The Catholic Twittersphere is on fire this week after the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona announced that a priest, Father Andres Arango, performed thousands of invalid baptisms. The problem? He wandered off by a single word. Instead of saying “I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, Father Arango said “We baptize you”.
The difference between the first person singular and plural means that these baptisms are invalid. “If you were baptized using the wrong words,” the diocese said, “it means your baptism is invalid and you are not baptized.”
Father Arango, who has since resigned, is said to have used this formula since arriving in Phoenix in 1995. Thousands of invalid baptisms have been performed. This is not the first time this has happened; similar incidents occurred in Detroit and Oklahoma City. In any case, church leaders referred to a 2020 statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which clarified that no one can alter the wording of the sacraments.
Public responses to these events ranged from staring approval to outright confusion. Many have noted on social media that the diocese’s decision seems legalistic and pedantic. Criticism is not limited to those outside the church, the Very Reverend Tim Hazlewood of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland (a more progressive organization, whose members have been censured by Vatican officials in the past), said the decision takes “a purely legalistic view of baptism.” But this is not the first time that the Roman Catholic Church has fought tense battles over the inclusion of single words or letters in statements or faith, nor is it the first time that baptism been the subject of fierce disagreements and even schism.
In AD 325, after decades of heated theological debate and vicious ad hominem attacks, Emperor Constantine I called a meeting of bishops at Nicaea. The main topic of debate was the nature of Jesus and how best to describe his relationship with God the Father. Arius, a well-known Alexandrian priest, and his bishop, Alexander, were embroiled in a fierce argument. Team Arius wanted to say that Jesus was homoiousios (of a slightly different substance than the Father), while Alexander and his followers have argued that he is homoousios (of the same substance as the Father). Philosophically speaking, they are very different things: Either Jesus is or is not made of the same stuff as God. But, philologically, the contest could not have been smaller: the whole controversy rests on the inclusion of a single letter – an iota or “i” – from which we get our modern expressions “an iota of difference ‘ and ‘a bit of a difference’. difference.”
Nearly seven hundred years later, a clause, known as the filioque clause, would cause a schism between what is now called Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. The whole controversy started with the language used to describe the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Son. The Holy Spirit is, in many ways, the Cinderella of the Trinity, coming late to the Trinitarian feast after debates about the relationship between Jesus and God are already in full swing. In AD 381, the Creed produced at the Council of Nicaea had been amended to include the following “And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, who gives life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified. Some time later, and for the sake of symmetry and balance, the Latin-speaking churches added the words “and the son” (filioque) to the clause “who proceeds from the Father”.
The addition of the clause has ramifications for how we think about both the power of God the Father and the integral role of God the Son. This was one of many factors that contributed to aggravate relations between the Eastern Greek-speaking Churches and the Western Latin-speaking Churches. Escalating tensions came to a head during the Great Schism in 1045, when the Patriarch of Constantinople and Papal Legate Cardinal Humbert de Silva Candida excommunicated themselves. The Great Schism was the result of complicated theological and political divisions and disagreements, and it is worth noting the efforts of the two churches to reconcile in the present, but the filioque was a central part of the disagreement. All this to say that Christianity has a long history of obsession with philosophically and theologically consistent terms.
It is no coincidence, however, that when it comes to sacramental malpractice, baptism is the sacrament that, historically speaking, attracts the most attention. Matthew Gabrielleprofessor of medieval studies at Virginia Tech and co-author of the beautifully written book The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europetold me “The obsession with simple words/phrases has a long history and is particularly important when linked to the sacraments (such as baptism) because performing the ritual in a specific way is believed to render the divine present in the world.”
Gabriele explained that sacramental language is “a bit like a spreadsheet formula, in that precise wording is absolutely vital for you to get the result you want. So following this way of thinking, well Although the substitution of “we” for “I” may seem relatively minor, this word changes the ritual itself.” We could think of this as typing a password into a computer. If you forget to put a letter capitalized “word” may be correct, but password won’t work because they are not the same.
Anxiety is heightened because of the importance of priestly authority. “To compound this concern,” said Gabriele, “is that in (modern) Catholic thought, and going back at least to the 4th Lateran Council in 1215 CE (and to a greater or lesser extent before that ), the priest was the only conduit for the divine here below. If he spoils the ritual, the baptism does not take place, the original sin is not erased and the child is not officially admitted into the Church as a community and therefore in danger for its salvation.
The Diocese of Phoenix agrees. Because baptism is the gateway to the Roman Catholic faith, the stakes are particularly high: an invalid baptism invalidates subsequent sacraments. And, as Gabriele notes, the person continues in a state of original sin. If the pope could just give up his hand and forgive original sin for those who were misbaptized, then hopefully he would do it for everyone on the planet, not just this group of Christians.
What is at stake here is also the identity and unity of the Church. “Since antiquity,” says Gabriele “[baptism] has been a particularly important ritual within the Church, a way of delineating who is in the Church and can be saved and who cannot. The Donatist schism in North Africa in the fourth century, for example, centered on whether priests who had come to terms with Roman authorities during the Great Persecution had invalidated their office and lost the Holy Spirit. If, as the Donatists believed, they had done so, then all who had been baptized by the now spiritually powerless priests had to be rebaptized. The resulting debate decided that authority rested on the ritual itself and not on the moral status of the individual priest. The rest, as they say, is history.
What all of this means is that a seemingly legalistic and pedantic fixation on words is both entirely consistent with Catholic history, but also with the central role of baptism in Christianity. In the end, authority is probably best based on the sacrament of baptism and the authority of the priesthood in general rather than on the moral status of any particular individual. If our abilities to do our jobs depended on whether or not we cursed a parking lot attendant or spent the weekend harboring impure thoughts about Brad Pitt, then nothing would ever get done.
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