I’ve wondered about this and I’m still not 100% even though I’ve posted a thread about this before.
I am Catholic now, but I was nominally a Southern Baptist before. I do not now have nor have I ever had any particular animus toward my former coreligionists or my former church.
Anyway, one thing I don’t understand is what the (Catholic) Church’s presumption of validity of baptisms performed by Southern Baptists and related groups is predicated upon. I was baptized by a priest so this is not personal for me at all; I’m just wondering. I ask because it was always made crystal clear by my former church, its leaders, and my relatives that baptism is a post-act symbol, that it has precisely no efficacy in itself. The most I can draw from them is that baptism, in their view, is essentially a social symbol.
It is not controversial at all to state that many Protestants and Evangelicals predicate being a Christian upon “accepting the Lord in your heart” etc. While this is not per se incorrect, it is majorly deficient per Catholic beliefs. It’s not the whole truth. This moment of faith is, for many non-Catholic Christians, the essential element of what makes someone a Christian and that, if someone experiences this, he is certainly a Christian. After this logic flows “once saved always saved” etc.
I will center this around Southern Baptists since that is what I am familiar with. If they don’t believe that baptism “does anything,” then why do we Catholics believe their baptisms are valid? I think this centers around intent. How can you intend to do what the Church does if you don’t intend to make a person a Christian when you pour the water and say the words?
Some may say, “You don’t need to know all the theological ins and outs to perform a sacrament.” That’s true, you don’t. A priest doesn’t have to be familiar with the concept of transubstantiation to confect the Eucharist. But he does have to intend to do what the Church does when he says the words over the elements, which is to turn them into the Corpus et Sanguis. It is not necessary for him to be a theological genuis in any way, but there is a bare modicum of intent necessary. When a woman in RCIA who is dying of shock in the hospital following a horrific motor vehicle accident asks an atheist physician, “Please baptize me before I die so I can be assured of being saved, you just pour water on me and say, ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,’” in the ER on a gurney, the physician doesn’t have to be a Christian, much less a Catholic, to validly baptize her.
So what is the bare minimum of intent necessary to baptize? Is it just “intent to baptize?” Is that it? Well, what if you don’t even know what baptism is? How can you intend to do something if you don’t even know what it is at least to some extremely minimalistic degree? The atheist physician, being an educated woman, probably knows that “this is what Christians do to become Christians” even if she doesn’t believe it. But what about if you are newly arrived from India and have grown up Hindu and have no real earthly idea, even scanty cultural knowledge like the atheist American doctor, of what baptism is, yet you speak English? Can you validly baptize IN YOUR CURRENT STATE of knowledge without being further educated, at least barely barely barely that “baptism makes someone a Christian?”
I realize I’ve mixed examples here. I have 1. the Southern Baptist who doesn’t believe that baptism is efficacious in itself, 2. the atheist American physician (or a physician who has lived in the US long enough to be familiar, at least to a tiny degree, with the cultural milieu of what baptism does) who knows what Christians believe baptism does at least barely, and 3. the immigrant newly arrived from India who speaks English (or whatever other country has a lot of non-Christian English* speakers and where Christianity does not so much as culturally inform the average citizen) but who has not even a modicum of knowledge of baptism except maybe, “It’s a Christian thing.”
*I mention language because I don’t want to get in to the question of language.