Today I want to go back and look at the Vatican’s oversight over the sacraments, including Baptism. The Council Vatican II authoritatively mandated the reform of the Church’s worship [by the bishops’ vote of 2147-4] in its Decree on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium of December 4,1963. Paragraph 21 of SC states: “In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself. For the liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These not only may but ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it.
In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, as far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community.”
Paragraph 22 describes the legal supervision of the reform process and its observation around the world:
1. Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop.
2. In virtue of power conceded by the law, the regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of competent territorial bodies of bishops legitimately established. [In the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops holds this position; the USCCB decides, for example, which Holy Days of obligation are observed in the U.S.]
3. Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.
The final drafts of all seven sacraments were completed over the next decade or so; today’s Mass was promulgated in 1970. In practice, the supervision of the celebration of the sacraments falls under two Vatican Offices:  The Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and  The Doctrine of the Faith. The Office of the Doctrine of the Faith becomes involved when a question or practice of worship involves a doctrine of the Church.
In 2004 the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued “Redemptionis Sacramentum: On certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist.” This lengthy document is a specific critique of errors that had crept into the celebration of the Mass since the end of the Council in 1965, though its spirit applied equally to all seven sacraments. Redemptionis Sacramentum, issued in the final days of Pope John Paul II, is indicative of the Vatican’s concern about the way the Eucharist was being celebrated, certainly in the United States. It is an interesting document to peruse; ironically, many of the errors cited in the directive still go uncorrected and you can probably find several mistakes in your parish’s observance of public Masses. However, none of the errors cited in RS result in the invalidation of the Mass itself, except the consecration of bread that is not made exclusively of whole wheat and water. If you are a church minister in any capacity, it is certainly worth your while to review the official standards for the celebration of Mass, not least of which to avoid critique from “the liturgy police.”
For a long time after the Council, issues involving the Sacrament of Baptism were limited to such questions as, for example, whether the Mormon initiation rite suffices the Catholic intention of Baptism, as when a Mormon and a Catholic marry. [It does not.] The first significant Catholic doctrinal intervention into the Catholic practice of Baptism occurred on February 1, 2008, when the Office of the Doctrine for the Faith addressed two questions: “Whether the Baptism conferred with the formulas “I baptize you in the name of the Creator, and of the Redeemer, and of the Sanctifier” and “I baptize you in the name of the Creator, and of the Liberator, and of the Sustainer” is valid? And following from that, “Whether the persons baptized with those formulas have to be baptized in forma absoluta?” [That is, rebaptized with the Church’s ritual formula.] The Office of the Doctrine of the Faith answered “No” to the first question and “Yes” to the second, i.e., the baptisms are invalid and must be administered again with the proper formula.
In 2008, however, the problem was not “I” versus “We” but rather “he” versus “she” so to speak. As early as the 1970’s Catholic feminist theologians had raised the issue of the masculinity of the New Testament Baptismal formula. In their commentary on St. Luke’s Gospel and its treatment of Baptism, [Luke 3: 31-38] Reid and Matthews, in Luke 1-9, observe that “feminists have critiqued baptism as an initiation into Christianized patriarchy.” [p. 107] They cite a corrective strategy: “to use alternative formulae with female or gender-neutral names for the Trinity.” [cit.] The theologian Ruth Duck proposed changing the formula to three questions, to which the candidates for baptism and the congregation respond: “I believe: Do you believe in God, the Source, the fountain of life? Do you believe in Christ, the offspring of God embodied in Jesus of Nazareth and in the church? Do you believe in the liberating Spirit of God, the wellspring of new life?” [cit. footnote 30]
Exactly how widespread these feminist alternative baptismal formulas were used is hard to say. Certainly, the concept was being vigorously discussed and published among feminist thinkers, whose numbers were growing in the twenty-first century. The Vatican, in 2008, cites this practice by name and rejected the use of any formula which substituted the “functions of God” for the names of the members of the Trinity, i.e., the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as a way of diminishing the heavy masculine tone. Changing the Trinitarian formula is not a wise strategy given its deep roots in Scripture and ecumenical considerations. Protestants revere the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28: 18-20, “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
But there is another side to this 2008 Vatican intervention, specifically a targeting of what was perceived by the Holy Office as doctrinally dangerous tendencies of prominent Catholic women theologians. Notably, two American Catholic religious were censured for their publications. Sister Elizabeth Johnson in 2007 for her Quest for the Living God and Sister Margaret Farley in 2012 for her Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. Today’s generation of book banners and book burners would do well to consider the delicious irony of the censuring of Just Love. A technical theological text intended for specialists and students of theology at eighty dollars, the book shot to the top 1% of Amazon sales upon its censure. I reviewed this work for Amazon and found it a fine seminal text [and yes, worth the eighty dollars.]. This era was also noteworthy for a Church investigation of the lifestyle of women religious in the United States [2008-2014] for its progressive theological spirit, at precisely the time when new abuse scandals among American priests were making headlines daily. Women in the Church were not getting much respect, and certainly not much of a hearing.
