Conditional baptism? Three interesting thoughts

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIA
I recently read this line in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults:

The sacrament of baptism cannot be repeated and therefore it is not permitted to confer it again conditionally, unless there is a reasonable doubt about the fact or validity of the baptism already conferred. If serious investigation raises such prudent doubt and it seems necessary to confer baptism again conditionally, the minister should explain beforehand the reasons why this is being done and a nonsolemn form of baptism is to be used. (480)

One thing I find interesting is, this is in the section for the Reception of Baptized Christians and not in the section on initiation. There’s good reason for that. Before the Second Vatican Council, most Catholics figured that being baptized in a Protestant tradition was reason enough for “prudent doubt.” Almost everyone who was received into the Catholic Church from another Christian tradition was rebaptized—just in case. In fact, there was no Rite of Reception until after the Second Vatican Council.

No more indiscriminate conditional baptisms

While there may be a few curmudgeons around who still doubt the validity of Lutheran holy water, most of us are onboard with the church’s teaching that the use of water and the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” are sufficient for a valid baptism. So the text about conditional baptism is more or less a stop sign to those who might still be tempted, “just to be sure” to conditionally baptize anyway.

What is more common these days is, once in a while, we wind up with a candidate for initiation who either can’t remember if he was baptized or cannot find any documentation that he was baptized. In those instances, we start to wonder if a conditional baptism is appropriate.

And that brings me to another interesting point. If we really have serious doubts that the person was baptized, and the candidate himself cannot remember if he was baptized, why don’t we just all agree he is not baptized? Then he would enter the catechumenate and be treated just as all the other catechumens.

Proof of baptism

On the other hand, what if he does remember being baptized but cannot prove it? Well, the bar for proof here is pretty low. If his 98-year-old great aunt Mabel will say she was at the baptism, that’s good enough. Or a snapshot from a cousin’s photo album will also work. Any indication the baptism took place is enough justification to assume it did. But what if the candidate cannot come up with even the slimmest of proofs? Well, in that case, you have to determine how reasonable your doubt is. If you have reasonable and prudent doubt, the RCIA says you are to “confer baptism again conditionally” using “a nonsolemn form.”

Interesting thing three. The RCIA gives no ritual for “a nonsolemn form.” The RCIA goes on to say your local bishop is supposed to decide what is and is not included in the nonsolemn form for your diocese, but I’m guessing he has two or three other things on his plate to get to before he gets to this. So what should be included in a nonsolemn form? This is where we really have to put on our RCIA hats and remember what we have been teaching the catechumens about baptism all this time.

What does “nonsolemn” baptism look like?

First of all, there is the baptism itself. The National Statutes for the Catechumenate tell us:

Baptism by immersion is the fuller and more expressive sign of the sacrament and, therefore, is preferred. (17)

We might say that since this is a conditional baptism, we don’t need to do full immersion. But remember, we have serious doubt that a baptism ever took place. If there was no previous baptism, wouldn’t we want the fullest and most expressive sign possible? Just in case? Then there is the baptismal formula. In the old days, when we thought Protestants might be heretics, the formula was: “In case you were never baptized, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” However, that form does not exist in the post-Vatican II ritual. So far, we are looking at a conditional full immersion baptism, using the same words of baptism as a “regular” baptism. What else do we need to include? What about the other initiation sacraments? Well, let’s look at RCIA 215, and tell me what you think:

In accord with the ancient practice followed in the Roman liturgy adults are not to be baptized without receiving confirmation immediately afterward, unless some serious reason stands in the way. The conjunction of the two celebrations signifies the unity of the paschal mystery, the close link between the mission of the Son and the outpouring of the Spirit….

I think what that means is that baptism isn’t just baptism. It’s baptism-confirmation. And RCIA 217 goes on to tell us that the celebration of the Eucharist is “the culminating point of their Christian initiation.” So it is actually baptism-confirmation-Eucharist that needs to be celebrated conditionally. In a nonsolemn way, of course.

Is it getting solemner in here, or is it just me?

