Yesterday, my wife texted me an article about a priest who resigned his pastorship of a Catholic parish because all the baptisms he’d performed over twenty years had been deemed invalid. That means all the subsequent sacraments those unbaptized souls had received – like marriage – are invalid. In Catholic speak invalid means it never happened. The reason given for this ecclesiastical faux pas? The priest said, “We baptize you” instead of “I baptize you” while performing the ritual. The article further discussed how another young priest, upon viewing a videotape of his own baptism, discovered the priest performing the ceremony (Not the abovementioned pastor who resigned) also used the word “We” instead of “I” – compelling the cleric to have himself rebaptized, reconfirmed and re-ordained! It also meant all the sacraments he’d performed – every Eucharist, marriage, baptism confession, etcetera, were also invalid.
“Who gives a shit?” I texted back to my wife. “No wonder people don’t go to church anymore.”
Since I’m a cynical ex-seminarian, my first thought was this hapless pastor was the victim of a hit job by some ultra-conservative Catholic jihadists who wanted him removed from the parish. In the article, the man’s parishioners were cited as defending him, saying, “As part of his pastoral leadership, Father Andres reinvigorated the church community by renovating its facilities, giving parishioners and faith seekers a spiritual home that is open to all.” Hmm. Methinks someone didn’t appreciate the priest’s efforts to be “inclusive.” And the priest who thought he had to get ordained again? Sounds like a case of religious OCD to me – what we used to call “scruples” That his bishop supported this was also an idiot move.
A friend of mine got married in the 80’s by a priest who was later found to be a serial pedophile and drummed out of the priesthood. Upon learning of the cleric’s crimes years later, he joyfully told his wife, “Hey, were not married!” They stayed married, of course, because they were really married, but lots of marriages out there are hanging by a thread. Did the bishops of these two priests even consider the possibility that scores of couples, upon discovering their marriages – at least religiously – didn’t happen, would now use that as an excuse to throw in the towel? Slick move, pointy hat guys. Personally, if had been ordained and later discovered my Holy Orders were invalid, I’d have gone, “Awesome! I’m getting the hell outta here!”
According to the letter of canon law, it is true that using the word “We” instead of “I” renders the sacrament of baptism invalid. But as any Catholic who’s tried getting their marriage annulled knows, canon lawyers often don’t live in the real world. And, since I haven’t gone off in a rant in a while, I’d like to take this opportunity to skewer this bit of ecclesial stupidity.
Let’s say you have a priest who is a serial killer of children. Not only does he lure them into the rectory and kill then with arsenic laced lollipops, but then dismembers them, bakes them into mince pies, and then eats them. But hey, if he used the word “I’ instead of “We” then all his baptisms are valid. No harm no foul! Or how about a sexual predator bishop ordaining hundreds of priests over the course of his career? Well, if he performed the ritual correctly, then it’s all good! Anyone see the disconnect here? Yeah, yeah, this is when the whole doctrine of ex opere operato comes up – meaning that, no matter how evil the priest performing a sacrament is, any “positive effect (The efficacy of said sacrament) comes not from their worthiness or faith but from the sacrament as an instrument of God.” So basically, if Hitler had been a priest, all the sacraments he had administered would’ve been valid – even if you’d be mightily skeeved that someone who killed millions of people performed your wedding. I, for one, would’ve requested a do-over.
Now ex opere operato is important because, let’s face it, lots of priests throughout history have been full blown psychos. And I’m not talking about the Borgia popes mind you. Ever hear of a priest named Jozef Tiso? This nimrod was a full-blown Nazi who became the president of Slovakia during World War II and helped deport thousands of Slovakian Jews to the death camps. Or how about Father András Kun, a raging anti-Semite Hungarian Franciscan who actively tortured and murdered Jews during the Holocaust? These guys were a few beers short of moral six-pack and got executed for their war crimes – but guess what? Every sacrament they performed was valid. I mean, you can’t have all the people they married ditching each other now, can you? Besides, if the Church depended on the goodness of its ministers to perform valid sacraments, the whole thing would have gone down the shitter ten minutes after Jesus ascended into heaven. But this whole “We” versus “I” thing is complete idiocy because it’s all over one word.
You’ve probably never heard of the Holy Qurbana of Addai and Mari – the earliest eucharistic liturgy we have record of. An East Syriac rite from the ancient Church of the East, this liturgy is notable for the fact that it doesn’t include the Institution Narrative; when the priest says, “This is my Body. This is my Blood” during the anaphora, the Eucharistic prayer. Now, if you exclude those words in a Roman mass, then “transubstantiation” – when bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ – doesn’t take place and the host remains just a tasteless wafer made by some nuns in a convent in upstate New York. So, no surprise here, many Catholic and Orthodox Christians thought there was no “Real Presence” in that liturgy’s Eucharist because they omitted Christ’s words and, therefore, was invalid.
