ASK FATHER: Are “butt baptisms” valid?

From a priest…


Are partial immersion baptisms valid?

Where the baby is dipped up to the waist 3x, with valid words of baptism spoken.

Here’s the deal.

The “proximate matter” of baptism is ablution. This means physical contact of the water and the person’s body. The ablution symbolizes outwardly what happenes in the soul.

There are different ways to accomplish this ablution. There is dipping or immersion (immersio), pouring (infusio) or sprinkling (aspersio).

The immersion does not, apparently, even have to be a three-fold immersion. Pope Gregory the Great, in a letter to the Church in Spain, permitted a single immersion. According to Ott’s helpful book this was to symbolize against the Arians the unity of the divine substance of the Trinity.

However, in all cases, the water must flow on the head.

I have had to write about this in the past.  Hence, back when I consulted a friend of mine who worked in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about validity of baptism when the water a) does not touch the head or b) flows only on the hair, and doesn’t touch the skin of the head.   In the case of b) yes, that is valid.  However, in the case of a) there are big problems.

If the water does not touch the head, at least the hair of the head, the baptism is invalid.

However, it is possible to find in some manuals – and we like manual – that if water touches, say, only the shoulder, the baptism could be valid.  The far away from the head, the more doubtful.  In all those cases where the water touched something other than the head, there should be a conditional baptism.   Consider: in an emergency where someone is stuck in a hole and you can only reach a leg, and water is poured on the leg, that baptism is doubtful and should be repeated conditionally.

That’s why I wrote to my friend in the CDF with the question.  He responded: water must flow on or touch the head, at least the hair of the head.

To be sure, the water should be poured in enough quantity and on a place of the head where there is exposed skin, while the Trinitarian form is recited: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  In my opinion it is best to do this in Latin, though approved translations are allowed.  The form is absolutely essential. In no circumstance can it be altered. These words must be pronounced simultaneously with action of making the water contact the head.  Not before.  Not after.

A good practice is to pour the water thrice, with the Names of the Persons of the Trinity, or continuously as the whole form is pronounced, directly on bare skin of the head.  That way there is no question about validity.

There is no reason to FOOL AROUND WITH SACRAMENTS!

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 during 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.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I find red arrows are always appropriate.

  2. aquinasadmirer says:

    Is there a prescribed method (with conditions) to baptize a child that was miscarried? I remember hearing of one, but I don’t recall much detail.

  3. tamranthor says:

    Just when I thought I’d seen enough liturgical abuses…..

    There are really priests who baptize babies’ butts?

    Goodness, gracious, sakes alive.

  4. Amerikaner says:

    What happens if a baptism was invalid but was registered as valid? Every other sacrament given would be based on the baptismal entry in the parish but would be invalid as well? And what of the soul in question at the moment of death? Does the lapse by the priest get covered by the Church somehow? It would be scary to think that one’s baptism was valid if it was entered in the parish as so but it was not actually performed properly! Yikes!

  5. Mary Jane says:

    aquinasadmirer, I have a one page pamphlet called “How to Baptize in Case of Miscarriage”. It is by Alana M Rosshirt, and it was reprinted from Marriage: The Magazine of Catholic Family Living (May 1959). There is no imprimatur on it, it’s just a one-page folded pamphlet, so maybe Fr Z can “sanity check” what this pamphlet is saying to do during comment moderation :). Here is the important part of the pamphlet:

    “Most of us know the essentials of emergency baptism: the intention; the water; the direct contact of the water with the person being baptized by pouring it over the head in a flowing or washing manner; and pronouncing the words aloud while pouring the water.

    It is the same for baptizing the fetus except when it is not sufficiently developed to pour water on the head. In such a case it should be immersed in a pan of tepid water while the words are said. It is very important that the fetus itself be touched by the water, and not just the membranous sac that surrounds it. This sac must be broken before baptism or the baptism is not valid.

    The water must touch the person. The big problem in the baptism of a miscarriage is finding the fetus. A membrane surrounds the fetus, but both may be enclosed in a blood clot. The membrane can be distinguished from the blood clot by touch. If not, the whole can be placed in a loop of gauze and lukewarm water run over it which will remove the blood.

    After the membrane is broken so that water can touch the fetus itself, it should be immersed in the water and gently moved around while the words, usually of conditional baptism, are said: “If you are capable of being baptized, I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” “

  6. npmccallum says:

    “or continuously as the whole form is pronounced”

    This point is very important. The Eunomians baptized with the Triune name and a single aspersion, but only during the name of the Father. They did this to emphasize that the Father alone was divine. For this reason, their baptism was eventually ruled invalid (even though Augustine hypothetically theorizes the opposite). The difference between the Eunomian baptism and the Gregorian one is over the length of the pouring – the latter uses a single pour for the entire duration of the Triune name in order to emphasize the common divine nature.

