Conditional baptism is like being struck by lightning: What RCIA teams need to know

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIAEvery 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.

Free resource: Finding God in All Things — An Imagination Exercise

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.

Your Turn

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.

Free resource: Finding God in All Things — An Imagination Exercise

See also these related articles:

  1. What does baptism do? A mystagogy on the sacramental act of washing
  2. What’s happening with baptized RCIA candidates? A survey report
  3. Jesus’s timing is perfect—one parish’s experience of year-round RCIA
  4. Can RCIA seekers celebrate their sacraments outside of the Easter Vigil?
  5. What is the correct RCIA rite to use for baptizing the elect outside the Easter Vigil?

Photo by Max LaRochelle on Unsplash

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  1. Maybe it is where we are in Texas, but it seems that we are being struck by lightning pretty regularly these past 5 years. We have had several seekers that were baptized in a river at a family gathering by a minister whose Christian affiliation is not clear. One or two were baptized by a relative who was a self- ordained minister whose Christian denomination couldn’t be verified. Two others were baptized in a church that no longer exists, with no records and no living witnesses to verify it was valid.
    The good news is that the seekers were happy to be baptized again conditionally after it was explained to them.

  2. I had a conditional baptism as we simply were not sure if I had had one when I was born. No records (I looked), and since I was almost 60 when I entered the Church, there was no one left alive who could verify it. I had no issue with it at all (it’s “conditional,” so poses no real problem). There was a lady going through RCIA at the same time who was freaked out about it but she finally found old records somewhere. At my parish we do conditionals whenever there is legitimate doubt and/or the candidate really wants it done.

  3. In the 15+ yrs I’ve been involved in this ministry there have been numerous instances when individuals have had either no knowledge of the church of baptism, or official documentation. And yet, I cannot recall any instances of when we resorted to conditional baptism. In several cases we have relied upon affidavits by parents, siblings, and others… even old photos! In others, much more searching and questioning was necessary.
    In many cases, I think the process itself becomes a mystagogical experience in having the individuals involved try to remember the details of the experience, why it did or did not leave a lasting impression, what were the circumstances of their lives at the time, etc. Giving this situation the time and effort it deserves emphasizes not only the significance of every valid Christian baptism, but also the fact that formation and initiation are more that just a catechism class.

  4. Conditional Baptism

    I’ve been struck by lightning! We had to do a conditional baptism with an elderly gentleman. Anyone that could prove he was baptized was dead and he had no idea where he was baptized. He didn’t even know the state of baptism.

  5. I like the emphasis in the article about not trying to do the work of disproving a baptism. We really do try our best to find documentation and in absence of that some type of witness testimony. I have 2 POFs this year who are in their 60s and so do not have parents to testify and for whatever reason siblings and friends are also gone. Luckily, one was married a long time ago at our church and I was able to find records of the marriage and hence records of his baptism. The other was more complicated–involving a name change and a church no longer in existence–but was ultimately resolved.

    To the point of the article: to my knowledge, we have never had a conditional baptism at the Vigil. I have some memories of someone years back who was very old. If memory is correct, his conditional baptism was done separately prior to the Vigil during one of his meetings with the pastor. And then he came forward at the Vigil as a candidate.

    Finally, I have a question: is there a particular way that a conditional baptism is entered into the Registry? In the future, should such a person need a baptismal certificate or his/her sacramental records, where would that be entered and what would it say?

    • I have worked with RCIA in some capacity for 28 years. My ministry formation processes have indicated that the conditional baptism process they you described is an appropriate way the perform a conditional baptism and is to be preferred.

