Hi and welcome back! Lately, I’ve had magical thinking on my mind. That’s a style of thinking that doesn’t tether to reality. It involves actions and thought processes that bear no connection to actual results. And nothing really illustrates the concept of magical thinking like religious rituals do. Today, we see what happens when these rituals don’t get done exactly right. See, a Catholic priest has realized that the magic ritual of baptism was performed incorrectly on him. Come and see the chaos that results when a magic spell gets said all wrong.
Authoritarians and the Magic Rituals They Love.
One paper defines “ritual” as “non-utilitarian acts that are conventional and constitutive of the identity
of some group.”
The authoritarian heart loves a good ritual. Rituals make a scary reality look much more controllable and predictable. And their focus — cozying up to a cosmic protector — provides a very comforting illusion of having a leg up on surviving unpredictable misfortune.
Of course, rituals serve other purposes than just making authoritarians feel safe. As authoritarians use them, rituals confirm and foster group identity while de-emphasizing individual thought and identity. Sometimes, they can even be used to pursue the formation of identity. But that ain’t how authoritarians like to use them.
Right around the time of my deconversion, I ran into William Sleator’s 1991 book House of Stairs. In it, teens trapped in a bizarre house learn to perform particular rituals to get food from a machine. Gradually, the machine demands more and more additions to the ritual. If they don’t figure out what the machine wants and all perform to its satisfaction, then it simply doesn’t dispense food to them. I don’t know if Sleator was specifically thinking about religion and all its rituals, but that element of the book resonated greatly with me.
My Pentecostal So-Called Life.
Indeed, Pentecostals made use of a number of rituals in and out of church contexts. Early in my time with them, I saw them perform a ritual whenever they got into their vehicles. Before starting the engine, they’d pray:
Jesus, please get us to our destination safely and on time. Amen.
They rarely varied the wording. It was like a magic spell recited to ensure our safety. Almost immediately, I began performing this ritual myself. It felt like I was asking Jesus himself to guard my car and my safety wherever I went.
But one day, I forgot to perform the ritual. I was already underway when I remembered it. And I felt actual panic and dread about might happen to me if I drove around without asking for this divine protection!
I had to stop the car to recite the magic spell so I could feel safe again. I felt very silly doing it, but I knew that’s what it’d take to relieve my distress. And that’s exactly what happened: now reassured and feeling safe (although silly), I proceeded again on my way.
Whew! Disaster averted.
Looking back, I understand that day much better. I suffered a serious anxiety disorder, though I didn’t realize it then. Rituals like this one helped alleviate my feelings of helplessness and bring me a sense of control in situations where I really had none.
Forgetting the rituals — or performing them improperly — meant not having that protection and control. Everything hinged on correct and timely performance of the correct and proper rituals!
The Magic Spell of Baptism.
So you can probably imagine my reaction when this story from Religion News pinged my radar: “Vatican causes chaos by invalidating baptism formula.”
See, there’s this priest, Matthew Hood. The Catholic Church ordained him in 2017 around the age of 27. (My goodness, they must have been thrilled.) Recently, he got a look at the video of his own baptism as a baby in 1990.
And his heart must have lurched as he realized that the magical ritual spell uttered over him in 1990 had been done ALL WRONG.
The deacon baptizing him had used the wrong magic formula in uttering the spell. He’d said “We baptize you” instead of “I baptize you.”
And this error rendered the entire baptism completely invalid.
Oh, The Power in Words!
And because his baptism had been invalid, that meant his entire ordination was likewise invalid.
A priest must be properly baptized before he can be ordained. If he’s not, then the ordination fails to take. Only correctly-baptized Catholics may be priests.
And if a priest’s ordination turns out to be invalid, then the rituals he performs are likewise invalid.
So all the times Matthew Hood performed Mass, his magic spells failed to convert the bread and wine into Jesus’ literal flesh and blood. All the times he listened to people’s confessions and gave them orders for penitence and forgave them, Jesus never really forgave them! And all those times he confirmed people in the church and anointed sick people, Jesus hadn’t really considered them confirmed and anointed!
Ironically, all of the baptisms that Matthew Hood performed were fine. He’d recited the magic formula correctly in every way for them. In Catholicism, baptisms don’t hinge on the person performing them at all, only on correct performance of the ritual. Thus, even an atheist can perform it in a pinch, if requested and willing.
But everything else Hood did is hosed.
This error has a lot of permutations. If one incorrectly-baptized Catholic marries another incorrectly-baptized Catholic, then they aren’t really married in the eyes of the Catholic Church! (To be valid, only one person in the couple must be properly-baptized. But the Mother Ship refuses to recognize the union if both aren’t.)
And by the way, the deacon who performed Hood’s baptism incorrectly probably performed many other baptisms that are similarly invalid. He served in that city from 1986-1999. Worse still, he sure wasn’t the only one who used the wrong magic formula in baptizing babies. The Vatican constantly fights to rein in priests who try to wing the magic spell.
So…. there might be a lot of other priests wandering out there who aren’t really priests, all performing rituals that aren’t actually valid because their ordinations never took.
And worst of all, if one of these incorrectly-baptized priests ended up getting promoted higher, like to the bishopric, then Catholics are in a bigger mess even than what I’ve described. Because everything such a bishop might do, including ordaining priests, would be invalid.
See what a mess this is turning into?
