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Baptism and legalism
While this broke in the Catholic world a couple weeks ago, mainstream sources are now picking up the story of Fr. Andres Arango in the Diocese of Phoenix. In a nutshell, for years Fr. Arango has routinely baptized people with the formula “We baptize you in the name of…” rather than the traditional formula “I baptize you…”
For Fr. Arango, this ultimately means that every baptism he preformed with the “we” formula is invalid. Further, because baptism is necessary for someone to receive any other sacrament, anyone baptized in that way will not only need to be “re-baptized” they will need to re-receive any other sacraments they may have received (like their confirmation or, in some cases, even their marriage).
Fr. Arango released a letter apologizing for his error, his bishop—Thomas Olmsted—released a statement, and the Diocese of Phoenix released a FAQ about the situation. All are worth reading if you want to know more of the details.
Now, this whole situation can easily look like legalism. One word seems like a very arbitrary thing for the amount of hassle and real anxiety this is putting people through. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable conclusion for someone to reach, but I also think it’s worth briefly explaining why the Church is so legalistic about the sacraments.
As I’ve said before, throughout Catholic theology there is a sacramental worldview or sacramental paradigm. This is the recognition that God communicates his revelation and life through material creation. We see this explicitly in the sacraments themselves, where God’s grace is shared in and through material signs and symbols. God has bound himself to specific material actions and words (the sacraments).
Material things, by definition, have boundaries. So the material aspect of the sacraments have defined boundaries. At some point the signs and symbols of the sacraments have a line that can’t be crossed. Vodka is not wine, vodka cannot be used for Communion. Water is not oil, water cannot be used for confirmation. Likewise, different words have different meanings. If a priest makes up his own prayer for consecration during Mass he’s not actually consecrating the bread and wine.
There is some room for variety in the material signs and symbols, but at some point a boundary must be placed around what is essential to that sacrament. The only authority that can determine that is the teaching office of the Church that Catholics believe is assisted by the Holy Spirit. So while, “I” vs “we” is, in many ways, very arbitrary, when you get down to what’s essential to any sacrament you’re going to find arbitrary boundaries. Further, because baptism is the normative and privileged way the God heals and saves us, it’s important for us to be attentive to the material boundaries of that sacrament.
All of that being said, while the material aspect of the sacrament has these apparent arbitrary and legalistic boundaries, God does not. That’s worth saying again. God is not a lawyer and his grace is not bound by words and rituals.
The Catechism reiterates the ancient belief of the Church that, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments” (CCC 1257). God’s grace is present outside of the material sings and symbols.
As I’ve written before, we can distinguish the grace of a sacrament (the thing itself) and the material signs and symbols of the sacrament. God binds the spiritual thing to the material thing so that they can't be separated. This is why we cannot understate the importance of the material ritual. Yet, at the same time, the ritual of baptism is distinct from the grace of baptism itself. This is how we can have baptism by blood or desire (cf. CCC 1257-1261). For example, the Good Thief hanging on the cross next to Jesus received the grace of baptism—the thing itself—even though he didn't participate in the ritual of baptism. This is the case of everyone who receives baptism by desire.
Thomas Aquinas, in the section of the Summa about whether or not the "wayfarer" can be saved, says, "Hope does not trust chiefly in grace already received, but on God's omnipotence and mercy, whereby even he that has not grace, can obtain it, so as to come to eternal life."
In other words, our hope does not rest in whether or not we’ve participated in the right rituals, but in who God he has revealed himself to be. And God has told us that he desires for all people to be saved and that, at all times and in all places, he chases after and draws close to us.
So I think it’s important for Fr. Arango, and all clerics, to respect the material signs and symbols of the sacraments because they are given to us by God and belong to the whole community. Priests are not free to monkey with the sacraments however they see fit.
That being said, I also think people need to be reassured of God’s identity as a loving father who desires our salvation more than we do. And they need to be reassured that they can safely presume that all their sacraments are valid *unless there’s evidence that it’s invalid.* If one really believes that God is who he says he is, then fear and legalism melt away—even while we try our best to maintain the material integrity of the sacraments.