Lots of people don’t realize that Catholic and Orthodox Christians accept each other’s sacraments as valid. In an emergency for instance, Catholics can receive sacraments from Orthodox clergy and vice versa. It has to do with a little thing called apostolic succession, but that’s not important right now. The validity of the Liturgy of Addai and Mari, however, has been a source of consternation among liturgists of both traditions. Some Orthodox and Oriental churches haven’t accepted it – but the Catholic Church does! “The words of Eucharistic Institution are indeed present in the Anaphora of Addai and Mari,” the church proclaimed. “Not in a coherent narrative way and ad litteram, but rather in a dispersed euchological way, that is, integrated in successive prayers of thanksgiving, praise and intercession.” Translation? You’re getting 100 percent Grade A Jesus.
So, how can the Catholic Church accept a eucharistic liturgy that doesn’t contain what they consider the most important words in it, but have kittens when their priests say, “We baptize you,” instead of “I?” Couldn’t it be argued that, even though a tiny part of the ritual was not pronounced ad litteram, that the ceremony was “still integrated in successive prayers of thanksgiving, praise and intercession” and therefore a valid sacrament? Or does using “We” instead of “I” during baptism mean that the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, consubstantial with the Father and Son – God Himself and Infinite Source of all there is – will suddenly slam on the brakes and say, “Nope. I ain’t going into that baby!” That prayers are Harry Potteresque incantations with the ability to summon Him willy-nilly? Pure and utter nonsense.
Of course, words and how they are said are important. As a priest friend of mine said, “I can’t stand when guys freestyle the liturgy. It’s the prayer of the Universal Church. You can’t extemporize!” I mostly agree with those sentiments. Back when I was a kid in the 70’s, priests were notorious for making shit up during Mass – which kind of put a dent in the dignity of the whole thing. And even though I think the newly revised liturgy is a clumsy, awkward and unpastoral travesty lacking the former’s linguistic grace, those are the indeed the words – although I hope the pointy hat guys will come to their senses and change it back. “With thy spirit?” Gimme a break.
Here’s another problem with considering those “We” baptisms invalid. Let’s say you’re a pointy hat – a bishop – and you’re pissed off with something the Pope said, suspect he’s really an alien, stewing that you’re not a cardinal, woke up on the wrong side of bed – whatever – and decide to start your own church. So, you go and ordain a bunch of guys bishops without the Supreme Pontiff’s permission and go on your merry way. This has happened many times throughout history, but most notably in 1983 when Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre ordained four men bishops without John Paul II’s permission to keep his ultra-Vatican II hating, Tridentine Mass loving congregation in in Écône Switzerland going. Of course, the Church, hewing to Canon Law, excommunicated everyone involved hours after it happened but guess what? It still considers all those episcopal ordinations valid. Illicit but valid.
“Valid but illicit or valid but illegal (Latin: valida sed illicita) is a description applied in the Catholic Church to describe either an unauthorized celebration of a sacrament or an improperly placed juridic act that nevertheless has effect.” Basically, Lefebvre, broke church law, but his administration of Holy Orders was still valid, stamping that “indelible mark” on those men’s souls. They’re bishops – though not in communion with the Holy See. Now, the Vatican can excommunicate those guys all they want, not invite them to their parties, but they’re still bishops. And all the sacraments those bishops subsequently performed – priestly and episcopal ordinations, Eucharists, marriages, etcetera – are all valid. Illicit but valid. Now, some clerics from this group eventually returned to bosom of Mother Church and, upon their return, did not have to be “reordained’ in order to function as priests. That’s because they were already priests!
So, why can’t those baptisms where a priest used “We” instead of “I” – and the reception of all sacraments by those persons afterwards – be considered valid but illicit? That’s an easy fix because, in the Catholic Church, there is a dispensation for almost everything. And if the Pope issue dispensations to let a bunch of schismatic rebels stay priests without forcing them to get ordained again, then why scare the nice normal people in the pews with this “Sorry, you were never really baptized, confirmed, married, absolved” crazy talk?
During the worst of the pandemic, when priests couldn’t hear the confessions of the dying, Pope Francis said, “If you cannot find a priest to confess to, speak directly with God, your father, and tell him the truth. Say, ‘Lord, I did this, this, this. Forgive me,’ and ask for pardon with all your heart…. And immediately you will return to a state of grace with God.” Yes, rituals are important, but if the Pope can say faithful people unshriven by ritual forms can still get into heaven, then why won’t certain people cut those improperly baptized people a break? I don’t know, but my time in seminary might provide a clue.
Human beings like to feel like they’re part of something greater than themselves. Like most of my divinity school fratres, I studied for the priesthood because I thought I had received a calling from God -and nothing is bigger than God himself. But now, years later, I realize many of us were running from something – sexuality, traumas, emotional problems, what have you – and there’s no better place to hide from yourself than within a two-thousand-year institution. All of us, in some way, were looking for a source of surety and safety to keep the messiness of our psyches and life at bay. So, we’d armor ourselves with the culture, rituals, dogmas, doctrines, and ecclesiastical minutia of the church – often seeking to create new personalities so we didn’t have to deal with our own. As one ex-seminarian told me, “We were all guys in our twenties pretending like we were in our fifties.”