Donatism sprouted to life around the fourth century in North Africa, back when Rome controlled it. Donatists thought that the validity of magic rituals hinged on the character of the person performing the ritual, not so much the ritual itself. So a priest had to be blameless so his rituals would take properly. (To be fair, 1 Timothy 3:8-13 sorta demands that standard of deacons.)
The whole reason Donatists became a huge issue is that in North Africa at the time, many Christian leaders capitulated to the governor during Diocletian’s persecutions. To show their obedience to Rome, these Christians handed the governor their copies of the Bible. Other Christians, who became known as Donatists, saw these capitulators as traitors to the religion. Then, when the persecution ended, these same Christian leaders resumed their leadership as if nothing had happened. But the Donatists who had opposed the capitulation saw them as invalid, and thus saw all their ritual performances as invalid. The way the Donatists saw it, these traitors weren’t TRUE CHRISTIANS™ at all, and so their magic spells didn’t take.
So Catholic leaders had to do all this work to hammer out exactly how to properly perform a proper magic ritual spell. Augustine of Hippo probably did the most to hammer at the Donatist heresy. And Catholics decided that their spells depended on two things:
- The chain of command running from popes down to correctly-ordained priests and deacons.
- Correct performance of the magic spells in question.
But that didn’t end matters. Heresies enjoy long lifespans. Indeed, Catholic leaders have fought this one off-and-on for centuries.
Oh, Those Silly Catholics.
That Religion News article ends up devolving into a tut-tutting over those silly Catholics, with their silly fixation on baptism formulae. (Don’t they realize that Batman’s Bat-Suit must have nipples and 2″ ears on the helmet?) Its writer correctly points out that long ago, Catholics baptized with different magic formulae than they use today. Then, he offers what seems to me rather condescending advice:
If you went to confession to a priest who was invalidly baptized and ordained, do not worry about it. God will take care of it.
But it’s not just Catholics fixating on correct spell formulae. When I became Southern Baptist, they convinced me to get re-baptized by them. At the time, they taught that babies can’t consent to their baptisms, so those aren’t valid.
Then, when I joined the Pentecostals, I learned that the magic formula used by the Southern Baptists wasn’t valid, either. The Baptists had re-baptized me in the name of the Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. But Oneness Pentecostals taught that a valid baptism spell contained only the name of Jesus. Thus, I got baptized again by the Pentecostals.
(And that was the last time. Biff asked me to get re-re-re-baptized when I reconverted. However, I put my foot down hard on that idea. He pouted hard, but my fields remained barren.)
Christians like to denigrate competing groups’ rituals, but rarely notice that their own rituals are just as bad.
The Modern Donatists.
The Donatist spirit remains alive and well in modern fundagelicalism — in its way.
Every single time a Christian leader steps out of line with the culture wars (or, increasingly, leaves the tribe), the rest of the flock frets and stresses over whether or not to throw out every book they have by that person. This defection represents some huge flaw in the dissenter that infects all their previous work backwards. Thus, every single book published, every word spoken, becomes suspect.
Interestingly, disgraced Christian leaders don’t suffer that scrutiny and second-guessing. They still play the Pretendy Game to the fullest extent possible. Often, they even drill down harder on the Pretendy Game in the wake of disgrace. I don’t think any Christians ask if their baptisms and marriages count if the wizard performing these rituals is in a state of disgrace right then.
No, Christians only scrutinize and second-guess those who flat-out leave the playing field. When Ed Stetzer wrote about being in “a season of deep lament” over the disgrace of various heroes of his, he never wondered if he should throw out all the books they’d written or stop believing whatever they taught. Apostasy and heresy remain their concerns, not so much the sinfulness of the wizard.
I bet the Donatists would have considered these folks lightweights.
Fixing the Damage.
Of course, Catholic flocks today can easily gain peace of mind if they’re concerned about the validity of their baptisms, marriages, etc. Literally anybody can perform a valid baptism ritual — even an atheist. Likewise, priests stand at the ready to re-perform marriages.
For Matthew Hood, though, his concern runs deeper. Sure, his superiors re-baptized and re-ordained him in August. But now, his superiors must find all the babies that that deacon also baptized incorrectly. I’m sure they’re carefully scrutinizing Hood’s own actions as a priest, as well.
And to think: the only reason Matthew Hood caught the baptism mistake at all is that someone took video of the event!
I think that’s what’s freaking Catholics out about the whole situation. In 1990, very few families owned video recording cameras. So many thousands of Catholics might be out there wandering the world (and performing rituals even) while not being properly baptized at all, and who’d even know?
Authoritarians just disintegrate under that kind of uncertainty.
An uncertainty about a wedding’s validity became a plotline in the sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding in 2015. Even then, though, it involved a legal uncertainty.
I hope a few Christians start to notice that all of this stuff represents a kind of magical thinking. If any gods exist, I just can’t imagine them caring even one iota about the exact wording of a magic ritual. Surely, gods aren’t nearly so limited.
But people sure can be, and often are. Once again, I’m struck by this truth: people create gods in their own image.
NEXT UP: I want to tell them: Look, it’s ALL Build-a-Bear Christianity, FFS. We’ll dive into the more-hardcore-than-thou crowd’s hatred of fluffybunnies. (Every pagan and ex-pagan here knows that word.) See you tomorrow!
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