ASK FATHER: Baptism by immersion but water didn’t touch the head

From a reader…


I recently witnessed a baptism by immersion. As each person of the Most Holy Trinity was invoked, the baby was dipped into the water except for the head. Then, after the third immersion, the priest also took water from the font and poured it on the head. I read on a previous post of yours that your friend at the CDF said that water has to touch the head for the sake of validity. Would that suffice if the water only touched once but not thrice? Given the gravity of the question involved, clarity would be appreciated if any were available.

Just when you think you’ve heard every variation, some jackass comes up with something different.

Yet another instance of a foolish priest or deacon, thinking that he has to make changes or add his personal flourishes to the rite, which in his thought isn’t adequate or meaningful enough, disturbing the hearts of the faithful and sowing doubts about the validity of a sacrament.

Let’s review.  Rev. Imsosmart dips the child into the water three times saying the Trinitarian form.   When he says the Trinitarian form, water does not touch the head.  AFTER the Trinitarian form, he pours water on the head.

Some manuals suggest that if the water touches the shoulder only it could be valid, but there is doubt.   The farther from the head, the more doubtful.  “Butt” baptisms, where in the baby’s backside and perhaps something of the back and legs… doubtful.  Just the foot of a guy stuck in a hole… more doubtful yet.

You remember correctly that when I consulted a friend at the CDF he replied that water had to touch the head, even if only the hair, for validity.

However, another aspect of administration of the sacrament is that the pouring or immersing that includes the head is that the immersing or pouring must take place simultaneously with the Trinitarian form.

Immersion of some of the body, but not the head… some water on the head after the Trinitarian form… I doubt the validity of the baptism.  [UPDATE: I double-checked sources.  St. Alphonsus says it could valid be but he has his doubts.  He calls for conditional baptism.]

It would be a good idea to request a conditional baptism of the child.  [UPDATE: Sabbetti-Barret and Prümmer agree.]

These are serious matters.

You all remember that not long ago the CDF issued a statement that even saying “WE baptize you” etc. was invalid and, thereafter, some priests discovered that they had been invalidly baptized.  Therefore they hadn’t received any other sacrament validly, including ordination.  They had to be baptized absolutely, not conditionally, and then confirmed, ordained.

Last night, during the Zednet (ham radio) session, one of the participants informed the group that in his diocese it was discovered that some deacons were baptizing with an invalid form.   Consider the chaos.

These are really serious matters.

There is no reason to FOOL AROUND WITH SACRAMENTS!

When baptizing, the minister must pour water so that it flows on the head while saying the Trinitarian form.  THAT ISN’T HARD.

Diocesan bishops would do well to quiz their priests and deacons to find out what they are doing.  “Father, please describe how you baptize?  How you absolve?”  There should be reminders sent out in their regular ad clerum communications that “in the Latin Church we baptize LIKE THIS…”… “THIS is the form for absolution!  If you are saying anything else, STOP.”


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. JEF5570 says:

    “…pouring must take place simultaneously with the Trinitarian form.” For the baptism of one of my sons, the deacon said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father.” Pause. Pours water. “And of the Son.” Pause. Pours water. “And of the Holy Spirit.” Pause. Pours water. Does that count for simultaneously? [Yes. No problem.] If not, is there any harm in my baptizing him conditionally? I fear that it would be like trying to get blood from a turnip to find a priest in my archdiocese who’d be willing to baptize anyone conditionally for any reason.

    [Don’t worry about this one. No problem with that.]

  2. teomatteo says:

    What to think of a priest that DEMANDS that the baby (and adults) be submerged. He says, “Like Our Lord”???

    [What to think? Oh boy.]

  3. TxLurker says:

    This is confusing to me. I know that in the Latin Church that the pouring and the words are supposed to be at the same time, but I also know that the Church routinely accepts the baptisms of “full immerson only” bodies such as Southern Baptists when they convert.
    The typical Baptist baptism has the Recipient in a pool, the Minister holds their back and head, says “I baptize you, etc.” and then “dunks” them backwards fully into the water.
    The way it was explained to me is that it is valid because it constitutes a “single moral act.”
    Is this not the case? If it is not, I would venture to guess that about 95% of Christian converts into the Church in the American South would not be validly baptized. Surely this isn’t the case?

