QUAERITUR: conferring baptism using another person’s hand

baptism shellA few people asked me today via email about the validity of a baptism wherein someone used the hand of a dead person to pour the water, someone moving the hand.

A rare scenario, of course, and one that is surely super-charged with deep emotions before which we should maintain respectful distance.

However, as to the validity of such a baptism, provide that water was used, and that it touched the head while the proper words, the proper form of the sacrament was pronounced, there is no question that such a baptism would be valid.

Think about it this way.  When baptizing, priests often use the “shell” to pour water.  The instrument or means of making the water arrive on the head is not a determining fact in the validity of the sacrament.  A priest can use his own hand, a shell, some other instrument to pour… whatever.

That said, if this or any other baptism were performed quickly and without the other ceremonies, I would recommend that a more formal rite take place to supply the ceremonies that were lacking at the time.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Why would anyone use the hand of a dead person to baptize? Why not just use your own hand, since clearly someone is available to move the dead persons in the above scenario.

  2. bvb says:

    @Trad Catholic Mom: http://goo.gl/2Y1A7

  3. Athanasius says:

    Why would anyone use the hand of a dead person to baptize? Why not just use your own hand, since clearly someone is available to move the dead persons in the above scenario.

    The only thing I can think of is the desire to have the hand of a saint, or a revered relative perform the baptism. Imagine this: suppose you could have St. Francis Xavier’s hand be the instrument of your baptism. Some might think it would be amazing to have the hand that baptized thousands upon thousands in Indo-China pour the water upon you. Just for an example.

    I’m not saying one should do this, or that we ought to think it is good, nevertheless, the Church only requires a moral unity between the action and the matter so it is possible.

  4. trad catholic mom says:

    Thanks, I hadn’t heard of this story and the scenario just didn’t seem plausible.

  5. frjim4321 says:

    Whoa that is pretty unusual. I would have to get a canonical opinion from a solid guy here but in general would suggest doing a conditional baptism prior to the child’s first eucharist.

  6. Stephen Matthew says:

    Is intending to assist someone else in performing a baptism actually the same as intending to baptize?

    I know that sounds like splitting hairs, but it would seem validity hinges on it.

  7. RichR says:

    If we took the amount of brainpower that has been expended on practically impossible sacramental scenarios, and channeled that mental effort towards evangelization of pagans…….

    If I ever go on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” and this comes up, I will give Fr. Z. half my winnings. Short of that……. ;-)

  8. gracie says:

    Fr. Z,

    Tradster’s link (above) to the story says that a dying – not dead – man’s hand was used to hold the water for the baptism. The article claims that the baptism was illicit but valid – is this because the baptism should have been done by a priest since there was no emergency re the baby itself?

  9. This is very bizarre. I think there needs to be a single volition of the one pouring the water and saying the words. A famous example is heirs to the British throne who, I have heard, were until the late nineteenth century, baptised jointly by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York: one poured the water, and the other said the words. This has generally been deemed invalid.
    One may, though, use an instrument to convey at least certain sacraments; anointing of the sick, for instance– in fact, I think that the East habitually do so.
    It has often been said that hard cases make bad laws, but in this case I have to say that the validity of the baptism is highly dubious and should certainly be administered conditionally. It is clear that the woman in the story did not consider herself to be administering the sacrament using the deacon’s hand as an instrument, but considered the dying deacon to be administering the sacrament: she was simply saying the words for him. This seems to be the same as the Archbishops’ story above. In conclusion, if the deacon, God rest his soul, did not say the words, he did not baptise. If the woman intended, herself, to baptise, using the deacon’s hand merely as an instrument, then she, not the deacon, was validly the minister of the sacrament. Sadly, the story as told suggests that this was not the case. Therefore I would strongly recommend conditional baptism with the supplying of ceremonies.

  10. Peters clarifies the situation – who poured the water and said the words – in the link provided for his post further up by kelleyb. He writes:

    Moreover, I confirmed a fact implied in the article—that grandma herself poured the water and pronounced the form—which means the baptism was, per the weighty authorities consulted above, certainly valid. Illicit, yes, but quite valid.