    This may seem an obscure point, but for Byzantines (both Catholic and Orthodox) this is very important. It is of such significance that there have been hundreds of years of Byzantine canonists questioning the validity of a single pour altogether. This issue has even come up at several ecumenical gatherings.

    It is even better, of course, to use three distinct applications of water so that no possibility of doubt, either internally or ecumenically, may ever arise.

  7. tho says:

    In my travels I have been listening to CDs of the Divine Comedy, and Limbo is featured prominently, especially in regards to Virgil. We were taught, many years ago, that Limbo was a valid place for unbaptized souls.
    I remember reading that VII changed that in some way, but I don’t have it have a good grasp of what they changed. Knowing that there were some very good pagans, and of course, there are the innocent babies who died before the rites could be performed, Limbo would be a comfort.
    You probably explained this in the past, so maybe just a reference to one of your earlier posts would help me.

  8. beelady says:

    Our godson is now 10 years old. I am certain that his was a “butt-baptism”. I remember that the Deacon held his naked body over the font and dipped his butt into the water three times. I thought it was strange but assumed it was still valid. Could I (or his parents) conditionally baptise him?
    I am sure that it would cause numerous problems if I called the parish office and tried to explain that I just learned that the Deacon baptised our godson incorrectly over 10 years ago.

  9. APX says:

    God isn’t bound by the sacraments. If someone honestly thought they were a baptized Catholic and strived to live a Catholic life and a life of virtue, and unbeknownst to that person, the priest didn’t validly baptize him or her, do we really think God would condemn that person to Hell for not being validly baptized? I’m not saying it’s not important to get these things right; I’m just saying God isn’t out to send people to Hell because some of his priests are a few Timbits short of a snack pack and don’t do what they’re supposed to do.

  10. I can remember baptisms at Easter Vigil years ago where they had the catechumens actually wade through the baptismal font. This involved having them climb up to the top tier of the waterfall font and step down several levels of slippery tiles under the water, so that the water touched only their feet. No water touched their heads. This struck me as not only colossally stupid but also dangerous (one of the candidates for baptism was a woman eight or nine months pregnant). I did not know at the time that it was also invalid.

    There is something to be said for getting rid of the waterfalls and jaccuzzis and going back to the traditional eight-sided small font on a pedestal that people can’t be made to stunt-walk through or otherwise have the water come into contact with parts of their bodies other than their heads.

  11. iamlucky13 says:

    @ tamranthor
    “There are really priests who baptize babies’ butts?”

    I’m going to go out on a limb and hope that perhaps it’s nothing more than a squeamishness that can be remedied by education and experience when requested to do an immersion baptism. Dunking an infants head mostly into the water can seem like a near brush with infanticide. As parent twice over now, I have to say that even bathing an infant after several days of caring for him or her can be a bit nerve wracking. I can imagine it being triply so for a recently ordained deacon or priest who has almost no experience holding such delicate seeming tykes.

    I do have to also admit that I might be getting carried away with generosity here.

    @ APX
    “God isn’t bound by the sacraments. If someone honestly thought they were a baptized Catholic and strived to live a Catholic life and a life of virtue, and unbeknownst to that person, the priest didn’t validly baptize him or her, do we really think God would condemn that person to Hell for not being validly baptized? “

    In fact, the Church earnestly does hope (I think actually teaches) that a “Baptism of desire” is possible for those who earnestly desire to follow will of God as best as they understand it, but through invincible ignorance or other circumstances do not receive a Baptism of water.

  12. David Collins says:

    “…a few Timbits short of a snackpack…” Wondering if a Timbit had something to do with Timmy Horton’s, I looked it up and, sure enough, they’re tiny doughnut balls sold at TH.

    Oh, and that was excellent comment, APX; the Timbit puzzled me briefly.

  13. rtjl says:

    “God is not bound by the sacraments”. True. But WE are left in a state of uncertainty without them. We know that God DOES act in the sacraments and we know HOW he acts in the sacraments because he has told us. Without the sacraments, or with invalidly celebrated sacraments, we can’t be sure how God will act. We only know that he will act in a way that is both just and merciful because that is his nature – but we don’t really know what that means practically. And we need to remember that as far as justice is concerned, we all deserve Hell.

  14. Curate says:

    “How hard is it?”
    Exactly. The Church wisely allows for baptism to be so easily done that even an 8-year old can validly administer it.

  15. vandalia says:

    I believe I posted this before, but here it is again:

    As an undergraduate, I had a crusty old professor explain a complicated mathematical technique (the “inverse Laplace transform” for those interested in such things.) At the end of the class he asked us if we understood, and we dutifully responded “yes.” He replied, “Good. Now if you ever do this again in your life you are an idiot. This is all contained in the tables. You don’t solve equations just for the heck of it, that is what God created physicists for. A good Engineer is a lazy Engineer!”

    I always remembered “A good Engineer is a lazy Engineer!” In the same sense, I think one can say that a “Good Priest is a Lazy Priest!” Of course that needs to be properly understood: a priest should be so busy that he does not have the time to waste creating his own Eucharistic prayers and his own sacramental forms and theology. Be lazy: stick with the Sacramentary and other liturgical books. St Thomas and the Church Father’s did all the work, no use wasting time redoing all of their theology.

