Proposed Catholic-Reformed agreement on baptism: Vatican concerns ignored?
November 01, 2010
A proposed common agreement between the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and four Reformed ecclesial communities appears to fail to take into account recent Vatican concerns on the validity of baptism conferred by sprinkling. Inspired by the theology of John Calvin, the Reformed communities arose in the sixteenth century and at times confer baptism by sprinkling (aspersion) rather than by immersion or by pouring (infusion).
The practice of administering baptism by sprinkling arose in the West in the Middle Ages. The 1917 Code of Canon Law states that baptism is conferred licitly “either through infusion, or through immersion, or through aspersion” (canon 758). Theologians of the time stated that when the water touched the head and flowed, the baptism was valid; otherwise, the baptism was of doubtful validity. While baptisms administered by aspersion according to the Catholic rite were certainly valid, Protestant baptisms administered by aspersion were viewed as being of less certain validity.
Perhaps because of these concerns, the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity in 1967 warned of the “danger of invalidity” of baptisms administered by sprinkling. “Baptism by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling together with the Trinitarian formula is in itself valid,” the secretariat noted in its Ecumenical Directory, which helped guide the Church’s relations with non-Catholic Christians for the next 25 years. The document cautioned in a footnote, however, that “with regard to all Christians, consideration should be given to the danger of invalidity when Baptism is administered by sprinkling, especially of several people at once.”
The 1983 Code of Canon Law removed any reference to baptism by aspersion. “Baptism is to be conferred either by immersion or by pouring,” canon 854 states.
In 1993, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Unity issued its Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, which superseded the 1967 document. The positive reference of baptism to sprinkling was removed; the 1993 text states that “baptism by immersion, or by pouring, together with the Trinitarian formula is, of itself, valid.” The footnote remained in the 1993 document: “With regard to all Christians, consideration should be given to the danger of invalidity when baptism is administered by sprinkling, especially of several people at once.”
The seventh round of the official Catholic-Reformed dialogue in the United States, which concluded on October 8, produced the document “These Living Waters: Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism.” At its November meeting, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will decide whether to approve the common agreement on baptism.
“Such a common agreement was first proposed by Cardinal Walter Kasper of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity in 2002,” according to a USCCB press release. Even earlier, in 1993, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity’s Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism stated:
It is strongly recommended that the dialogue concerning both the significance and the valid celebration of baptism take place between Catholic authorities and those of other Churches and ecclesial Communities at the diocesan or Episcopal Conference levels. Thus it should be possible to arrive at common statements through which they express mutual recognition of baptisms as well as procedures for considering cases in which a doubt may arise as to the validity of a particular baptism.
“These Living Waters” does not appear to provide any procedures for considering cases in which a doubt may arise as to the validity of a particular baptism. In addition, “These Living Waters” does not refer to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Unity’s recent concerns about the “danger of invalidity” of baptisms administered by sprinkling.
Instead, the Catholic and Reformed signatories agreed to the following common statement:
In order for a baptism to be valid, it must be administered by someone authorized to do so, using water and the Trinitarian formula. Typically, baptism is administered by an ordained minister or priest, within a worship service, using water (either dipping the baptizand into the water or pouring or sprinkling the water on the baptizand), and following the command of Jesus to baptize people of all nations “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).
Following this common Catholic-Reformed statement, the Catholic signatories added, “Baptism must be administered with water and in the name of the Triune God since ‘entry into the life of the Most Holy Trinity through configuration to the Paschal mystery of Christ’ is signified and enacted in the sacrament … The most expressive form of baptism is triple immersion in baptismal water, the latter consecrated by a prayer of epiclesis (an invocation for the Father to send the Holy Spirit upon the water to give the grace of the Son). However, pouring is also accepted.”
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