  6. Here in the Canadian Bible Belt, we get “struck by lightning” every few years. I’m currently dealing with a situation of someone who went to what he thinks was a Lutheran summer camp when he was about 10 years old. He was taken there by a neighbor family whose last name he doesn’t remember; they only lived on his street for a couple of years. His atheist parents went away somewhere, leaving him on his own, so this family took him to camp with their son (who he didn’t even like; they were not friends) He remembers that they were baptizing people but he doesn’t remember whether he went forward for baptism at that time, or not. He remembers thinking that his parents would be very angry if they found out that he didn’t stay home that summer, and apparently I’m the first person he’s ever told. He also remembers that they were praying and singing “in tongues” which makes me think that possibly they were not Lutherans, although these days, anything is possible.

  7. I know of one conditional baptism in my parish in the 1990’s. A man in his 60’s grew up thinking he was Catholic, but there was no record in churches in his home town that he had received any of the sacraments. I do not know what efforts my parish priest made in investigating, but I god-fathered that older man in a conditional baptism.

    Again, three years ago, I had my doubts about two, a father and adult daughter, having been baptized. The man’s history included a number of Baptist churches; the daughter’s just one Baptist church. Neither one could provide documentation nor witness accounts. And they could not recall even an approximate time or place of baptism. To this day I doubt that the daughter in particular was ever baptized, given that infant baptism was not a practice in her previous tradition. They were received into the Catholic Church at Easter Vigil by Confirmation and Eucharist.

  8. What I have had more often is folks who were baptized in the past , but don’t think it “took” and want to be baptized again. As they have gone thru the process, they are now on fire with their faith and want to start afresh . Another opportunity for catechesis, but they are oft still disappointed.

  9. It’s not unusual for us to have a conditional baptism. We have one most most years. Perhaps it’s the size of our parish (8,300 families) or the transient nature of our city. We will have 25 adult and children catechumens baptized at Vigil this year, another dozen people making professions of faith and entering into full communion, and about 30 Catholic adults for Confirmation.

  10. This is a fascinating topic and discussion. For the past 22 years that I’ve spent in the RCIA we’ve never been struck by lightning, but there have been a few times where it came close. In those instances I found that by doing our homework, by working with the candidate and by doing some extra investigation, we were able to make a valid determination. Most importantly, however, is realizing that this is not a call we need to (nor should we) make ourselves. We must engage our pastors and if necessary the help of the diocesan Tribunal to sort this out. Utilizing these resources is particularly important when there are marriage issues to review because their baptismal status plays an important role in those proceedings. There’s no question this takes some extra work, but I found that both the candidates and myself learned a lot through the process. And for those larger parishes that seem to have a lot of people with questionable baptisms, I would recommend having a team member (or two) dedicated to investigating these cases. Building some institutional knowledge through these cases can also help make them easier to sort through in the long run.

  11. We had one in the 30 some years of RCIA in our parish. The young man moved to our area from another state. He said he was baptized at birth in danger of death. We could not get any certification nor did his mother witness the baptism. He said he didn’t mind being baptized but, I told him it was a last resort. In reviewing The RCIA manual, I found a reference that said that a conditional Baptism was proper but, that it should be a private one. Since this young man worked evenings, we met with him on Wednesday mornings and our Pastor did baptize him conditionally on a Wednesday morning in the presence of the RCIA team. He was then prepared for reconciliation. He was not able to get the night of Vigil off from his job. The Bishop of the Diocese did grant our pastor the faculty to Confirm him and give him his first Holy Communion on the Sunday after Easter at the morning Mass.

  12. The strong motivation for promoting CONDITIONAL BAPTISM in my diocese is the lack of clarity of the wording used in other Christian Churches. In the years since Vatican II, some creative language for the Blessed Trinity has evolved which sounds like the same concept but is not the teaching of the Church. For example, “I baptize you in the name of the One who created you, and of the One who redeemed you and of the One who Sanctifies you.” If there is no witness or existing video of the Baptism, then proof of Baptism “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is not confirmed, and then we are encouraged to baptize conditionally.
    The guideline that “absolute proof” is not necessary and that investigation and the word of the candidate are to provide the proof, gives me encouragement.

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