    My grandmother always said, “there is not great loss without some small gain.” One benefit of the “priest shortage” is that hopefully priests are far too busy to waste their time creating such junk.

  16. SpesUnica says:

    Maybe it was just an error in Father’s Rituale: “Ego te buttizo..”

  17. mo7 says:

    Now you’ll have us all worrying that we weren’t properly baptized. Though I am comforted to know that for me back in 1961, it was most likely in Latin.

  18. stephen c says:

    rtjl — I have had conversations with some Evangelicals who believe in the doctrine of “eternal security”. So, I have said to them something like this :

    – — “Jesus loves us – each of us” – and that is a better promise than the simplistic statement that – “if you accept Jesus in your heart you have eternal security, no matter what you do later on in life after you have accepted Jesus in your heart.” —

    And I am not sure they listened to what I was saying, they probably continued to think : is it not better to have one real promise from God than just to simply know he loves us with infinite love? Is not a specific promise (eternal security) better than the statement that God loves us?

    And, I think, of course it is much more important to know that Jesus loves us and will offer that love the rest of our lives, than to be convinced that, once you have “accepted Jesus in your heart”, you – you personally, just you, and not necessarily those you care about, just you – will “be in heaven some day.” Maybe at the point of death the two concepts intersect – but that is not what people talk about with other people who are not at the point of death.

    Interestingly, I have never met anyone who said they have fully accepted Jesus in their heart. Not once, and I have known thousands of people.

    You said we all deserve hell, as far as justice is concerned. That was either spoken in an over-simplified inaccurate way, or disrespectful to – at a minimum – the Mother of Jesus. Please don’t take offense, but when I hear a simplistic formulation like that, and I remember that the most important human person in my life who is not Jesus is Mary, I think the following: either, when you say “we”, you say she (Mary) is not one of us, or you say she (Mary) is one of us and that she, as far as justice is concerned, deserves hell, God forbid. Dante would not agree with you, Aquinas would not agree with you, and I don’t think a single Catholic who was not a heretic would agree with you. Calvin and Luther might, and maybe Jansen, I don’t know.

    And, of course, it is wrong to say that a child below the age of reason who has been baptized and died before the age of reason deserves hell – after all – Credo in unum Baptisma in remissionem peccatorum. Please don’t quibble about the verb deserves.

    Sorry for spending so many paragraphs in response to one phrase in your thoughtful comment. Thanks for reading, and I hope you did not take offense.

  19. JustaSinner says:

    Is Limbo still valid or did we change that too? Purgatory still there, or was that shuttered? Hell, did Hell get abandoned or is it firmly frying forever?

  20. Imrahil says:

    Dear JustASinner,

    the teaching of the Catholic is at it has been for a long time, that those dying with original sin but no other sin come to Limbo, which is a place of natural happiness excluding supernatural happiness. It also remains that ever since Christ freed the Fathers out of limbo, no person who lived beyond the age of reason goes to Limbo, whatever he chooses. (Dante is fiction.)

    What recently has been (sort of) changed is that the Catholic Church is no longer sure that anybody actually belongs to that category, seeing that God can, without being unjust, forgive this sin even to the unbaptized.

    The teaching of the Catholic Church concerning Purgatory is as it is ever was, that sins forgiven but unpunished must be paid for there, but that God can of course shorten the time as he likes.

    The teaching of the Catholic Church concerning Hell (taken as excluding Limbo) is at is ever was, that people who die with an unrepented mortal sin (which subjectively to them was a mortal sin) go there, but no children below the age of reason do (if we exclude Limbo; baptized children obviously go to Heaven). As for the connection of Hell and baptism, if people are baptized but sin mortally and do not repent, their baptism does not keep them out of Hell, and if people happen to be unbaptized but did not reject baptism in a manner that was subjectively culpable according to what they knew, the fact of being unbaptized alone does not throw them into it; but I add this only for clarification. It was a matter of course to Pope Bl. Pius IX, but some (perhaps unconsciously following an attitude of general old-style Protestantism) think that would be an innovation.

  21. TDPelletier says:

    Father, twice over a period of a few months, at the same church, by the same priest, I heard the same defective baptismal formula (in French) : I baptize you in the name of the Father, *in the name* of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. I suppose the priest was reading from a parish-produced booklet that had been mistyped. Clearly defective formula, but could it still be valid ? [That’s probably valid.]

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  23. William says:

    “I mean … how hard is it, guys, to do it right? ”

    But if you are of the mindset that it’s just a symbol of the baby being welcomed into the church, and has nothing to do with original sin, ’cause Vatican II got rid of that stodgy theological stuff anyway…

    …(in other words, if you’re a neo-Pelagian)…

    …then what does it matter if it’s done “correctly.” That’s just rigid clericalism!

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