Every year, just before Lent, we tend to get a lot of questions about conditional baptism. I think of conditional baptisms like being struck by lightning or winning the lottery. These things happen, but not to me. Not to anyone I know. And not to anyone my friends and acquaintances know. Like lightning and the lottery, conditional baptisms are rare.
The reason they are rare is we are not trying to prove someone was not baptized. The church is not trying to discredit the minister of the tiny Protestant church in the country your seeker came from. The church is not disbelieving of the memories of your seeker’s family. The church understands that records get lost or destroyed. If someone was really baptized, the church believes that person was baptized.
How serious are your doubts?
You might have some doubts. But your doubts have to be serious doubts. To qualify as serious, your doubts cannot just be yours alone. Your pastor also has to have serious doubts. And probably your diocesan tribunal office has to have serious doubts. Canon Law says you can only have serious doubts after there has been “a serious investigation” into the occasion or validity of your seekers baptism (see canon 869).
What counts as a serious doubt? The canons do not say. But it helps to know some of the intention behind the church’s teaching on this issue. For centuries, priests used to baptize (or rebaptize or conditionally baptize) anyone who came to Catholicism from a heretical church. And there was a time when any church that was not either Catholic or Orthodox was considered heretical. That began to change with the ecumenical movement in the 20th century. The result was that at the Second Vatican Council, the church called for a new rite for receiving separated Christians into full communion without reference to doubt about the seeker’s baptism.
Shortly after the council, the church issued the First Ecumenical Directory (1967), which states:
The practice of indiscriminately baptizing conditionally all who desire full communion with the Catholic Church cannot be approved. For the sacrament of baptism cannot be repeated, and therefore baptism is not permitted to be conferred again conditionally unless there a prudent doubt about the fact or validity of the baptism formerly conferred.
So these days, parishes are not likely to question the validity of a baptism that took place in another Christian denomination. All mainline Protestant churches confer valid baptisms. There are exceptions, however. Some churches that call themselves Christian do not, in fact, share the core beliefs of Christianity. If you have doubts, remember your doubts have to be serious. Which means you need to check your doubts with your pastor and your diocesan tribunal office.
Lack of a baptismal certificate, for instance, is not necessarily reason for serious doubt. If there are witnesses to the baptism, you can obtain an affidavit form from your diocesan tribunal office, and the witnesses can testify to the fact of the baptism.
What usually generates the questions about conditional baptism is a seeker who cannot remember if he was baptized. Nor do his parents remember. Nor his siblings. Or any other friends or relatives. If no one remembers, then it seems to me there is little doubt that the seeker is unbaptized. Who is claiming that the seeker was baptized? The goal of the church is to uphold the unity of the sacrament across all Christian believers. But if no one believes the seeker was baptized, neither the unity nor the other teachings of baptism are undermined by treating the seeker as a catechumen.
What to do when there needs to be a conditional baptism
Nevertheless, let’s say lighting strikes or your lottery number comes up and you have an honest-to-goodness unicorn who needs a conditional baptism. What do you do then?
The RCIA says:
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)
So you’d turn to the nonsolemn rite and follow the rubrics given there. Except there is no nonsolemn rite. The only rite we have for baptizing adults, solemn or otherwise, is the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
Also, the rite (and canon law) requires that we explain to the seeker the reasons for conferring baptism. Isn’t that the entire purpose of the catechumenate? Even if you are going to baptize conditionally, the seeker would still need to participate in the full catechumenate process to come to fully understand what we mean by living as disciples baptized in Christ.
Okay, let’s assume your maybe-baptized seeker has participated in a full catechumenate process and is now ready to be conditionally baptized. Would you baptize him before the Easter Vigil? If so, what would be the motivation for that? I presume the reason the RCIA refers to a “nonsolem” baptism is so the seeker won’t draw much attention to himself and the awkwardness of his unclear status. But if after journeying with the other catechumens for more than a year, he is suddenly absent from the Vigil, wouldn’t that draw more attention?
I suppose that you could have the maybe-baptized seeker at the Vigil and, once he is in the font, the presider could say something like: “If you are not yet baptized, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” But that formula does not exist in the post-Vatican II baptismal ritual. It used to, before the rites were reformed. But it’s not there now. And General Instruction of the Roman Missal prohibits the addition of unauthorized texts to the liturgy.
So here is the rule of thumb. Unless there is serious reason to doubt the fact or validity of a seeker’s baptism, treat him as a baptized candidate.
Take the time to consider their story seriously
If you do have serious doubt after having done a serious investigation, treat the seeker as a catechumen.
In other words, do the hard work of digging deeply into your seeker’s story and resolve the doubt one way or the other: baptized or unbaptized. Don’t let the supposed safety net of conditional baptism be an out for not sweating the details.
And if after all that, you still have serious doubt that cannot be resolved, pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit and consult your pastor and your diocesan tribunal. And most of all, consult with your seeker. Then make your best pastoral judgement.
Fortunately, the final option probably won’t happen to you. Unless you get struck by lightning.
How many times have you had to have this conversation in your ministry? Have you had to celebrate a conditional baptism? What did your discernment process look like? Share your thoughts in the answers below.
See also these related articles:
- What does baptism do? A mystagogy on the sacramental act of washing
- What’s happening with baptized RCIA candidates? A survey report
- Jesus’s timing is perfect—one parish’s experience of year-round RCIA
- Can RCIA seekers celebrate their sacraments outside of the Easter Vigil?
- What is the correct RCIA rite to use for baptizing the elect outside the Easter Vigil?
Photo by Max LaRochelle on Unsplash