One of the underlying currents that has impacting the thinking of Church leadership even to this day is an assumption that as “women increase, the male clerical role decreases.” The pressing need to preserve the unique role of a male clergy is a major factor in the June 24, 2020, ruling by the Office of the Doctrine for the Faith that the collective “we” in place of the singular “I” renders a sacramental baptism invalid when presided by a priest or a deacon. It is important to review the 2020 teaching carefully, for between the lines it highlights several theological issues in desperate need of public discussion in the Church.
In the first instance, the 2020 decree applies only to public baptisms conducted by ordained clergy. Many of you communicated to me your questions about this 2020 ruling vis-à-vis the long-standing practice of lay persons baptizing in cases of necessity, the principle we all learned as children. This emergency practice is unchanged because no ordained cleric is present, and that should tell you a lot. At its heart, the 2020 corrective has a great deal to do with the identity of the ordained priesthood, and less to do with baptism per se.
Second, the teaching Church is committed to an understanding of ordained ministry as a historical and eternal reality; a priest is considered ontologically changed by the Sacrament of Holy Orders, i.e., changed “in being” from other humans, men and women. “Thou art a priest forever” is a solemn teaching of the Church. Even in my case, when I was laicized by Pope John Paul II and given permission to marry my future wife, my priesthood was not “undone.” I can still absolve sin in an emergency, and hypothetically I could even celebrate a valid Mass in my own home. I choose not to do the latter because I respect the wishes of the Church that I do not—and that I worship in the full assembly of my parish’s Eucharist instead with my wife and laity--and my bishops have rewarded my good faith by entrusting me with numerous non-liturgical responsibilities in my diocese [mostly in teaching and mental health service delivery] over the past quarter century.
Given the Church’s strong declaration that an ordained priest is an alter Christus, “another Christ,” it stands to reason that in any liturgical/sacramental gathering, the priest, or in his absence the deacon, is the alter Christus. The role cannot be commuted to a lay person or a community. The commentary from the Vatican accompanying its 2020 decree goes into serious detail to describe the priest as the alter Christus through whom the saving grace of the sacrament is mediated. Therefore, the directive opted for “I” instead of “We.” The use of “We,” in the explanation, would convey a “shared priestly office” which would confuse the nature of the exclusive role of the priest or deacon.
Again, a number of you corresponded with me to assert the role of the laity in the celebration of the sacraments, including baptism. You would be correct, of course; the Vatican II Decree Sacrosanctum Concilium cited above instructs the Church to reform the sacraments precisely so that the rightful and necessary role of the laity is brought to the fore in its fullest. The 2020 instruction from the Office of the Doctrine of the Faith makes the point that the reformed rite of infant Baptism, for example, includes significant words and actions of the parents, godparents, and the larger church community. However, in the current theological positioning of the Vatican, at the moment of the pouring of the water it is only the ordained minister who stands as the presentative of Jesus and Jesus’ present-day followers, and therefore the only option for the baptizing priest or deacon is the pronoun “I.” Interestingly, if my memory of Canon Law is correct, the Church identifies the pastor as the most appropriate minister to bring new members into the parish family.
I am certain this explanation is not fully satisfying to my readers, nor should it be. In the first instance, the promulgation of this instruction by the Office of the Faith was more than clumsy. In an interview with the Washington Post about the “faulty pronoun” in the baptismal formula, Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit theologian and journalist, makes a critical point. Vatican officials, he says, “think there’s a problem and issue a document to resolve it, and they do that without any wide consultation.” He continues, “The proper way to do this is to say: ‘This issue has been raised, this is something we are studying.’ Then invite theologians and canon lawyers to send in comments.” Synodality should extend to the theological discourse between the Church’s thinkers and the Church’s policy makers.
The ”I” versus “We” controversy is a flashpoint involving many aspects of the Church’s theology, from Scripture and History to Liturgy and Ecclesiology to Discipline and Pastoral Care. In our follow up, let us not throw away the baby with the bathwater. As unreasonably trivial as the controversy seems, it is the offspring of many major theological concerns, all of which need attention.