Since so many of us weren’t dealing with our problems, whenever something occurred to threaten our hiding place – like guys quitting, questioning church teaching or the power structure, taking about clerical sexual abuse or the disproportionate number of gay men in the clergy, some of us would react like an addict who had his crack pipe taken away. No, Mother Church and all it teaches is divinely inspired and perfect! One such incident I witnessed immediately comes to mind. After a conference on celibacy, some of us were having a bullshit session in the common room when I, a virgin at the time, wondered how would be able to counsel our future parishioners about sexuality if we ourselves had never experienced the horizontal mambo. Then one of my classmates, who is a priest today, shouted, “I don’t have to eat dirt to know I don’t like it!”
Even though I was young, I was aware that 99% percent of humanity ate that “dirt” on a regular basis and that my classmate was completely out of touch with reality. But becoming a priest was so important to him – the need to dwell in that “safe space” so powerful – the even thinking of engaging in the messiness of intimacy was too threatening for him to contemplate. So, it should come as no surprise that guys would go off their rockers over things like theological dissent, challenging doctrine, the role of women in the church or even something as simple as a movie. One evening, when some of us were watching Martin Scorsese’s excellent film, The Last Temptation of Christ, on the community VCR, one guy went batshit – accusing us of heresy. Then he knelt in the kitchen and loudly prayed the rosary for the “salvation of our souls” and decrying the “evils of abortion” whilst also ruining our viewing pleasure at the same time. That was the closest I ever came to hitting someone in seminary.
You’d think that our superiors would’ve put a stop to this kind of nonsense, but the reality was many of them were head cases too. Trapped within the clerical culture, many of them were hiding from problems as well and, as a result, struggling with things like alcoholism, obesity, drug use, pilfering church funds and sexually acting out. Lest you think I’m coming off as bitter, please be assured I know many priests are good and holy men fighting the good fight. But even the “good ones” are trapped by the inflexibility and fearfulness of churchmen desperate to maintain the “safe” status quo. As the Vatican’s recent report on ex-Cardinal McCarrick’s sexual crimes shows, bishops were well aware of his activities and did nothing. Why? That’s complicated, but part of it has to do with fearing the whole “house of cards” would fall apart. Because if they were wrong about this, then what else could they be wrong about? And the church is famous for not admitting when it’s wrong.
All this serves to disconnect the men who serve the church from the true purpose of the church- to serve its people by spreading the Gospel. It breeds clericalism – fostering an almost “us versus them” mentality that leaves priests on one side and their flock on the other. So, it’s not surprising that some clerics got their panties in a twist over the whole “I” versus “We’ thing – causing many of the faithful to suffer pain as a result. All of this over a word. Luckily, the church has begun to admit its failings with respect to the abuse crisis and Pope Francis rails against the disease of clericalism almost daily. But, while many priests and parishioners are overjoyed at this development, quite a few are not – pining to return to a time when they didn’t have to deal with such questions. Seeking refuge in a vision of a perfect church that never existed; desperately seeking a safe space to hide from life’s messiness. For them, the real world is too threatening.
I recently read a wonderful definition of heresy- that it’s the inability to deal with life’s complexity. Life is messy. The Church, since it’s comprised of sinful human beings, is also messy and rigid people have an awfully hard time dealing with mess. They want everything to be just so – to have very i dotted and every t crossed. Coming from the subculture they do; some priests cannot countenance any deviation from “form” whatsoever. Well, priests “freestyling” the liturgy or saying “We” instead of “I” is also part of the messiness of life. And while doctrine, dogma, and ritual are important, if they are bereft of the spirit of the Gospels, if it does not walk alongside people in the messy and fleshy complexity of their lives, then it runs the risk of not only of becoming “a whitewashed tomb” but irrelevant in the lives of the faithful. And that would be a shame because the Church possesses wisdom beyond compare.
I might only be an armchair theologian, but I’m quite sure believing that one errant word can invalidate a baptism is heresy. That’s because words cannot contain God. Even the sacraments cannot contain God. He is who He is and goes where He likes. And if Christians believe that God became man – that he “pitched his tent among us” – that means humanity, with all its diversity and messiness is good too. Like the Liturgy of Addai and Mari, none of our lives flow in a “coherent narrative way and ad litteram” but in a “dispersed” way “integrated in successive” series of life events that draw us inexorably towards God. In short, the liturgy of our lives is messy. And any attempt to homogenize it or control it in order to avoid dealing with uncertainty or doubt is a sin against the very God who graciously created it all in the first place. So, even though I lack any sacerdotal credentials, I can safely say that all those pastor’s baptisms were valid. No need for any do-overs. Besides, using the word “we”during the ritual should be fine since there is no “I” in Church. There is only We. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Or, as my godfather was fond of saying.
“Bless this mess.”