QUAERITUR: Validity of baptism when water touches only the hair – Fr Z rants

From a deacon:

I was wondering how safe it is to assume that water flowing over the hair along with the correct words constitutes a valid baptism. I ask because there were just 12 babies baptized in my parish and some of them didn’t get it on the forehead (some kind of just on the crown of the head). I assume they are valid because babies don’t have that much hair anyway!

I wrote on this issue here.

To recap and address the immediate question, in baptism conferred in the rites of the Latin Church water must touch some part of the the head, even if it runs only on the hair.

If it runs on the hair of the head, the baptism is valid.

That said: Perhaps bishops would do well to quiz priests about how to baptize.  Some might find this insulting, but I have heard some pretty crazy things.  It may be that men trained – this includes permanent deacons, by the way – in certain places in certain years cannot be assumed to know how to baptize properly.

I mean … how hard is it, guys, to do it right?  To do it in such a way that there can be no doubt in the minds of those watching that it was valid?  How hard is it?

For all love, if priests and deacons can’t do these basic things right, say the black and do the red, they should be sent to some… I dunno… remedial summer camp.

No air-conditioning or screens on the windows until they can demonstrate that they know the words and actions.

Puir Slow-Witted Gowks!


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. old_sage says:

    “Remedial summer camp” – Slubberdegullions should be sent to a boot camp!

  2. Jenny says:

    In my wanderings away from the church years ago, I attended a Methodist church for awhile. Their baptisms was one of the things that made me re-examine the Church. The pastor would dip his fingers in water and then touch the baby’s forehead with his wet fingers while saying the formula. Not three dips and three touches, but one dip, one touch and the words. After seeing this four or five times I remember thinking there was no way I would have my (future) children baptized like that. I don’t know if it valid or not, but it didn’t engender my confidence.

  3. Andy Milam says:

    @ Jenny,

    I would think that at best there is a dubium on the scenario you just described, because the water must be flowing. I don’t see how water can flow from fingertips. I bless myself all the time with my fingertips and I can guarantee you that it isn’t enough to flow. It sure seems there is a lack of proper matter, which is flowing water.

    I hope that you at least make it clear to the proper minister that the water must be flowing (poured) and the proper words should be used. The intent is assumed.

  4. Spikenard says:

    I was baptized in the Lutheran church and Jenny’s description sounds vaguely familiar to me (of what I can remember at age 15) finger dablets and all. I also recall that a to-do was made of the novel souvenirs: the take-home purificator that was then dabbed to my forehead. (Lest any get on my pretty dress?!) and exquisite certificate with my name calligraphized on the outer envelope. Sometimes I have lingering doubt about the validity of my baptism which is why I never miss an opportunity to “bathe correctly” at the font every time I enter a Catholic Church.
    Joyous to be a Catholic.

  5. Jenny says:


    This scenario happened years ago at a Methodist church while I was lapsed. There is no one for me to tell anything now. It does make me wonder about how many converts with the assumption of a previous baptism have not actually been baptized.

  6. Luvadoxi says:

    Come *on*! The entire Presbyterian and Lutheran communities baptize this way. When I joined the Church I was told that for valid Trinitarian baptism it has to be done with water, sprinkling, pouring or immersion, in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our minister dipped his fingers in the water and touched them to their heads. Then again, at the time, not realizing the importance of baptism, I wasn’t paying that much attention because I didn’t question the validity. Are you telling me I can’t trust the *Church* that I and my entire family have been validly baptized? One daughter and my husband are not Catholic–how am I going to convince them to have a conditional baptism? I just can’t believe the Lord is going to keep us out of Heaven because of this. *Please* Father Z–address this! The Catholic Church accepts Trinitarian baptism. I need to know, because I’m an RCIA catechist this year. I’m just not going to make fine distinctions that the Church Herself doesn’t make, or I might as well join a group that says Vatican II isn’t valid. I’m really quite upset about this.

  7. Luvadoxi says:

    I guess I should add that the reason for concern is that water may not have actually run….just what I need, more scrupulosity.

  8. Luvadoxi says:

    Don’t mean to sound so critical–I get this way when I’m really worried–I’m just very concerned…

  9. When I use holy water to bless myself, I guarantee you that water flows, occasionally pretty far down my nose if I’m not careful. And I’ve got little itty-bitty woman fingers. So I’d think that even a little dab by a male minister’s fingers would tend to flow, at least a little, across the baby’s head.

  10. Brad says:

    Things are bad for the people in diocese of Rochester. I came upon this website that chronicles their woes, by chance.

    There has been a “rash”(…) of butt-dipping up there with babies. This topic was addressed just today on Catholic Answers Live. Water must pass the forehead, minimally.