  4. Fuerza says:


    I understand that the formula and the pouring/immersion should be simultaneous, however I thought I remembered a post of yours stating that a scenario in which the pouring occurred immediately before the formula, with no intervening actions, would probably be valid as it constituted a single moral act. My nephew was baptized in that exact manner, formula then pouring, about 12 years ago at this point. It bothered me for some time, but then I put it out of my head after reading your response. My sister would say that I was worrying too much and wouldn’t think twice about it, so I doubt it would be fixed anyway, but it would be nice to be certain.

    [I would be interested to see where I wrote that. If you can find it. I’ll double check.]

  5. Fuerza says:


    I found a reproduction of your answer from December 9, 2015 on Catholic News Live.

  6. Fuerza says:

    And I meant pouring after the formula, not before. I just caught the mistake in my first post.

  7. Fuerza says:

    And I meant pouring after the formula, not before. I just caught the mistake in my first post.

  8. L. says:

    The theme song of the modern Church- for the most part- was written by Cole Porter:

    “In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
    Was looked on as something shocking.
    But now, God knows,
    Anything goes.”


  9. Sportsfan says:

    I work in a factory. Every process in our plant has detailed instructions on how to perform the task. Part of my job is to make sure the workers are doing the processes correctly and according to the instructions. I do daily audits. Periodically small teams of safety and process engineers will also audit everyone on the processes. Every year each employee has to read and sign off on each of the processes he performs. We make vehicles that families use and safety is the highest concern. Everything must be checked and rechecked and accounted for.

    It seems to me diocese should have similar checks for the important processes their priests perform. Priests, presumably, learn these these functions in seminary. Are they ever rechecked or tested or audited to make sure they are doing things correctly? It seems to me their processes are much more important than a factory, as they deal with eternal not just physical consequences.

    Occasionally my company will mess up to the point of having to do a recall. Things happen, and we do what we can to make things right regardless of monetary cost.

    Could a bishop, maybe one coming into a diocese that has been mismanaged, realize that he has no way of ensuring that the baptisms that have been performed for a period of time are valid and offer or even mandate that all Catholics be conditionally baptized? What is the point of changing from assuming all baptisms were performed correctly unless proven otherwise to assuming all baptisms were performed improperly unless proven otherwise?

  10. Spazey says:

    I guess I’m kinda of grateful of being baptized Eastern rite. Less chance of any of the heartache. What a tragedy.

  11. Peetem says:

    This has me concerned. As a convert from Southern Baptist, I was told my baptism was valid by a priest I find to be very orthodox and knowledgeable.

    The minister said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. Then I was immersed.

    So now I’m wondering….

    [I assume you were already well into water at the point where he said the form. I suspect it was valid.]

  12. jcariveau says:

    This sounds like Byzantine rite baptism, the priest is supposed to fully immerse the baby for about half a second three times, but sometimes will just immerse up to the neck and pour water on the head after the form.

    This reminds me of the Evangelical/Baptist habit of saying the form and then dunking.

    In most parishes, no Eastern Orthodox or Southern Baptist convert would ever have their baptism questioned or conditionally redone even though this lack of simultaneity of form and water is common. If it’s not valid, we have a lot of “Catholics” running around without baptism.

    [Who knows what is going on “in most parishes” in this regard. Back in the day, there were far fewer variations in practice even from ecclesial community to ecclesial community (Lutherans and Baptists do not, strictly speaking, have Churches). Back in the day, it was easier to make determinations about the practices of this or that group. Today, it’s anything goes! Even from Catholic parish to Catholic parish. This is not good.]

  13. Kirk says:

    What to do? I watch my daughters baptism from 2001 and she was only submerged to armpits. Nothing on the head. It was performed by our parish priest and now I worry not only about her but the countless others that have been baptized by him. I will be calling our current priest about this but any suggestions on what to say?

  14. Kirk says:

    What to do? I watch my daughters baptism from 2001 and she was only submerged to armpits. Nothing on the head. It was performed by our parish priest and now I worry not only about her but the countless others that have been baptized by him. I will be calling our current priest about this but any suggestions on what to say?

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