The Shape of Baptism: Why It Matters
I feel the need to start a new thread about the CDF’s recent statement regarding the validity of baptisms administered using the formula “creator, redeemer, and sanctifier.” I think the CDF’s action was appropriate and necessary and agree with Joe Komonchak that the various attempts at humor have trivialized what ought to be a very serious issue. Perhaps we might start again.
In my experience, those charged with the training of priests make one thing quite clear to them: the sacraments do not belong to you. They are a gift of Christ and His Church. Particularly when it comes to the sacramental formulas, you simply do…not…ever…substitute words of your own choosing for the words of the rite. To do so is a gross abuse of authority.
I admit that it is easier to say that this is so than to explain why it is so. There is a danger of falling back into a theology that envisions God as a large sacramental vending machine who dispenses a product—“grace”—when the requisite buttons are pushed in the proper order.
The alternative that is often offered, however, is equally dangerous. It suggests that the concrete shape of the sacraments does not matter. Since God loves us and His grace is everywhere, the value of the sacraments is merely to symbolize a reality that is already present. The specific words and symbols are less important than the sentiment that underlies them. As long as that sentiment is present, why should we quibble if a few of the words are changed?
While this may be a comforting theology in some ways, it is not what the Church teaches about the sacraments. While she may have expressed herself in better and worse ways over the course of the centuries, the unifying theme of the Church’s teaching on the sacraments is that they matter. They do not merely express, reflect, or signify. They also cause, effect and transform. Because the sacraments matter, the shape of the sacraments—their unique particularity—also matters. We are beings whose very human existence is deeply shaped by language and symbol. To change language and symbols is not to change something epiphenomenal. It is to change reality itself.
Invoking the “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier” while immersing a person in water may be some form of baptism, but it is not Christian baptism. It is not the baptism that Jesus commanded in Matthew 28:18. It is not the baptism that structured the shape of the great creeds. It is not the baptism that binds together separated Christian communities. It is not the baptism that we recall when our dampened fingers make the sign of the cross as we enter the church on Sunday. It is not, ultimately, the baptism that initiates a person into the living Body of Christ.
Do I believe that God will hold it against those who, through no fault of their own, were baptized with this formula? I do not (although there are some others who may have something to answer for at the Judgment). There is no question, though, that these persons have been robbed of something that should have been theirs by right. When people come to the Church, they expect and deserve the sacraments that come to us from Christ, not a pale counterfeit of our own creation.