baptized – I didn’t understand Our Lady’s prediction, it was too unbelievable, too harsh – but after seeing these kinds of agonized questions and questionable practices in several RCIA programs – I really do wonder.

    Conditional baptism is not a heretical concept, it aligns with traditional practices of the Church, and really…its not that hard! And what a mercy!

  8. diezba says:

    Father, I really appreciate your checking into this and posting about it. I’m a former Southern Baptist and a current diocesan seminarian from the South (3 months to transitional deacon!). As I was getting into sacramental theology classes, I, like your correspondent, was starting to worry that the separation between the Trinitarian formula and the actual dunk had rendered my baptism invalid. This gives me great consolation (along with the commentator’s note about the moving water in which we were standing). This is exactly the sort of ministry that I really appreciate your doing: answering questions that we have, but are afraid to ask.

    Please pray for me to persevere and be faithful to my vocation.

  9. The Cobbler says:

    “The temporal separation of matter and form was minimal, and part of the same act.” (Emphasis added.)

    I’m not, strictly speaking, a theologian, but for what it’s worth the being part of the same act strikes me as being the crux of the matter. Obviously too much physical separation would preclude being part of the same act, just as it’s not really the right type of act if you don’t bother putting water on the head in the first place; but at the end of the day it is the act that does the work, not the quantity of water or an exact correlation of the words and water in merely physical time, right? Something along those lines?