Baptism and the Mad Scientists of Liturgical Experimentation

You may have heard about Father Matthew Hood, a member of the presbyterate of the Archdiocese of Detroit who discovered, to his horror, that he had not been baptized validly and was consequently neither validly confirmed nor validly ordained.

Father Hood came to this terrible realization when he watched a videotape of his own baptism, by one Deacon Mark Springer. Instead of “I baptize you…,” this irresponsible would-be minister of a Christian sacrament took it upon himself to alter the form of baptism and say, “We baptize you….” The Holy See has very recently declared  that precise formula to be invalid. The CDF went on to say that all those upon whom this invalid form was used must be baptized “in forma absoluta,” i.e., unconditionally.

Even if Deacon Springer’s alteration of the form were not so serious as to render the baptism invalid, he would still have committed a mortal sin. To alter the ritual form of any sacrament is grave matter. That’s how serious this is. But Deacon Springer went one further: In his ministerial malfeasance, he actually invalidated that baptism, so that Father Hood’s subsequent confirmation and ordinations were invalid. Further, prior to his still recent valid priestly ordination, every attempt Father Hood made both to offer Holy Mass and to administer the sacrament of Penance was also invalid.

This is terrifying.

Thankfully, Father Hood contacted the officials of his Archdiocese and was quickly baptized, confirmed and ordained — first to the diaconate, then to the priesthood. The Archdiocese is making attempts to notify all those others who may have been affected by Deacon Springer’s malfeasance. That is why they, quite rightly, made his name public: so that those potentially adversely affected may do what is necessary to rectify the situation.

In the embedded YouTube video, below, Michael Voris reveals what he says is background to this sad story as told to him by an informant in Detroit claiming knowledge of discussions that took place in the Archdiocesan chancery years ago:

A couple of weeks ago, I recorded a Reconquest episode on the subject of the then very recent news of the CDF decree on “We baptize…”. In that episode, I narrated the following brief personal anecdote. Back in the early 1990’s, a friend who was unusually informed about “Catholic things” informed me about an earlier instance of Modernist “experimentation” in invalid baptismal formulae, experiments that were taking place around the very time I was baptized in 1970.

Some time later, I very providentially learned that the priest who baptized me as an infant was a Monsignor working as an official of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. I wrote him with my concerns, enclosing a copy of my baptismal certificate with his name and signature on it. He wrote me back — quickly, if I recall rightly — to assure me that he had never, ever departed from the Church’s liturgical formulae in any sacrament he administered, and I could consequently rest assured that I was validly baptized. (Remember what I said about mortal sin, above? Monsignor took that seriously.)

Relieved, I wrote back to thank him. Eventually, I would meet the good Monsignor in Rome, where he showed me many kindnesses, not the least of which were some remarkable tours he guided this first-time Roman pilgrim on. In light of what occasioned our correspondence, an incident that happened only a few feet away from the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore is all the more meaningful. Monsignor, wearing his cassock, introduced me in my habit to a Franciscan Friar, who was also wearing his habit. When Monsignor said, “I baptized him,” the Friar said, pointing to my habit with his chin and smiling, “It looks like it worked!”

Back to the serious life-and-death issue of sacramental validity here. In a piece at LifeSite, Dr. Joseph Shaw makes some excellent points, addressed to those modern, poorly catechized Catholics who are frankly nonplussed by all this insistence on sacramental validity (underlined emphasis mine):

The point they would do well to consider is this. If sacramental validity makes no difference, then the sacraments make no difference. If the sacraments make no difference, then Christ’s death on the Cross, which made the sacraments possible, makes no difference. Indeed, Christianity makes no difference, except as a moral teaching and example to follow. It makes no metaphysical difference.

There are people who would be happy to accept this train of thought, but they are not Catholics. It is what you would expect of liberal Protestant thinking. The Catholic Church has a great apparatus of Sacramental theology and cares deeply about valid formulas and ritual actions because Catholics think it makes a difference. We think Christ’s death was efficacious, it actually reconciled us to God, and we think that we participate in this through things which, like the Cross, are specific and contingent: specific words and actions, chosen by God as the way this grace will be given to men.

It is true that God could have chosen to save us in some way other than through the Cross, and he could have chosen that we participate in the saving event of the Cross through the use of different words and actions. But He chose what He chose, and if we want to benefit from these things we must adopt the means He has provided for us.

Dr. Shaw goes on to consider the possibility of one being saved without the sacrament:

Then again, God can still save people other than through water baptism. How and whether this happens is something which has not been revealed to the Church, and speculation on the subject, on the basis that God is terribly nice, is never going to get us the objective assurance that our sins, or those of our children, have been washed away, that the sacraments of Baptism and Confession give us.

As the logicians say, a posse ad esse non valet consequentia: that is, from its mere possibility we cannot reason to something actually existing. Possible replacements for baptism are not certain replacements for them. As with so many theological and philosophical issues of major moment, the distinction between potency and act is very important here.

One final excerpt from Dr. Shaw’s article:

If Fr Hood had died without ever having been baptized, it is reasonable to say that his desire for baptism would, at the point of death, have worked as a substitute for water baptism, in saving him from Original Sin. (This is what is denied by the followers of the late Fr Leonard Feeney.) However, it would remain true that he had gone through his entire life without the grace of baptism. Anyone who thinks that this is nothing, that it makes no difference, does not believe that Baptism gives grace.

Given what Dr. Shaw wrote in the paragraph immediately preceding this one — “How and whether this happens is something which has not been revealed to the Church” — we can have no certitude about what he here says “it is reasonable to say.” It is speculation. As one of the “followers of the late Fr Leonard Feeney,” I try to keep in mind those far-reaching concepts of act and potency, and I therefore take a nuanced approach to the question of substitutes for sacramental Baptism having salvific efficacy: it is possible, but we do not know it to be certain.

In the Preface I wrote to the 2018 Loreto Publications edition of Bread of Life, I said that, “We are aware of the common opinion of Catholic theologians on the subject of “baptism of desire,” summarized well by Saint Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae (III, Q. 68, A. 2), and do not rule this out as a theological possibility.”

Commenting on what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says of the issue, I framed the issue as an epistemological question:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are ‘reborn of water and the Spirit.’”9 It is clear in the context that the word “Baptism” is used univocally in reference to the sacrament. Now, in that same Catechism, in the following numbers,10 the sufficiency of baptisms of blood and desire are also taught, along with the assertion that “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” Having pondered this passage for some years, I am left wondering if the authors of the Catechism of the Catholic Church intended to draw a distinction based upon degrees of epistemological certitude, viz.: the Church may be aware of possible substitutes for the sacrament for those with faith and explicit desire for it, but she “does not know of any means other than [sacramental] Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude,” so she still insists on the necessity of the sacrament.

I encourage those who have not read it in its entirety to read that Preface to Bread of Life. If the subject is of special interest to you, I also suggest you watch Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus: An Interview with Brother André Marie.

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It is sad and alarming that the Archdiocese of Detroit has had to take extraordinary measures to notify its faithful of their possibly invalid baptisms at the hands of Deacon Mark Springer. Worse, the fact that the CDF has had to weigh in on the issue indicates that it is by no means a local problem caused by a rogue Levite. This is yet another indication that the Church is indeed suffering from a very deep crisis.

A bit of parting advice: For God’s sake — and for your own — go where sacramental validity and the Catholic Faith are safeguarded by the use of the Church’s traditional liturgical praxis. Receive your sacraments there. Worship there. Donate there. Don’t make yourselves and your children lab rats at the mercy of the mad scientists of liturgical experimentation.