An Arizona priest has resigned after using the wrong words in baptisms since 1995, invalidating perhaps more than just baptisms for thousands.
For the religious, baptisms are important. They are, for most Christians, the door to church membership and entering into a covenant with Christ, an invocation of unity, and a symbolic cleansing. In fact, Catholics believe it cleanses the subject of original sin.
Get in there early, or sin could take hold.
And to focus on Catholics, rituals are important. Sacraments. Words.
Here’s what Emile Durkheim, in his classic sociological account of ritual, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life has to say about rituals:
There can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and the collective ideas which makes its unity and its personality. Now this moral remaking cannot be achieved except by the means of reunions, assemblies and meetings where the individuals, being closely united to one another, reaffirm in common their common sentiments…The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1915), p. 474-75.
So, what did happen?
It turns out that after an investigation by the Diocese of Phoenix, Rev. Andres Arango has used the wrong words in baptisms up until June 17, 2021. He had been saying the wrong words since the beginning of his service as a priest, all the way back in 1995.
There is potential for an awful lot of people to have been affected.
In baptisms in both English and Spanish, he has said “we baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
However, he should have been saying, “I baptize.”
Specifically, it was reported to me that Fr. Andres used the formula, “WE baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The key phrase in question is the use of “We baptize” in place of “I baptize.” The issue with using “We” is that it is not the community that baptizes a person, rather, it is Christ, and Christ alone, who presides at all of the sacraments, and so it is Christ Jesus who baptizes.
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently issued a doctrinal note alerting the Church throughout the world that baptisms were not valid in which the formula was changed to say “We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In making this clarification, the Congregation referred to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which reminded us that no one “even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.”
…I too am sincerely sorry that this error has resulted in disruption to the sacramental lives of a number of the faithful.Thomas J. Olmsted, Bishop of Phoenix
This mistake is thought to have affected thousands of people, many of them infants.
And this is not the first time this has happened. This was brought to the attention of the Church after discoveries were made in 2020 in Detroit and Oklahoma City.
This problem may not just be for baptisms because a baptism is the “sacrament that grants access to all the others.” Confirmations, marriages, and holy orders could all be invalidated with such a botch job.
The Diocese of Phoenix has announced, “What this means for you is, if your baptism was invalid and you’ve received other sacraments, you may need to repeat some or all of those sacraments after you are validly baptized as well.”
Of course, these are just words. I’m not sure God is sitting up there crossing names of infants off lists just because a priest misspeaks. Are Christians honestly thinking this? Does anyone really believe that this will change the theological futures for any of these individuals? Does the Catholic church really believe that the theological journeys of these subjects have been hindered? I can’t think that religious believers truly see God as some algorithm that works as a computer program only allowing certain people particular outcomes based on exact word usage utilized in precise scenarios.
Because God is love.
But for the believers themselves, and their families—and the Catholic Church, of course—this is a big deal. As NPR reports:
The diocese said that while the situation may seem legalistic, the words, materials and actions are crucial aspects of every sacrament — and changing any of them makes them invalid.
“For example, if a priest uses milk instead of wine during the Consecration of the Eucharist, the sacrament is not valid,” it said. “The milk would not become the Blood of Jesus Christ.”
This is arguably a false analogy. Words are representations of meaning and intention, but it is not the humans who are actually bringing about any theological reality. No, that is God’s work.
These sorts of rituals find little purchase in the secular community, not least because they are philosophically confused. An all-knowing and all-loving God is hardly going to bar an infant from unity with it on the grounds of someone else getting a ritual word wrong.
It’s a lot of crying over spilled milk.
Fr. Arango has seen this as necessitating his resignation. One word has caused him to lose his job:
It saddens me to learn that I have performed invalid baptisms throughout my ministry as a priest by regularly using an incorrect formula. I deeply regret my error and how this has affected numerous people in your parish and elsewhere. With the help of the Holy Spirit and in communion with the Diocese of Phoenix I will dedicate my energy and full time ministry to help remedy this and heal those affected. In order to do this, I have resigned from my position as pastor of St. Gregory parish in Phoenix effective February 1, 2022.
Cynics would be warranted in thinking that the Catholic Church would be better off spending its time dealing with, perhaps, child sex abuse rather than some well-intentioned clergyman accidentally saying the wrong word.
What with forgiveness, and all.
The diocese is now going through the process of identifying all those affected and offering corrective sacraments in an attempt to deal with the theological fallout.
The idea seems to be that God is officious enough to deny whatever theological reality was intended for these people, waiting years for a corrective ritual to be carried out before finally giving them what they, and presumably God itself, desired.
Of course, rituals aren’t about God, they are about the individual and the communities.
In the book Rituals and Practices in World Religions Cross-Cultural Scholarship to Inform Research and Clinical Contexts, David Bryce Yaden observes:
Some modern approaches to religious ritual and practice focus on the role that rituals play in fostering group cohesion—the social-functionalist approach. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt et al. (2008), an example of this contemporary perspective, make explicit reference to Durkheim’s “collective effervescence.” The social approach builds on the observation that well-being is strongly tied to the psychological importance of social relationships (Leary and Baumeister 2017; Myers 2000). It then extends this view to observe that feeling entirely connected, even to the point of temporary self-transcendence, is generally associated with increased health, well-being, and prosocial behavior (Ehrenreich 2007; McNeil, 1995; Yaden et al. 2017, 2018, 2019). According to this perspective, religious and secular rituals primarily serve to enhance social connectedness, a process that some suggest emerged evolutionarily from the greater fitness conferred to more cooperative groups (Wilson 2002). This line of research focuses on investigating the social functions of religious ritual and practice.Rituals and Practices in World Religions Cross-Cultural Scholarship to Inform Research and Clinical Contexts, p.19.
There are approaches to research into rituals, such as the health approach (where researchers look to measure the health and wellbeing benefits to rituals) and the self and social regulation approach (where symbolic and psychological meaning is taken into account).
Looking at the social functions, Yaden adds:
Some researchers have taken up the Durkheimian perspective, arguing for the role of collective rituals in maintaining group affiliation (Watson-Jones and Legare 2016). Research has shown that collective rituals do indeed increase group affiliation (Rimé 2009; Rimé et al. 2010; Spoor and Kelly 2004) as well as social trust (Fischer et al. 2013). Even shared public holidays may help to promote shared affiliation and trust (Sezer et al. 2016). Some evidence suggests that more costly rituals may be especially effective at fostering group cooperation (Sosis and Ruffle 2004). However, group cohesion may sometimes come at the expense of encouraging ‘othering,’ or seeing those people who do not participate in a given collective ritual as excluded from an in-group (Hobson et al. 2017).Rituals and Practices in World Religions Cross-Cultural Scholarship to Inform Research and Clinical Contexts, p. 27.
All of which is to say that the benefits of baptism are largely psychological and social, and, given this, getting the word wrong is hardly going to invalidate anything other than possibly making someone feel like they should “get it done properly.”
And none of this really requires anyone losing their job.
In the secular world of employment, this requires but the smallest bit of retraining. What we could instead have expected from the Catholic Church might look like this:
“Just make sure you say ‘I’ instead of ‘We,’ going forward, okay?”
“Right you are. Retraining completed. Anything else?” asks Fr. Arango.
“Not really. Oh, yes, one more thing. If you find out about any child sex abuse, make sure you keep it to yourself. Don’t want any embarrassments that come close to this almighty cock up.”