Many traditionalists hear the word “ecumenism” and associate it with things like the silly Assisi meetings and the never-ending, unproductive “dialogue” that bishops have with non-Catholics. It’s something you might hear about in a traditional Catholic media article talking about Pope Francis, but it never has any real effect on you or your life. This is the way I used to think about ecumenism.
And then I found out that my Protestant baptism was invalid, which made all of the other sacraments that I had received within the Catholic Church invalid as well. And then I was refused the ability to receive a conditional baptism. Then it made sense to me what a big deal ecumenism is.
I was born into a Christian family that was anti-organized religion. I may have gone to church ten times before my conversion to Catholicism. Eventually, I took this anti-organized religion to its natural conclusion, and I became a deist, but not before being “baptized” in an independent Baptist church. This ceremony never meant a whole lot to me; I just found it odd. After all, I was told it was just a symbol and didn’t think it mattered.
Then I started inquiring into Catholicism and joined the RCIA program at my local parish. While I didn’t learn a whole lot at RCIA, I learned that Protestant baptisms are valid. The people in charge of RCIA assured me that as long as it was trinitarian, it was valid. So when I was asked about whether or not I was baptized, I said, of course. I just had to produce a “baptismal certificate” from the independent Baptist church. The church had no idea what I was talking about, but after I pestered them, they finally gave me a sheet of paper they had just typed up saying “baptismal certificate” with my name misspelled and the date of my baptism gotten wrong beneath it. My parish accepted it, and nothing more was done about my baptism. I received the sacraments of confirmation and penance and my first Communion, and I didn’t need to think any more about my baptism.
Six months of receiving Communion, serving at the altar, and just being a Catholic later, I heard of something called a “conditional baptism” from a Scott Hahn book. This perplexed me: why in the world would a Protestant pastor need to be “conditionally” baptized? After researching, I found that, indeed, other things outside not being trinitarian could invalidate your baptism. Many of them applied to my baptism.
The first is the fact that the minister himself needs to immerse you or pour water on your head. As St. Thomas states:
[T]he integrity of Baptism consists in the form of words and the use of the matter. Consequently, neither he who only pronounces the words, baptizes, nor he who dips. Wherefore if one pronounces the words and the other dips, no form of words can be fitting. For neither could he say: “I baptize thee”: since he dips not, and therefore baptizes not. Nor could they say: “We baptize thee”: since neither baptizes. For if of two men, one write one part of a book, and the other write the other, it would not be a proper form of speech to say: “We wrote this book,” but the figure of synecdoche in which the whole is put for the part. (ST III q. 67, a. 6)
In my baptism, just this happened. The minister said the words, and someone else put me in the water.
Another problem is that the immersion or affusion must occur while the minister says the words. As the Catechism of the Council of Trent states, “The Sacrament of Baptism can be said to exist only when we apply the water to someone by way of ablution while using the words appointed by our Lord” (Catechism of the Council of Trent, section on baptism, emphasis mine).
Or take the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
In case of necessity, any person can baptize provided that he have the intention of doing that which the Church does and provided that he pours water on the candidate’s head while saying: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 1284, emphasis mine)
In my baptism, I was immersed only after the words were stated.
One might be tempted to say these sorts of errors in administering baptism are so rare that they aren’t even worth mention. The problem is that both of these errors are widely found within Evangelical and Baptist churches. When looking at videos from the very Independent Baptist Church that I was baptized in, I couldn’t find a single valid baptism out of the hundreds of baptisms they administer. Despite this, Evangelical and Baptist baptisms are widely accepted within the Catholic Church with little or no inquiry.
This realization set me into a panic. I contacted my pastor and told him about the situation. The response I got was an outright lie. He told me that canon law states that it would be an “extraordinary baptism” and that Protestants don’t have to use the Catholic sacramental form of baptism. He said the baptism was merely a concelebration and was 100% valid. I was relieved, but on a whim and wanting to be sure, I called into a conservative Catholic radio show and asked the same thing: was my baptism valid under these circumstances? They told me nearly the same thing and told me to stop worrying.
The next day, when I went back to listen to the recording of the radio answer again, I found something odd: they had scrubbed the two-hour-long radio show and removed the answer to my question with an obvious edit, something I had never seen them do before. So I decided to search the terms that my pastor had used in canon law and I found nothing that he mentioned. There was no such thing as an “extraordinary baptism.” I then contacted a canon lawyer, and she confirmed this.
