Choose Your Poison: An Ecumenist’s Reflection on Catholic Fumblings Over Baptismal Formulas

by Gerald W. Schlabach

“I mean, I gotta say, this is making Anabaptism look pretty darn good,” wrote one Facebook friend in a thread about the widely-discussed news of a priest in Phoenix who resigned from his parish after the Vatican declared the baptisms he performed over many years of ministry “invalid.” His mistake had been to use the formula “we baptize you…” instead of “I baptize you…”.

“Meanwhile, in the annals of accidental Anabaptism,” wrote another Facebook friend, “a priest inadvertently expressed a congregation-centered conception of spiritual authority and put the legitimacy of the baptisms of potentially thousands of Catholic Christians into doubt. Will mass rebaptisms of adult believers follow?”

And I – as a Mennonite-turned-Catholic – simultaneously groaned in embarrassment at another terrible look from the Church I love, while muttering under my breath: “That’s rich” coming from folks that have ex-communicated one another over the length of bonnet strings, “that’s really rich.”

Let me be as clear as I can possibly be about both of those discordant reactions. For if we back away from the discourse of social-media trolling, I do think we might learn a lesson here about how to conduct inter-church relations.

Clarification number 1: The action of the Vatican – or more specifically its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – is not just a bad look, an embarrassment, or another reason for disillusioned Catholics, “nones,” and cynical observers to dismiss the Catholic faith as legalistic and its leaders as petty. Unless wiser voices in the Vatican like Pope Francis himself clear this up soon, this pastoral headache inside the Church is going to grow into a full-blown ecumenical migraine.

Since the Donatist controversy of the fourth century, Catholics have recognized baptisms by other Christians without retroactively policing their exact wording, other than insisting upon a trinitarian structure. We Catholic ecumenists and bridge-crossers already have a lurking worry that our Church will reject the baptismal validity of Christians who have been baptized “in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer” or similar ways of naming the Holy Trinity in non-gendered ways. However well-meaning those alternative trinitarian formulas are, they represent a certain insensitivity to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox hopes of moving toward greater Christian unity rather than creating new obstacles. Still, what hopes can we have for resolving that thorny issue if Catholics are going to insist that its priests say “I baptize” rather than “we baptize” in every last case? Egads, I continue to moan.

Clarification number 2: Even though I became a Catholic in 2004, I have tried to charitably explain Anabaptist and Mennonite practices to others, rather than be the kind of “convert” who burns their bridges. That means giving the best possible reasons behind beliefs and practices that I may no longer fully endorse – or never endorsed, even in my Mennonite past. Lots of Mennonites are embarrassed about their plentiful history of church splits over matters so seemingly trivial as the length of bonnet strings, or the color of their buggies and later cars, or … the non-payment of war taxes and inclusion of LGTB Christians in their membership?

Because oops, there’s the rub. Nothing may turn out to be trivial for a tradition which insists that discipleship and ethics are what is essential for a Christian identity (rather than, say, exact creedal ascent or, uh, liturgical formulas). I may no longer be convinced that Christian faithfulness can be understood, much less lived, without making every effort to sustain or restore the bonds of Christian unity. But I get the arguments. The Anabaptist-Mennonite weakness for church splits follows almost inevitably from its great strength – a passion to follow Jesus faithfully, come what may. Choose your poison, as they say.

So I’ll articulate Anabaptist-Mennonite arguments to critics and cynics as well as I can. At least when I too am at my best. Which I’m not always (just ask my wife). Which in turn leaves me hoping that someone will look for my best even when buried within my failings.

There is then an argument to be made – perhaps to defend, but at least to explain – the Vatican determination concerning the validity of baptisms performed with improper wording. Among the great strengths of the Roman Catholic Church are the central place it makes in the Christian life for sacramental grace, accountability across borders and cultures and historical situations, stretching back through priests, bishops, and apostles to Christ himself. Together, grace, accountability, and longevity in turn are arguably necessary to be a global Church at all, wherein Christians of many different cultures have the institutional tools to live out a commitment to abiding relationship that yields some semblance of visible unity.

Other Christians can, will, and have contested the psychological, theological, and historical assumptions embedded in every one of the phrases in that last paragraph. Fine; that is what ecumenical dialogue is all about. The point of this article is not really to defend the Vatican. My point for the moment is this, again: Choose your poison.