  11. Surely the intention of the person baptising is important; the woman appears to have intended that her husband, the deacon, baptise; she had, it seems, no intent to do so herself. Are the bare actions and words enough without intent?

  12. LarryD says:

    I wrote the post at AoftheA, and in the course of some email exchanges with Dr Peters, he informed me that he contacted the editors of the seminary publication regarding the online article, and they agreed it should not be there. It has been subsequently removed from the AoD website.

    As to everything else that has been written and posted, I’ve made a couple updates to my post.

  13. Joe in Canada says:

    interesting and, apparently, resolved.
    There are a few very small splinter Orthodox groups in the States that claim apostolic validity through “dead hand” consecrations, where they couldn’t get a bishop to make them a bishop, so they exhumed a deceased bishop and used his hand to consecrate a new bishop.
    I thought, “if the arm of a Saint can be used to bless, why not to consecrate?” I decided maybe it has to do with jurisdiction.

  14. PiV: “Are the bare actions and words enough without intent?” Yes and no. No, if she read the words as part of a drama, or while drunk, etc. But our lady intended to say words, including “I baptize”, knowing and willing that they would produce a sacramental effect. That counts (for validity purposes); else, all sorts of parallel notions ‘in mente’ that some ministers labor under would produce interminable, and insoluble, problems.

    JiC: I can’t tell whether you are kidding, but just in case, you do know, objects don’t bless people, people bless people using objects of devotion,( like a saint’s arm), often enuf.

  15. I’m pretty sure this woman knew she was doing the baptizing. She just wanted her husband to have a hand in it. (Possibly that having been one of his most often expressed wishes.)

    (It’s a very medieval way of thinking, btw, and I suspect it must have happened before. Especially if some saintly person had promised to baptize a child or be at a baptism, I would totally expect certain determined mothers or fathers to bring their babies to a saintly person’s deathbed, with intent to make sure the promise was fulfilled.)

  16. leonugent2005 says:

    gracie probably no need to remind you that deacons are also ordinary ministers of the sacrament of baptism. Speaking of dead hand consecrations I have never understood how the mortal sin committing hand of His Grace Archbishop Marcel Lefebver could confer a valid ordination of a bishop. But then again I’m not in charge of that congregation yet so I guess it doesn’t make any difference what I think.

  17. CarpeNoctem says:

    I would imagine (but don’t know) that the grandma was probably part of a “deacon couple” in the education and formation of this deacon, and that she should have known better… which might say something against the grandma and/or the education at Sacred Heart and/or the pukey sentimentality masking the glory of this most holy sacrament. Again, I don’t know for sure that the wife would have received “the same education” as her husband, but such training has been a common practice in many dioceses for a long time. I read out on the internet that currently wives are “permitted” to “audit” the academic classes that AoD deacon aspirants take, although the official website seems silent on the issue.

    I do share Peters’ sympathy for ‘grandma’ and I fully agree that it was probably a valid baptism based on what we have been told. But for someone whom I strongly suspect probably knew better, this little stunt does, for me, raise the “wtf flag” that Peters objects to. Indeed, if this episode is accurate, what do you want to bet that there were other fast-and-loose sacramental practices taking place–again, in the name of a kind of sentimentality short on understanding the sacramental/theological consequences of such actions–which might have been less likely to have been valid?

    If my presumptions here are wrong, making my assessment (and judgment) on the situation wrong, then so be it… that’s the luxury of looking at this as nothing more than an academic exercise. Unfortunately, the tendency of some to manufacture ‘meaningful’ celebrations of the sacraments through various novelties often results in becoming, as the saying goes, “not a good example, but a horrible warning”. In any case, the little dust-up here and in other corners of the blogosphere confirms that.

  18. CarpeNoctem,

    Is it possible, just possible, that things went down exactly as Peters described, and nothing more?

    Why “fill in the blank” with the most negative things that come to mind?

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