I spent weeks looking up documents about this, as my pastor had stopped returning my emails about this, and the other priests I went to seemed to brush me off. Then I came upon a 104-year-old document that had never been translated into English before in the 1916 AAS called “On the Validity of Baptism.” It talked about a situation very similar to mine. I had no choice but to get it professionally translated. When I received the translation, it was exactly what I thought: it confirmed that if this circumstance that St. Thomas mentions happens, the baptism will indeed be invalid. It says:
Catholic doctrine most certainly holds that the matter ought to be placed by one and the same minister at the same time as the form of the baptism is offered[.] (AAS 08-1916, page 478, emphasis mine)
After returning to my pastor this time with around 20 pages of documents, I was finally granted a conditional baptism and a conditional confirmation after his own canon lawyer told him my baptism was indeed invalid.
I am a former child actor on The Disney Channel and have had to recite 20 pages of dialogue from memory in front of lights, cameras, and producers, knowing that my family’s mortgage was on the line — but this experience with my baptism was the most stressful experience of my life. I went from receiving Communion multiple times a week to not being able to receive it at all. I couldn’t even go to confession during this time, since I knew that it wouldn’t be valid. It felt as if my entire time of being a Catholic had been a lie. I knew that if I wasn’t in a state of grace, the good things I had done merited me nothing before God. I even irrationally contemplated leaving the Church and joining the Eastern Orthodox, as maybe they would at least baptize me, but I kept praying the rosary and meditating upon Philippians 4:6–7, and God kept me on track.
“ Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
My situation isn’t the only instance where a baptism can be invalid. I learned this when my friend went through nearly the exact same situation when he converted to the Catholic Church. His baptism, too, involved an immersion after the words were stated and involved multiple ministers, but even worse, it wasn’t obvious if even the intent was there. Let’s remember: the sacrament requires both matter, form and intent to be valid. And as the Catechism states, the intent for baptism is to “do what the Church does,” which from what I have seen is shown through threefold immersion or affusion. The Church is clear that it isn’t absolutely necessary that this occurs, but if the intention is doubtful, it is a good sign. My friend’s baptism immersed only once, and his church made it very clear that they had a distinct baptism from Catholics and so rebaptized Catholics attempting to apostatize. But when my friend brought this up to the RCIA program, he was told that this was “scandalous” to bring up and that Protestant baptisms are valid. His baptism even went to a baptismal tribunal, who also said it was valid despite it having multiple invalidating factors. So my friend went to a Fraternity of Saint Peter priest who sympathized with him but simply couldn’t do anything for him — if the diocese thought the baptism was valid, then it was valid.
It wasn’t until a priest of the SSPX was told of the situation and contacted the same Fraternity of Saint Peter priest and explained to him why he believed that the baptism was invalid that he was granted a conditional one with the Fraternity of Saint Peter — as long as I withdrew myself as his sponsor, because I now attend an SSPX chapel.
This is also a lesson showing how absolutely insane this divide within traditionalism is. While the Church at large is so ecumenical that it is denying people the sacrament of baptism, we are still stuck bickering about the legacy of Archbishop Lefebvre to the point where we can’t even communicate with each other. These issues are important, but the fact is, we are dealing with a force that isn’t Catholic, and unity is necessary in these times. None of us should have to deal with such negligence from the Church itself. We all want the same thing in the end.
So my question is, if this error is so prevalent among Protestant baptisms, why don’t we inquire about them more? Why risk the souls of so many just to avoid being “scandalous”? At the moment, only the SSPX offers conditional baptisms readily, although, from what I’ve seen, the other traditionalist groups are aware of this and investigate baptisms more thoroughly. I see many conservative Catholics saying this stopping of so many conditional baptisms is a great fruit of Vatican 2. But I say it’s a disaster and one of the biggest problems in the Church right now! What happens if one of those people who should but doesn’t receive a baptism goes to seminary and becomes a priest? The ordination wouldn’t even be valid! The implications are staggering, yet this is rarely talked about.
I am not suggesting that we should conditionally baptize everyone who comes into the Church. But if there is any reasonable doubt, why not a conditional baptism? And if this doubt is prevalent, why not have a real investigation into the baptisms of converts? It’s possible that I should have done more research into these issues before I was confirmed. But the fact is that when converts are in RCIA, they are in a vulnerable state. I am the first Catholic in my family that I know of since the Protestant Revolution. Many converts go into RCIA knowing little to nothing about Catholicism. There shouldn’t be an expectation for converts to already have a firm understanding of Catholic sacramental theology. There might be tens of thousands of converts within the Church right now who don’t have valid baptisms simply because of this negligence.
This issue needs to be addressed in the Church, and traditionalists need to see this as a reason to unite. Our Church simply isn’t doing what it is supposed to do.
Murray Rundus is a senior in high school, former child actor as Wendell on Gamers Guide to Pretty Much Everything seen on Disney XD and Disney Channel, and convert to Catholicism. Murray converted to Catholicism in 2018 after finding Christ through St. Augustine’s Confessions and the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Murray advocates for traditional Catholicism and is working to become a better follower of Christ through the traditional sacraments and devotion to Our Lady.