Another article referencing the recent statement by the CDF on baptismal formulas. “If someone knows for a fact they were baptized with another other formula,” they should say something, said Susan Wood, a theology professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. But if they don’t know the wording used, they shouldn’t be anxious, she told CNS.
If the baptism took place without the words “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” without anyone realizing it, she said the baptized person still receives grace as part of the church tradition called “ecclesia supplet,” meaning the church supplies graces if through no fault of an individual something is not quite right.
Wood, who is currently writing a book on the ecumenical and systematic theology of baptism, said she was pleased with the Vatican announcement, noting that there has been a change in baptismal practice in recent years, primarily in Protestant churches but also in some Catholic churches that use gender-neutral terms to refer to the Trinity.
“Hopefully this will bring attention to it and bring a return to the more traditional formula,” she said, adding that the pastoral response should be “to be aware of what’s correct and why and move forward, honoring the tradition of the church.”
Wood pointed out that an attempt to “avoid male language for God ends up creating more serious problems for Trinitarian theology,” because the wording takes away the relationship that each member of the Trinity has with the other and ends up reducing members of the Trinity to their functional roles.
“The personal relationship gets lost” in the attempts to “be politically correct,” she said. Quoting another church tradition, Wood said, “We believe according to how we pray,” meaning that prayer formulas influence what one believes.
In the case of gender-neutral language for the Trinity, she said, it takes away the unique relationship among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and provides an incomplete understanding that could “seriously affect the faith life of the church.” She explains this very well, though I might quibble with the use of “ecclesia supplet” in this circumstance. The term for the “Church provides” has been bandied about recently in regards to the CDF’s clarification.
Canon lawyer Ed Peters previously explained on his blog in reaction to Fr. Francis Hoffman writing in OSV’s The Catholic Answer.
My concern is not with Fr. Hoffman’s answer but with an additional comment he offered at the end: “Nevertheless, the penitent’s sins are forgiven because it was no fault of his own the priest used an invalid formula.” Hmmm. Careful here. Continuing: “In this case, as sacramental theologians point out, Ecclesia supplet, that is, the Church provides, out of her treasury of grace, the proper remedy for the defect of the minister’s actions.” Maybe this is a quibble between canonists, but I’m not so sure.
I understand the concept of Ecclesia supplet (1983 CIC 144.1) to describe the Church’s power to supply, under limited circumstances, jurisdiction for an act. But there is no question in this case about whether the confessor had jurisdiction; rather, what was missing were sacramental words, that is, some of the words which the Church holds to be necessary for validity of the sacrament. Since what was defective was sacramental form, I don’t see how the Church’s ability to supply jurisdiction helps our penitent. To adapt a phrase, Ecclesia non supplet quod Ecclesia non habet; the Church cannot supply what the Church does not have, and the Church does not have the ability to supply sacramental form to a minister’s deficient utterance. Many historical examples of invalid baptisms, confirmations, or ordinations would seem to bear this out. Ecclesia supplet does not remedy those cases wherein innocent persons bore the consequences of ministers making invalidating changes in sacramental form, and I don’t think it does so for confession, either.
So where does that leave our penitent?
Well, even though Ecclesia supplet seems of no avail here, nevertheless, we may hold that, in some way, Deus providet, that is, God provides, or God foresees. If tragedy were to befall a hapless penitent, I think, like Fr. Hoffman, that one’s efforts to seek absolution for sins in this life would somehow be rewarded by God in the next.
But short of that, God provides in other ways, too, right here and right now. He provides by giving us priests like Fr. Hoffman who will tell it like it is and alert penitents that such absolutions are invalid; He provides by telling these penitents that, while He knows these mistakes were not their fault, He still expects them to act on their knowledge of the invalidity of such absolutions and return to confession (assuming we’re talking about grave sins, etc.); and I even think He provides by giving the faithful the confidence to contact their confessors, and if necessary their bishops, to inform them of serious violations of the gift that is sacramental confession.
Meanwhile, the rest of us need to be wary lest we assume too quickly that Ecclesia supplet will remedy serious mistakes in ministry just because they were not the fault of the faithful. Salvo sapientiorum iudicio.
It is too bad that there are other formulas being used througout Christianity, but this is not just limited to feminist theology and so-called inclusive language. A segment of Protestantism such as Oneness Pentecostals and others also use an invalid baptismal formula by baptizing “In Jesus’ name.” This is no suprise since Oneness Pentecostals are not Trinitarian, but some others also baptize this way since they think the shortcut term referenced in the Book of Acts somehow trumps Jesus’ own words in Matthew 28:19. Though it is not just the correct formula that is important since the Vatican previously ruled that Mormon baptisms were invalid since there intent is certainly not Trinitarian even though they baptize “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In sacramental theology there must be proper matter and form along with proper intent for there to be a valid sacrament.
It just occurred to me … when christ was baptised, john the baptist will not have used the father/son/spirit formula, so what is the deal there?
You are right Jeff, Ecclesia supplet does not work here. btw, Fr. Hoffman later graciously withdrew his statement here, and corrected it along these lines.
Christ’s baptism was not according to the Trinitarian formula, but it also did not serve the same purpose as Christian baptism.
In the Gospels, Christ specifically says “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 28:19)
What would John have said? “I baptize you in the name of You, You, and You”?
Fr. Philip, OP
I knew someone who was baptized ‘in Jesus’s name’ as a child. Her parents then switched churches, and she attended various Protestant churches as a child and young adult – all of whom simply assumed her earlier baptism was valid. It was only when she was about to enter the Church, in her late 30’s, that she went looking for her baptismal record, and discovered that she had been baptized invalidly. So she was baptized at the Easter Vigil. She had gone for three decades thinking she was baptized – when she really wasn’t.
(Her name was Tara. She died young, of cancer. Prayers for the repose of her soul would be welcome. )
John’s baptism was not the Christian Sacrament of Baptism. It was a prefiguring of and preparation for it, to be sure, but it was not Christian baptism.
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