I was told this story by my Christology professor, Father Joep van Beeck, S.J., in the early 80’s. The story is meant to pose a theological question, as to the validity of the Sacraments and how the mercy and grace of God is not bound by any limits. It may or may not be based on an actual event.
The story was told to me in this way. A celebration was held for the anniversary of a priest’s ordination. He was an older priest who had served the Church for many years. At the celebration, an elderly woman told the group the story of how she had come to be the person who baptized him. At birth, the infant was not getting enough oxygen and was somewhat blue as a result, so the woman, fearing that the child’s death was imminent, took a pitcher of milk and “baptized” him. Many persons present to hear this story were stunned. And the priest himself also realized that such an attempted baptism was invalid.
There’s a similar story also told by the same professor, about a man who for 40 years attended daily Mass and received the holy Eucharist. And at some point it came to light that he was never baptized. Some of the people contacted the local Bishop, and insisted that he be baptized before he be allowed to receive any of the Sacraments again. But the Bishop refused, saying, “How can I presume to baptize someone who for forty years has daily received the body of Christ in the Eucharist.”
And then there is a third story, one which is historical and found in Denzinger 388 (712), taken from Apostolicam Sedem, the Letter of Innocent II (1130 – 43) to the Bishop of Cremona. A priest, after his death, was found to have been invalidly baptized. The Bishop wrote to the Holy See seeking guidance. The Roman Pontiff answered that the priest was to be considered to have received a baptism of desire, and that this was sufficient. The Pope did NOT state that the man was invalidly ordained; to the contrary, Innocent II refers to the man as a priest.
“The priest, whom you have indicated (in your letter) closed his last day without the anointing of Baptism….”
This man’s reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation was valid. His reception of the Sacrament of Holy Orders was valid. And all the Sacraments that this priest administered were valid as well. Though this is not stated explicitly in the text, it is implied. The Roman Pontiff and the Bishop did NOT notify the faithful of the diocese that this priest’s attempted Sacraments were invalid; they did not require anyone to be given the Sacraments anew.
This decision of the Papal Magisterium was issued in the 12th century. Since that time, there has been no contrary decision by any Pope or Council. However, the Council of Trent did decide that, when a heretical or schismatic priest administers the Sacraments, they are nevertheless valid (given that the usual conditions are met for validity). If not, then we would have no way of knowing which Sacraments are valid, as someone could be a secret heretic or schismatic. But God in His wisdom and mercy has designed the Church and the Sacraments so that they are not fragile, for the sake of our salvation.
Similarly, we cannot be certain that any priest or bishop was validly baptized. What if a man was first a Protestant, and was baptized by a Protestant minister; some ministers take liberties with the Sacrament of Baptism. And the same occurs, less often, in the Catholic Church. I recall a case in Boston in the 1970’s. A priest in good standing in the Boston diocese took some liberties with the formula for Baptism, and when it came to light, the Bishop decided the baptisms were invalid and he had him rebaptized all of those infants. What if this case did not come to light? What if some of those infants went on to become priests or a Bishop?
And if you cannot know for certain which persons are valid priests and bishops, the whole structure of the Church becomes uncertain and faith itself is endangered. But the solution is simple. The Sacraments of Confirmation and Orders are valid if the usual conditions are met, and if the person was validly baptized or was believed to have been validly baptized at the time.
What happens to a person who receives Confirmation or Orders without having received a Baptism with water? They certainly have received a baptism of desire, as in desiring those other Sacraments, it is implied that they desired baptism. And in cases of invincible ignorance, that is sufficient. Similarly, the baptism of desire itself is sufficient to save, in cases of invincible ignorance regarding the necessity of the Sacrament of Baptism as the ordinary path of salvation.
So the priest baptized invalidly with milk was validly confirmed and validly ordained. And the man who received the Eucharist daily for 40 years did not need to be baptized with water. His baptism of desire is implied necessarily by his reception of the other Sacraments.
Joep van Beeck was a priest and a theologian. He taught that the priest, the one with an invalid Sacrament of Baptism, was validly ordained. That is what the Magisterium teaches. And it is not controversial. It’s something you learn in a basic course on theology.
