Baptism and Intent

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.

There are certain criteria that must be met for a Baprism to be considered “authentic”. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the Baptism must use certain wording such as “…in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” I am including a link that explains this and also lists which churches Baptisms are accepted by the Catholic Church and which aren’t:

If I am dying and ask to be baptized in an emergency situation, and the person I ask has no knowledge of baptism but wishes to comply with my wishes, his intent, then, is the same as mine, and mine is to do what the Church intends. I understand the purpose of Baptism, he intends to comply with my wish, which is to become a Christian. Thus he intends to do what the Church intends. He does not need to understand, he just needs to pour the water and pronounce the Trinitarian formula, and wish to do what I intend. That is how I understand it.

As to the Protestant baptisms that you cited, although they don’t see this as the moment a person becomes a Christian, their intent is to follow the command of Jesus Christ, which is to be baptized in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, which is also what the Catholic Church intends. The Catholic Church believes this is what makes one a Christian. Others see this differently. Nonetheless, they both are following the specific command of the Lord to be baptized, and using the Trinitarian formula the baptisms of both are valid.

Now I am not a theologian and what I have written may be wrong, but here is one thing–the Church has had 2000 years to work this out, and greater minds than you and I have discerned this issue, and what was decided is the result. If the Church, in her wisdom under the guidance of the Holy Spirit decides that the Baptist or any other Baptism is valid, that is what we accept. We can delve into it further if we are curious enough, but if our own thinking leads to doubting the wisdom of the Church, then we need to examine our thinking, not the Church’s. This is the path the Saints have chosen.

God bless you.

There is no blanket answer to this question, YTC. When you were received and were baptized (conditionally?) the Church decided in your case that that was the wisest course. And it’s the same for anyone else who comes from an Evangelical background. Some believe as the Church does that baptism initiaties one into Christ and the Church, and others don’t. This is why the decision to conditionally baptize must be made on a per case basis. It’s the “fault” (for lack of a better word) of all the varying beliefs of Protestants, not the Church. That the Church takes the time and effort to look into each case tells us how important the Church sees this issue as she makes the best judgment she can considering the unpredictablity of the many beliefs there are in Protestantism.

The presumption is based upon the minister correctly performing the rite, with proper form and matter. Leo XII stated: “The Church does not judge about the mind and intention, in so far as it is something by its nature internal; but in so far as it is manifested externally she is bound to judge concerning it. A person who has correctly and seriously used the requisite matter and form to effect and confer a sacrament is presumed for that very reason to have intended to do (intendisse) what the Church does. On this principle rests the doctrine that a Sacrament is truly conferred by the ministry of one who is a heretic or unbaptized, provided the Catholic rite be employed.” ( ; n. 33).

Clearly, it is possible to use the correct form and matter but still lack the proper intention (vis. Mormons). As far as I know, the Church (CDF) has never specifically examined the baptismal intention of any particular Southern Baptist and said it was either sufficient or not. It is certainly possible that some might lack the needed intention.


No, I was not, validly or otherwise, baptized previously.

Ah, I see. Since baptism isn’t necessary in Baptist churches, I can see how that could happen. :slight_smile: I was brought up Episcopalian so I had records of my baptism, so I had no problem with the Church’s definition. We had left the ECUSA, though for the Assemblies of God where I was “rebaptized” since they didn’t consider infant baptism effective. It’s funny that they insisted on my being rebaptized since they saw it as merely symbolic, isn’t it? :hmmm:

Anyway, there are so many variations amongst Evangelical communities it is impossible for our poor priests to wade their way through it all. If there is a serious question about a baptism done in Evangelical communities, generally the priest will conditionally baptize those wishing to be reconciled to the Church. :slight_smile:

I have often struggled with the same thing. I was originally baptized in an evangelical Mennonite community with water and the Trinitarian formula, yet the bishop decided to conditionally baptize me as he wasn’t up on Mennonite theology regarding baptism. Yet, I am quite certain that the “intent” of my baptism was no different than that of Baptists and countless other Evangelical groups whose baptisms are accepted on a routine basis in parishes across North America.

My wife is Pentecostal. We were married in my parents’ evangelical church (I obtained a dispensation from canonical form), but my priest noted that when he requested the dispensation from form, he also requested a conditional dispensation for disparity of cult just in case my wife’s Pentecostal baptism wasn’t valid (he had no real way to evaluate it).

I converted from the church of Christ sect, and unlike many Evangelicals they believe that baptism is for forgiveness of sin, and is an essential part of becoming a Christian. Not an optional symbol.

Other than the age of the person being baptized, their belief is the same as the Catholic church.

When I converted to the CC my baptism was accepted and I was just confirmed to become Catholic.

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