It was a bit shocking to read recently about the Detroit priest who discovered, three years after ordination, that he had never been validly baptized.  The invalid baptism meant he was not a priest.

As Fr. Matthew Hood was reviewing a video of his own baptism 30 years earlier, he heard with his own ears that the deacon who performed the ceremony had not used the right formula.  Instead of saying “I baptize you . . .” the deacon said “We baptize you in the name of…,” etc. Suddenly, both Church and society were treated to an unexpected refresher course on the sacraments.

Objective conditions = validity

The incident shines a spotlight on a very important aspect of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the seven sacraments: validity. Namely, each sacrament has certain basic requirements for it to actually be a sacrament. If these requirements are not met, the whole ceremony is just a pious performance, not a channel of sacramental grace.

To get our minds around this, let’s use the analogy of buying a house. In the most basic sense, you need both money and a purchase agreement (contract) with your signature on it next to the seller’s to make that house your own. Even with enough money in the bank, you don’t own the house until you sign the contract.  And if you sign a contract but don’t give the seller any money, the document means nothing. You haven’t actually bought the house.

Completed payment and a valid purchase agreement makes you a homeowner according to civil law. Valid ownership of the house – having clear title to the house – means you can dispute the claims of anyone else who pretends to own it or tries to take it from you unlawfully.

So, what has any of this to do with the sacraments?

Validity in the sacraments

Receiving a sacrament is a spiritual “contract” of sorts leading to ownership. Even though it is a spiritual act, there are legal conditions for giving it and receiving it. In home-buying you need money and a properly executed purchase agreement to take possession of the house. In becoming “owner” of a sacrament, you need matter and form.

Matter simply refers to some substance that makes up the tangible part of the sacrament.  The water in baptism and the bread and wine in the Eucharist are the easiest to recognize. The form is the “formula” or distinct set of words that define what the sacrament means. Both are required. These are essentially spiritual versions of money and written documents, and if one or both are missing, you don’t “own” the sacrament. (See a list of matter and form for all seven sacraments here.)

Case in point, the matter used in the priest’s baptismal ceremony was correct. The deacon poured water over his head when he was a baby. But in doing so, he used an incorrect form/formula (“We baptize you…”). Because of the incorrect formula, one of the two necessary elements of a valid baptism was missing.  The baby in question did not, in fact, take “ownership” of the sacrament of baptism that day – even though everyone presumed he did.

The question of legality

“Aren’t you Catholics being a bit ‘legalistic’ like those Pharisees Jesus condemned?” someone might ask. In fact, many enemies of the Church have asked that question in the past. It’s a good question, and there is a very good answer: certainty of spiritual acts and effects.

When the ministers of the Church meet the conditions for performing sacramental actions, we are certain we have received them. In other words, we are certain that Christ has acted in our lives in a significant spiritual way.

Certitude of this kind is very important when the benefits themselves are invisible. We can see money and a written contract when we buy a house, but we cannot see grace. Therefore, we need tangible elements of some sort.  Matter and form prove that we got the spiritual benefit the Church promised to us. When the external conditions are met, we can be absolutely certain that the spiritual effect has taken place.

After that, if anyone challenges us, we can point to the very administration of the sacrament as a sign that our “contract” with God is valid.  We are “owners” of the good works of God in our souls. When we own these spiritual gifts, no one can take them from us.

Why it matters

St. Augustine had to deal with accusations and doubts of this sort in the fifth century. Many Christians fell away from the Church because of the persecutions of the Roman Empire. When the persecutions were over, the fallen away Christians were repentant.  They wanted to return to the Church.  But other Christians refused to receive them back.  They said the fallen away Catholics had renounced their baptismal vows.

Didn’t the sin of apostasy mean they had invalidated their baptism? Not according to Augustine.  He said that the sacrament they received was as valid after their apostasy as it was on the day they were baptized. Augustine led the movement to forgive and welcome back into the Church all who had lapsed. His reasoning was not sentimental. It was sacramental.