Simcha Fischer Disagrees
In an article unwisely published by The Catholic Weekly, Simcha Fischer takes up the case of the priest baptized invalidly with milk. I’d like to present to you her theological argument, but she doesn’t offer one.
In so many articles in conservative Catholic publications today, the authors simply declare what is and is not the truth, on important matters of faith and morals, without any substantial basis or theological argument. The Latin expression for this is: Ipse dixit, which translates literally as “he himself said it” and loosely as “because I said so”. No real theological basis.
Simcha Fischer: “And since baptism is ‘the door of the sacraments’ . . . well, he’d not only need to be baptized or at least conditionally baptized, but he’d need to be confirmed, and ordained. And if he hadn’t been validly ordained, then the sacraments he thought he had been administering for fifteen years were also not valid.”
“The Church would have to make a public announcement that those sacraments had been invalid, and then they would go through their records and attempt to notify everyone who thought they had received sacraments through that priest. A complete and utter nightmare, with more terrible implications than I care to work out.”
Simcha Fischer’s claims here are a “complete and utter nightmare, with more terrible implications than I care to work out.” Even if the case of the priest baptized with milk is fictional, the case in Denzinger is not. And given the vast number of baptisms that have occurred since the time of Christ, there must be other cases of clergy as well as laity. If she were right, we could never be certain of the validity of most of the Sacraments. The Ark of Salvation would be a shipwreck. How would you know if any priest was validly baptized, even the Pope?
Fischer assets that the case is probably fictional, but… “if it were true, I can’t see a way around the horrible consequences, because the sacraments are real.” Yeah, that’s a good basis for a theological argument. She can’t see any other answer, so the only answer she can think of must be right. So let’s proclaim that to the whole world on the internet and ignore what the Magisterium says on this particular type of case.
Fortunately for the Church and the salvation of souls, Fischer is wrong. Baptism is the door to the Sacraments. But that doesn’t imply that the other Sacraments would be invalid in cases of a baptism of desire coupled with invincible ignorance (as to the absence of a valid Sacrament of Baptism). The Sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Orders are valid, even in the case of the (then-unknown) absence of the Sacrament of Baptism. The individual has the state of grace and is a child of God by spiritual adoption due to a baptism of desire. Thus, the individual has the indwelling of the Trinity, and can receive the other Sacraments. Nothing essential is lacking, which would make those other Sacraments invalid.
Simcha then considers another case, this time of a priest who doubted the validity of his ordination, since he was ordained by a Bishop chosen by an antipope. So, worst case scenario, the Bishop would have been a heretic and schismatic. Simcha resolves the case by reference to a girl who could see, miraculously, which hosts were truly consecrated and which were not. She saw that the hosts consecrated by this priest were Christ. (The girl in question is Venerable Ines de Moncada, b. 1388. She is not a Saint.)
Okay. I would have resolved the case by reference to the dogma of the Council of Trent, that even heretics and schismatics validly administer the Sacraments. Two cases of priests whose ordination is in doubt, and no recourse to the Magisterium by Fischer.
The participation of the lay faithful in the mission of Christ finds its source in the anointing of Baptism. But even though the formal Sacrament of Baptism is the ordinary path to the other Sacraments, exceptional cases exist in which, under invincible ignorance, a baptism of desire suffices so that the other Sacraments are not invalid. Otherwise, we would all have the extreme doubts, rightly so, of the priest who doubted his ordination (discussed above). How would we know which Bishops are validly ordained? And if we do not know that, then the whole structure of the Church is placed in doubt, along with all of her Popes and Councils. That is why the Sacraments administered even by heretics and schismatics are valid. No need to doubt. No need to make a proclamation, as Fischer suggests, that all the attempted Sacraments of a priest (or bishop!) are invalid. Thus, Fischer’s answer to the question is incorrect. If a priest were invalidly baptized, his reception of the Sacraments of Confirmation and Ordination would nevertheless be valid. He would then be a priest who validly administers six of the seven Sacraments. No need to doubt or worry. The structure of the Church is not fragile. The Ark of Salvation is seaworthy.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.
Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.