Unnecessary angst over “We”

So it seems that thousands of Catholics in Phoenix are likely feeling a little insecure today. It was just revealed that a priest in that diocese has been unknowingly performing invalid Catholic baptisms, and because the Catholic Church believes baptism is necessary for salvation, all who were baptized by him are without a necessary requirement for entrance to heaven.

Instead of the prescribed baptismal formula, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” this priest had been saying, “We baptize you…” The bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix explained, “The issue with using ‘We’ is that it is not the community that baptizes a person, rather, it is Christ, and Him alone, who presides at all of the sacraments, and so it is Christ Jesus who baptizes.” 

I feel for these people who now may fear that if they should die before getting a chance to be rebaptized, they’ll be banished from heaven forever. And if they’re married, their marriages may be invalid as well, which creates multiple problems in the church. Have they been sexually sinning all these years, and are their children illegitimate?

This situation is fraught with difficult, extreme, and unreasonable ramifications that make the doctrine creating the situation suspect. Consider the following.

  1. Jesus did not baptize. John 4:2 is clear on this. Were all the people baptized by his disciples while he still walked among us not validly baptized?
  2. The Catholic Church cites John 3:5 as evidence that baptism is necessary for salvation: “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’” The “water” here is taken by many to mean baptism but that is not at all plain, and I maintain that it is being used as a metaphor referring to the regeneration and cleansing wrought by the Holy Spirit through the word of God. Consider its metaphorical use in Ephesians 5:26 – “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” And in Ezekiel 36:25-27 foretelling the New Covenant initiated by Christ: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.” And in John 4, the same chapter that tells us Jesus did not baptize, we read of Jesus offering the Samaritan woman “living water” which is not physical water at all but the Holy Spirit, an offer he later made to everyone in John 7. Furthermore, the word “and” in John 3:5 can also be translated “even.” So the verse may actually be, “unless one is born of water, even (as in, “namely”) the Spirit.”
  3. Mark 16:16 is also cited by those who believe baptism is necessary for salvation: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Notice that Jesus did not say, whoever is not baptized will be condemned. Baptism is an outward expression of one’s personal faith in Christ and is commanded by him. So the faith of one who professes Christ but refuses to be baptized is called into question. But those who through baptism demonstrate that their faith is genuine will be saved….because of their genuine faith, not because they were baptized. There is nothing magical about the rite itself that confers salvation.
  4. Baptism following faith is the consistent order taught in the New Testament. Children too young to understand what faith in God means are covered by his mercy and love and do not need nor benefit from a rite that misrepresents the biblical data and is so strictly formulated that a change in one little word invalidates it.

As a former Catholic, I can relate to the masses who rely on the Church’s authority in all spiritual matters, even when human foibles cast doubt on it. But as Christ is the head of the church, should we not look to Jesus as our authority and study his Word for ourselves? When we immerse ourselves in it, making Bible reading a daily habit, we come to know him better. And we come to recognize that a loving, merciful God would not send a person to hell because a priest said “We” instead of “I.”