Yes, uniformity may readily substitute for unity, legalism for accountability, sterile repetition for the longevity of a living tradition. And I am quite ready to concede that this is what we are seeing in the Vatican’s current reassertion of baptismal standardization. What I would ask other Christians to do on their way to making their own arguments in the context of good-faith ecumenical dialogue is to recognize our Catholic problems as the downside to our upsides. For the strength of every tradition comes with risks and likely weaknesses.

My real point, and the larger lesson for ecumenical dialogue that I would hope we draw from the current Catholic “baptism brouhaha,” is that to justify ourselves by comparing our ideals with other traditions’ realities is and always has been a logical and rhetorical fallacy. Ideals always win out. But such wins get us nowhere.

  • Let Anabaptist-Mennonites argue for the authority by which the gathered community of disciples baptizes.
  • Let Protestants argue for the necessity of doctrinal and biblical coherence.
  • Let Catholics argue for the necessity of historical continuity and global standards.
  • Let the Orthodox argue that they have an even better and more authoritative claim to longevity.

But let us try to avoid jumping on one another’s pastoral crises in order to make our points.

This article originally appeared at Bearings Online on February 24, 2022, and has been reprinted with permission.







7 responses to “Choose Your Poison: An Ecumenist’s Reflection on Catholic Fumblings Over Baptismal Formulas”

  1. Matthew Hazell Avatar

    We Catholic ecumenists and bridge-crossers already have a lurking worry that our Church will reject the baptismal validity of Christians who have been baptized “in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer” or similar ways of naming the Holy Trinity in non-gendered ways.

    Erm, the Church has already said (in 2008) that attempting to confer baptisms with that formula is invalid!

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      Goes back even further than that. Boston’s Paulist Center’s use of that formula roughly 30 years ago was determined to be invalid. This is old news. It appears to have been forgotten.

  2. Devin Rice Avatar
    Devin Rice

    In light of Matthew’s Hazell’s comment, I wonder if it would not now be wise to return to conditionally baptizing all protestants who wish to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church. When conditional baptism was dropped as a requirement, one could be morally certain that a Presbyterian’s whose denomination decreed a particular baptismal formula would have been baptized with that formula. Now, I am not so sure. Also if a Catholic minister is now routinely conditional baptizing due to potential defects, perhaps he (or she) would be less likely to stray from the formula.

  3. Charles Kramer Avatar
    Charles Kramer

    The other view of the controversy is this: A priest (in this case) decided, on his own and in contravention of church law, to change the clear wording of the formula used to baptize his parishioners.

    It is a commentary on our age that the outrage is directed at the church authority rather than the priest who potentially imperiled the eternal souls of his parishioners by his unnecessary unilateral action.

    1. Todd Flowerday Avatar

      This commentary on outrage is mostly fake news. Just about every commentator I’ve seen agrees the priest’s actions were silly. Illicit, certainly. The CDF may well be out of its element in the ecumenical sphere for trotting out “invalidity.” It certainly is a break from the Petrine charism for unity. It appears like tunnel vision, not terribly well thought-out. It’s a public stance, and as such, open for commentary by anyone in just about any way.

  4. Rita Ferrone Avatar
    Rita Ferrone

    Thank you for this beautiful and insightful ecumenical reflection. You’ve shed new light on this subject, which unfortunately can become an occasion of sniping rather than fruitful exchange or a learning experience.

    Your closing remarks are especially important. Underneath the official statements and formal instruments of dialogue there’s the personal challenge of cultivating a mindset that allows us to walk together in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding. Thank you for naming some of the attitudes needed to keep on the path, especially the call to avoid invidious comparisons. God bless your work.

  5. Marina Teramond Avatar

    I can say that I see common sense in your judgments and I completely share your position regarding many points. From my point of view, comparing our ideals with other traditions’ realities is a road to nowhere which makes absolutely no sense. I think that your article is a great example of how it is important to think outside the box, expanding the boundaries of consciousness because it is the only way to consider the situation from different angles. I think that your article proves once again that narrow thinking is inherent to many people and that we need to look at religious things deeper. In my opinion, only recognizing our Catholic problems as the downside to our upsides can change the state of affairs and be the start of something new. I think that it will be a great breakthrough and a necessary step forward.

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