Growing up a Roman Catholic child means confronting, as your awareness dawns, the mysterious details of the membership your parents signed you up for without consulting you. The virgin birth. Bodily resurrection. One God in three persons, distinct but inseparable, who shows up on Sunday and then you line up to eat him. They fill you up, your mom and dad, with a lot of conundrums to ponder in the pew.
Here’s one you maybe didn’t see coming: the possibly thousands of Catholics who didn’t grow up Catholic at all. They were parishioners of the Rev. Andres Arango, a pastor in Phoenix who for decades botched baptisms by using the wrong word in the rite.
Instead of saying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” Father Arango said, “We baptize you,” which - as his parishioners learned from their bishop last month - was horribly wrong.
Why, you ask. In Catholic teaching, a priest stands in for Jesus Christ. The words he uses in baptism are the ones Jesus left as explicit instructions to his disciples for building his church. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body that arbitrates these things, set the stage for this drama when it declared last June that baptisms with “we” language so fundamentally rewrote the script that they had to be done over. Saying “we” - presumably out of a desire to be inclusive, communal, meaning all of us folks here in the church and the wider community - was not how Jesus said or meant it, so in Father Arango’s baptisms, God essentially didn’t show up. The divine grace just wasn’t there. The baptisms not only were “illicit,” meaning not allowed, they were “invalid.” They never happened.
Because the church considers baptism necessary for salvation, the implications are grave.
The news from Phoenix has caused anguish, confusion and ridicule. The pastor has resigned. The diocese is urging parishioners to check their records, contact their pastors and redo the sacraments if necessary. Some Catholic sticklers are saying, smugly: Those are the rules. Others are asking: Really now?
As with many Catholic things, it’s complicated. Here is a secular metaphor: You hit the ball over the fence, propel your body around the bases and glide over home plate. Who cares if your foot didn’t actually touch rubber?
Maybe nobody. But if the other team notices and complains, the umpire can call you out. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to go back, make it right and score the run. Unless you are already in the dugout, in which case it’s too late.
To be Catholic is to confront legalisms such as these, the things that have to be done right or not at all, things that are done and cannot be undone. You might call yourself a lapsed, former, recovering or simply - as I do - a bad Catholic, but to the church you are still one of theirs, if you’re baptized. I think of the fugitive priest in Graham Greene’s novel “The Power and the Glory,” on the run in Mexico during the anticlerical purge of the 1930s, who can’t say Mass. Not because he has fathered a child, is a weak, miserable human being or is about to be executed, but because he has no more wine. (“It had gone down the dry gullet of the Chief of Police.”)
A priest needs wine - real wine, made from grapes, with a measurable alcohol content - to turn into the blood of Christ during the Mass, where Catholics eat Christ and drink his blood, executing their faith with a literalness that you may find baffling, or bracing, or both. “It is the center of existence to me,” Flannery O’Connor wrote of the Eucharist. “All the rest of life is expendable.” If the sacrament were only a symbol, O’Connor once said to Mary McCarthy and Robert Lowell, “to hell with it.”
The tragedy for the faithful in Phoenix, San Diego and other places Father Arango worked at is that Catholic baptism is not rocket science. It’s so simple that in emergencies a layperson, even a non-Catholic, can do it. You just have to use the right words.
Some Catholic hard-liners are taking the wrong lesson from this calamity - that parishioners need to monitor priests from the pews for inclusive language. They think this is only about the incantation and about owning the libs. These are the textual hard-liners who are flexible when it suits them. They hear Jesus say, blessed are the peacemakers, and think he is endorsing firearms. As for welcoming strangers at the border and not killing prisoners with lethal injections - both explicit instructions from multiple popes, citing Jesus’ authority - they hear those commands not at all.
As the sticklers are preening and cynics are cackling, regular folks are agonizing. It’s appalling that the burden falls so heavily on the faithful instead of the local church and the bosses in Rome. It’s a perplexing situation, but I trust the Jesuits when things get tricky. The Rev. Thomas Reese, the Jesuit journalist, saw this coming when he wrote last year that Vatican literalists were treating the baptismal text like a computer password.
“It was a mistake and a pastoral catastrophe,” he wrote. “It would have been better to declare the formula illicit but valid.”
But laws have loopholes, and here is a big one. The church acknowledges that God is not bound by any sacrament, meaning - to state the blindingly obvious - the Creator has final cut on this movie. Father Reese, sensibly, counsels us to give God the benefit of the doubt. Maybe, God willing, the Phoenix faithful will be fine. They can go back and touch the plate if they can, but maybe they shouldn’t worry too much. It hinges on a mysterious question: Will God overlook this mistake and embrace the blameless faithful anyway, or will he be a jerk about it?
Lawrence Downes is a writer and editor in New York.
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