The Catholic Twittersphere is on fire this week after the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona, announced that a priest, Father Andres Arango, had performed thousands of invalid baptisms. The problem? He was off by a single word. Instead of saying “I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Father Arango said “We baptize you.”
The difference between the first person singular and plural means that those baptisms are invalid. “If you were baptized using the wrong words,” said the Diocese, “that means your baptism is invalid, and you are not baptized.”
Father Arango, who has since resigned, has apparently used this formula since his arrival in Phoenix in 1995. Thousands of invalid baptisms were performed. This is not the first time that this has happened; similar incidents occurred in Detroit and Oklahoma City. In all cases church leaders have referred to a 2020 statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that clarified that no one can change the wording of the sacraments.
Public responses to these events have ranged from approval to eyerolls to outright confusion. Many noted on social media that the Diocese’s decision seems legalistic and pedantic. Criticism isn’t limited to those outside of the church, the Very Reverend Tim Hazlewood of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland (a more progressive organization, members of which have been censured by Vatican officials in the past), said that the decision takes “a purely legalistic view of baptism.” But this isn’t the first time that the Roman Catholic Church has fought tense battles over the inclusion of single words or letters in statements or faith, nor is it the first time that baptism has been the focus of fierce disagreement and even schism.
In 325 A.D., after decades of heated theological debate and vicious ad hominem attacks, the Emperor Constantine I convened a meeting of bishops in Nicaea. The main subject under debate was the nature of Jesus and how best to describe his relationship to God the Father. Arius, a well-known Alexandrian priest, and his bishop, Alexander, were embroiled in a fierce dispute. Team Arius wanted to say that Jesus was homoiousios (of a slightly different substance than the Father), while Alexander and his supporters argued that he is homoousios (of the same substance as the Father). Philosophically speaking these are vastly different things: Either Jesus is or is not made of the same stuff as God. But, philologically, the contest couldn’t have been smaller: The whole controversy rests over the inclusion of a single letter—an iota or “i”—from which we get our modern expressions “an iota of difference” and “a jot of difference.”
Almost seven hundred years later a clause, known as the filioque clause, would cause a schism between what are now known as Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. The whole controversy began with the language used to describe the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the Son. The Holy Spirit is, in many ways, the Cinderella of the Trinity, it arrives late to the Trinitarian party after debates about the relationship between Jesus and God are already in full swing. In 381 A.D. the Creed produced at the Council of Nicaea had been emended to include the following “And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and Son is adored and glorified.” Sometime later, and with a sense of symmetry and balance in mind, Latin speaking churches added the words “and the son” (filioque) to the clause “who proceeds from the Father.”
The addition of the clause has ramifications for how we think both about the power of God the Father and the integral role of God the Son. It was one of many factors that contributed to worsening relations between the Greek-speaking Eastern churches and Latin-speaking Western churches. Escalating tensions came to head in the Great Schism in 1045, when the Patriarch of Constantinople and the papal legate, Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, excommunicated one another. The Great Schism was the result of complicated theological and political divisions and disagreements, and it’s worth noting the efforts of both churches to reconcile in the present, but the filioque was a central part of the disagreement. All of which is to say, that Christianity has a long history of obsessing over philosophically and theologically consequential terms.
It's not an accident, however, that when it comes to sacramental malpractice, baptism is the sacrament that, historically speaking, attracts the most attention. Matthew Gabriele, a professor of medieval studies at Virginia Tech and co-author of the beautifully written book The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe, told me “The obsession over single words/phrases does have a long history and is especially important when it’s tied to sacraments (such as baptism) because the performance of the ritual in a specific way is thought to make the divine present in the world.”
Gabriele explained that sacramental language is “kind of like a spreadsheet formula, in that precise wording is absolutely vital for you to get the result you want. So, following this way of thinking, although the substitution of “we” for “I” might seem relatively minor, that word changes the ritual itself.” We might think of it as entering a password into a computer. If you forget to capitalize a letter the “word” may be correct, but the password won’t work because they aren’t the same.
The anxiety is heightened because of the importance of priestly authority. “Compounding this concern,” said Gabriele, “is that in (modern) Catholic thinking, and going back at least through the 4th Lateran Council in 1215 CE (and to some greater or lesser extent before that), the priest was the sole conduit for the divine here on earth. If he messes up the ritual, the baptism doesn’t happen, original sin isn’t wiped away, and the child isn’t formally admitted to the Church as a community and therefore in jeopardy for their salvation.”
The Diocese of Phoenix, agrees. Because baptism is the gateway into the Roman Catholic faith the stakes are particularly high: an invalid baptism invalidates subsequent sacraments. And, as Gabriele notes, the person continues in a state of original sin. If the pope could simply waive his hand and forgive original sin for those who were mis-baptized, then one hopes he would do that for everyone on the planet, not just this group of Christians.
At stake here is also the identity and unity of the church. “Since antiquity,” said Gabriele “[baptism] has been a particularly important ritual within the Church, a way of delineating who is within the Church and can be saved and who can’t.” The Donatist schism in fourth-century North Africa, for example, centered on whether the priests who had colluded with the Roman authorities during the Great Persecution had invalidated their office and lost the Holy Spirit. If, as the Donatists believed, they had, then all of those baptized by the now spiritually impotent priests had to be re-baptized. The resulting debate decided that authority rested on the ritual itself not the moral status of the individual priest. The rest, as they say, is history.
What all of this means is that a seemingly legalistic and pedantic fixation on words is both thoroughly in keeping with Catholic history but also with the central role of baptism in Christianity. Ultimately, it’s probably better to have authority lie with the sacrament of baptism and the authority of the priesthood in general than on the moral status of any particular individual. If our abilities to do our jobs rested on whether or not we had cursed out a parking attendant or spent the weekend entertaining impure thoughts about Brad Pitt, then nothing would ever get done.