It’s still happening today

There is a modern version of Augustine’s lapsed Catholic scenario. I remember being visited by a Jehovah Witness, who figured out that I was Catholic when I offered him a Rosary. He promptly announced to me that he too was once a Catholic but had sent his baptismal certificate back to the local parish with a letter to the pastor forever renouncing his baptism and severing all ties he ever had to the Church.

“Nice try, buddy,” I told him. “I hate to break the news to you, but you’re still one of ours.” I then explained to him that sending a piece of paper to a parish (heck, even sending it to the Vatican) with a letter of renunciation doesn’t invalidate anyone’s baptism. What Christ has done, man cannot undo. He had obviously never read Augustine.

This is not to say that all baptized people are perpetually sanctified or automatically saved by receiving a valid sacrament. Recipients of God’s sacraments must cooperate with grace in order to be sanctified and saved – but that is a subject for a much longer article!

Of God not man

In other words, no human sin or fault can undo what Christ has done in the sacramental action. Augustine based his reasoning on the words of Christ Himself.  Christ delegated sacramental authority to the Church when He said: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). When the Church sets down conditions for sacramental actions, they are legally binding and effective. They are Christ acting through His Church.

This certitude also applies when we’re not quite sure about – ahem – the minister of the sacrament. Let’s use an extreme example to make the point. If the deacon who performed the Father Hood’s baptismal ceremony had killed someone the night before and then got up the next morning and performed a baptism with the correct matter and form, that baptism would have been totally valid! This is the same with all the sacraments.  The virtue (or lack of virtue) of the minister doesn’t stop God from acting through His sacraments as long as the conditions for validity are met.

The priest’s solution

The real problem for the Detroit priest was that all the sacraments he received after his invalid baptism were also invalid – including the Sacrament of Holy Orders! Ouch. The other six sacraments require a validly baptized person as a condition for their own validity (“ownership”).  So, while Fr. Hood went through all the motions of his sacraments as a child or young man (Penance, Eucharist, Confirmation, and even Ordination), he never really received them because he was not baptized.

This is different from saying that that the young man did not receive some form of sanctifying grace from all the church actions he participated in. He bore no guilt whatsoever for believing that he was baptized or attempting to receive other sacraments with the sincerest of intentions. But the point is not a matter of good intentions. It’s a matter of certainty about spiritual acts.

So, to be absolutely certain that the priest actually received Holy Orders, the Archbishop of Detroit re-baptized him, re-confirmed him and re-ordained him – validly, this time. Now he’s a priest. That’s how seriously we Catholics take our sacraments.

Good intentions are not enough

We alluded to the crux of the issue above.  Sacraments are not brought about by good intentions.  This is also the reason why the Catholic Church gets so much abuse for its position on sacraments like marriage.  The Sacraments are a matter of specific concrete words and actions, rooted in objective reality. They are not subject to the winds of cultural change or political pressures.

St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher (1536) lost their heads because they would not agree to King Henry VIII’s plan to throw off his valid sacramental bond of marriage and marry another woman who would give him a male heir. Even serious matters of state don’t change sacramental effects once they are validly performed.

St. John Nepomecene (1393) was brutally tortured and murdered because he would not reveal the contents of a sacramental confession to a king who wanted to know what the queen had confessed. The seal of confession is part of the unchangeable truth of the sacrament and not a matter of personal authority. It is Christ’s sacrament and, therefore, worth dying for.

In the 17th century, the North American Martyrs went through years of deprivation to bring the saving Sacrament of Baptism to the Iroquois Indians. They died as martyrs to a sacrament that some refused but that others received with saving faith. Needless to say, Sts. John de Brebuf and Isaac Jogues never baptized any of the Indians with the formula, “We baptize you….”

A river of life-giving water

Oh, how blessed we are to have the seven life-giving sacraments! They are objectively true and powerful spiritual gifts when given correctly, and they can never be undone. The last chapter of Book of Revelation depicts a “river of life-giving water” flowing from God’s throne and descending onto the whole world (Revelation 22:1).

I’m guessing that the River of Life divides into seven streams.