    Some of the comments are so sigh-worthy. If we are incredulous about the little things (all/part of the head is the minimum), how much incredulity do we cherish about enormous things e.g. the real presence? :-(

  11. At the last baptism I performed (a double, Granny-driven concern) one of the babies jerked while I was pouring the water and it not only went over his head but down his face and up his nose. Yep, he bawled!

  12. In re: “butt baptism”, the Jewish ritual washing in the mikveh explicitly demands that you immerse your head, and there are many customs about what you can and can’t do before you get to that total immersion point. There’s even a story on the Internet about a famous saintly medieval rabbi whose students brought his dead body to the mikveh (on his instructions), stood up his corpse in it up to the neck, and then were edified to see the corpse dip its own head under the water.

    It seems likely that all our baptismal customs other than immersion are a part-to-whole reasoning from “immersion=head under water”; if water is flowing over the head, then you are ritually washed, and if not, not. And yeah, everybody Catholic ought to just know this by osmosis; but obviously the osmosis has stopped somewhere up in Rochester. Either that, or this is the theological error of “clunecapitism”, as expounded by Monsignor Beavis and his well-known confrere. :)

  13. There is one case in the old rubrics, apparently, where it was permitted to baptize just a part — and that was baptizing a baby being born and in immediate danger of death, when the midwife was in a position to reach in and baptize something but not maybe the head.

    There’s a discussion of this in Notes on the Rubrics of the Roman Missal by O’Kane. Basically, if you had to do this, the priest would go ahead and conditionally baptize the baby if it lived, particularly if the baby had been baptized on a foot or a hand instead of a “principal part” such as the torso. (You get the impression from the book that most careful priests did this for most emergency baptisms, and why not? Belt and suspenders.)

    But the point of a church baptism is that you’ve presumably got all the leisure in the world to set it up right and do it right. So I don’t really see the Vatican getting onboard with butt-backward baptism.

  14. MichaelJ says:

    If it runs on the hair of the head, the baptism is valid.

    I’ve been told (or I read somewhere) that the water must actually touch the skin and that if it touched only the hair it must be(at least conditionally) re done. Is this not the case?

  15. Jenny says:


    I didn’t mean to upset you. Please forgive me. I firmly believe that if the Church accepts that the baptism is valid, it is. That’s all we really have to hang on to. I am right there with you in the scruples boat which is why the practice bothered me so. I know you’re thinking, “A lapsed Catholic with scruples? Really?” but that was me. The entry a couple above this one also describes me. Confirmed and Married while in mortal sin. We are a fallen bunch. All we can do is cling to God’s mercy and accept the Church’s decisions on matters that make us fret. God will bring us the rest of the way.

  16. Luvadoxi says:

    Jenny—thank you for your very kind reply; that reassures me, knowing that the Church must know what she’s doing for our salvation. It wasn’t just your comment or this discussion–I’ve thought of this and read about it before, and also, I should have read Father’s link above–it seems to say water touching the head or hair is fine; but–not really sure. (I liked one of the comments there about panic overcoming reason ::::oops, that’s me:::) Trusting in God’s mercy. By the way, welcome home!
    Suburbanbanshee–I tried the holy water thing right after I read your post, from my little bitty home font, and the water just sat in a semi-drop on my head. But I did it again and was able to, with effort, make it run. Hmmm……but probably in a baptism there would be more than one drop.
    Butt baptisms? Oh, my. And then there’s all those people baptised in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier….which the Magisterium has ruled invalid.
    Ecclesia supplet, or Deus providet? I hope.

  17. Sacristymaiden says:

    If it runs on the hair of the head, the baptism is valid.

    I’ve been told (or I read somewhere) that the water must actually touch the skin and that if it touched only the hair it must be(at least conditionally) re done. Is this not the case?

    I seem to remember reading this as well. I don’t remember where, but the emphasis was on the fact that the flowing water needed to touch the skin, and if there was no water in emergency just the words were necessary, etc.
    Is it really true that the water only needed to touch the hair?

  18. amenamen says:

    Another opinion:

    Heribert Jone and Urban Adelman, Moral Theology (The Newman Press, 1948), p. 349.

    #467. – 3. The proximate valid matter of Baptism consists in the actual washing of the person to be baptized by the one baptizing. …
    The water must touch the one to be baptized. … If the hair alone and not the skin is touched, the baptism is doubtful.

  19. amenamen says:

    typo: page 339

    In the same paragraph, Jone and Adelman say, “It is probably valid if one were to baptize on the breast, neck or shoulder; probably invalid, on the hand, arm, or foot.”

  20. Folks, I have written elsewhere about many of the things being introduced into this thread. I am closing the com box lest confusion completely derail the question and answer at the top.

    What I wrote at the top is correct and I confirmed it by consultation with someone at the CDF.

    Furthermore, baptizing by pouring water on other parts of the body is an entirely different question. I wrote about that elsewhere.

Comments are closed.