Now my head is starting to hurt. I guess we could leave out the white garment. But if we’re doing full immersion, the poor guy has to put on something dry afterward. Why not a symbol of putting on Christ? We could maybe leave out the presentation of the baptismal candle. But that isn’t one of the optional parts in the adult initiation rite (230), so that’s going to need clearance from the bishop. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to get that request.

The only other thing I can think of that would make this a nonsolemn celebration is to not celebrate it at the Easter Vigil. But if not then, when? If we celebrate it on a weekday, doesn’t it feel a little like we’re slipping the candidate in the back door? And if we do it on a Sunday, don’t we have to explain to the assembly why the baptism isn’t taking place at the normal time? And doesn’t that call more attention to the “nonsolemn” nature of this conditional baptism than we wanted to in the first place?

My thought would be to celebrate the conditional baptism at the Easter Vigil along with all the other candidates for initiation. The only ones who need to know it is conditional are the candidate and his sponsor, the minister, and the catechumenate director. That seems like the simplest, least-solemn solution. What do you think?

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  1. Hi Nick,

    Thanks for the information about conditional baptism. I will let the coordinators in the diocese know that you have entered it on your Web site.

    You may find the following to be of interest. I was questioned by one of the coordinators as to whether the person who will be conditionally baptized should come through the process as a catechumen or a candidate. In a book called The Catechumenate and the Law A Pastoral and Canonical Commentary for the Church in the United States (LTP), John M Huels writes:

    If the lack or invalidity of baptism is not certain, that is, if there is a doubt whether there may have been a valid baptism, then the candidate is not treated as a catechumen but is given the formation appropriate to baptized non-Catholics who are being prepared for reception into full communion. (21)

    So this person should be a candidate in the process.

    God bless,


  2. Hi Eileen,

    Thanks for the quote from John Huels. I’m still scratching my head a little, though. I think Huels is talking about people who were baptized and can prove they were baptized. (That’s clearer in his first paragraph of that chapter.)

    The problem in this instance is the Catholic Church either doesn’t recognize the validity of that tradition’s baptism or the parish has some serious doubt the baptism was validly performed. In that case, I’d agree that the seeker would not become a catechumen. Their formation in their previous tradition was their “catechumenate.” The emphasis on privacy and nonsolemnity in the RCIA is stated so strongly so as not to cause any ecumenical strain with the original tradition of the seeker. Also, in a case like this, I wouldn’t do the conditional baptism at the Easter Vigil for the same ecumenical reason.

    What I was addressing in my post was the case of a person who remembers he was baptized (or thinks he does) but can provide no documentation. In that case, our doubt is not about the validity, but about knowing if any baptism took place at all. If we have serious doubt that a baptism took place, we might also have serious doubt that a catehumenate took place. If the seeker never lived as a member of his original faith tradition and has no family that has done so, I think I’d consider the catechumenate as a possibility for him.

    Thanks for chiming in!


  3. Nick,

    Thank you for the post. It supports what I have practiced over the past 20 years. When there is no proof and nobody in the family can remember if the person was baptized, we treat them as a catechumen and baptize them using the formula: “In case you were never baptized…”. It has never been questioned, although I wonder how many of the faithful actually pay attention to the words being spoken during the conferral of the sacrament.

    A side note, it was a pleasure seeing you at the RE Congress in Anaheim last weekend. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.

    God bless,


  4. My knee-jerk reaction was that if a person thought they were baptized but couldn’t remember for sure and couldn’t prove it, then a non-solemn private conditional baptism could be conferred with the RCIA group rather than in a Mass. I think this would still have the dignity due a baptism without the full solemnity of performing it during the Mass.

  5. My parents say i was baptised however there is no record only photos in my christening dress but no actual photo in the church with evidence of it happening. Would i qualify for conditional baptism?? Or would it be safe to say i have never been baptised and need to start this process so i can be.

  6. Hi Casey. Please ask your pastor about this. Usually, your parents’ statement that you were baptized should be sufficient evidence. Blessings on your journey.

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