Invalid Baptisms and Apostolic Succession

A baptism using the formula “We baptize…” is invalid because the community does not baptize. The individual who baptizes stands in the place of Christ to baptize the person.

[John 4]
{4:1} And so, when Jesus realized that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made more disciples and baptized more than John,
{4:2} (though Jesus himself was not baptizing, but only his disciples)
{4:3} he left behind Judea, and he traveled again to Galilee.

Sacred Scripture says that Jesus baptized, but then clarifies that it was only His disciples who were doing the baptizing. What this means is that when any individual validly baptizes another person, it is Christ Jesus who is baptizing through that individual. And that is why “We” is not a valid formula for baptism.

Other errors in the formula for baptism might also make the attempted baptism invalid. This is not a new problem in the Church.

Aside from wording errors, what else might make an attempted baptism invalid? Usually, baptism is done by immersion or pouring. The water must flow across the skin of the candidate for baptism. Sprinkling water is not necessarily invalid, but it is problematic as the water might not touch the skin, or might not flow across the skin. So baptism by sprinkling is prohibited by the discipline of the Church.

What if a person is baptized in a Protestant church? Many Protestant ministers today feel free to preach whatever they decide to preach, and to baptize in whatever manner they decide to baptize. A Protestant might declare himself a minister, gather a congregation to himself, baptize in some invalid manner, and then eventually disperse his congregation and leave the ministry. The persons baptized might not remember the wording or the procedure used. And if some of these persons later become Catholic, the usual discipline in the Church is to accept Protestant baptism as valid (except for Mormon baptism and Jehovah’s Witness baptism).

Note that Father Matthew Hood discovered his own invalid baptism only because a video of the ceremony was recorded. In past generations, no such recordings would exist for any priest or Bishop. What if his invalid baptism were never discovered?

The Church is Apostolic

Now let’s consider a hypothetical scenario. An infant is invalidly baptized, and this is never discovered. How do we know his baptism was invalid? It’s a given in this hypothetical. Then he goes on to receive Communion, Confession, Confirmation, and holy Orders. He becomes a priest and then a Bishop.

As a priest, he hears countless Confessions, many from sinners who have only imperfect contrition. He says Mass and consecrates the Eucharist countless times. A priest can administer the Sacrament of Confirmation, and he does so, many times. This priest marries very many couples. Then, once he becomes Bishop, he also administers the Sacrament of holy Orders, as well as the other Sacraments.

Next, he becomes a Cardinal, and votes in a conclave. Eventually, in a later conclave, he becomes the Roman Pontiff. He exercises the authority of the Roman Pontiff over the universal Church. As Pope, he also administers the Sacrament of holy Orders. As Pope, he teaches infallibly under Papal Infallibility. As Pope, he summons, participates in, and approves of an Ecumenical Council.

The persons whom this Bishop, then Cardinal, then Pope ordains become priests and some become Bishops. Then they ordain other persons, some of whom become Bishops. It is also possible that more than one infant who goes on to become a Bishop may have been invalidly baptized. This multiplies the problem further. We could even put forward the hypothetical of more than one Pope with an invalid baptism as an infant.

Hundreds of years later, it is discovered that these Popes and Bishops were either themselves not validly baptized, or that they were ordained by someone who was not validly baptized. It might be impossible to trace forward in time to all the ordained persons who supposedly were not validly ordained due to a number of invalid baptisms of persons who later became Bishops. Then the problem of a Pope who is supposedly invalidly ordained due to an invalid baptism of themselves or of the person who ordained is even worse. Which Ecumenical Councils are valid, if the Pope who called, oversaw, and approved the Council was not validly ordained? Which teachings of the Roman Pontiffs are not really of a Roman Pontiff, if it were the case that they were not validly ordained?

Which priests, Bishops, and Popes in the current age are validly ordained, if some invalid baptisms in the distant past resulted in a chain of invalid ordinations? The Church is apostolic. But how can the faithful be certain of which persons are valid successors of Peter and valid successors of the other Apostles, if an invalid baptism leads to invalid ordinations?

The Faith would lose its surety, and the authority of every Pope, Bishop, priest, deacon, and Ecumenical Council would be in doubt, and the validity of absolution in Confession, the consecration of the Eucharist, Confirmation, and Ordination would be in perpetual doubt — if it were the case that an invalid baptism implies an invalid Sacrament of holy Orders. This problem is intractable. It destroys the surety of the Sacraments, the surety of the authority of Popes and Bishops, and the surety of the teachings of Popes, Bishops, and Ecumenical Councils. It puts the indefectibility of the Church in constant doubt, if we cannot be sure who has been validly ordained among the Popes and Bishops.

Possible Solutions

1. That God simply prevents, by providence, that anyone who will in the future become a Bishop or Pope would be invalidly baptized.

But we know that God does not prevent this for priests. And consider the harm done even in the case of one priest: countless invalid Confessions, some for persons with only imperfect contrition, and countless persons receiving bread and wine that was not validly consecrated, and persons adoring bread instead of the Eucharist, and invalid Confirmations, and some invalid marriages. Such harm in the case of even one priest is very grave, and weakens the surety that the faithful should have in the Sacraments.

So this answer does not seem sufficient.

2. That God makes up for the invalid Sacraments by his grace outside of the Sacraments.

This was part of the answer given by a diocese which had a priest who was discovered to have had an invalid baptism. Here is the news report.

But such an answer does not solve the problems that would be caused by invalid baptisms leading to invalid ordinations by Bishops or Popes. It also does not make sense in the case, for example, of an invalid baptism of an infant. What graces would the infant receive? What benefit is given to the invalidly ordained priest? Whatever graces God might choose to give cannot substitute for the Sacraments.

3. The only solution that solves all of the above problems, secures the surety of the Faith, the surety of the Ecumenical Councils, the surety of the teachings of the Roman Pontiffs, surety of the Sacraments, especially that of ordination, is that a person who receives an invalid baptism, and who subsequently, with invincible ignorance, receives other Sacraments, validly receives those Sacraments, including holy Orders. Thus, the Pope is a valid Pope, the Bishops are valid Bishops, the Ecumenical Councils are valid and true, the teachings of the Pope and Bishops are teachings of the true successors of the Apostles, and the Sacraments administered by ordained persons are valid and effective, saving sinners.

How can this be? A person who receives holy Orders must intend to do what the Church does. He must intend to become a minister for Christ in the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. Therefore, he certainly at that point — and certainly prior to that point when praying, when receiving other Sacraments, and when living the Faith — has at least an implicit desire for the Sacrament of Baptism. He therefore received the state of grace and forgiveness of sins when at first he had this implicit baptism of desire. The desire to receive holy Orders proves that this implicit desire for baptism was present in the past perhaps always, but it certainly also demonstrates the same implicit desire at the time of holy Orders.

The same is true for the reception of holy Communion, Confession, and Confirmation. The person with an unknown invalid baptism demonstrates the implicit desire for baptism by reception of any of these Sacraments. Therefore, this reception is valid. The Confessions and the Confirmation of that person are valid. If the person goes on to become a deacon, priest, or Bishop, the Sacrament of holy Orders is valid. Such a person lacks the indelible character of baptism, but has the indelible character of Confirmation and of holy Orders, depending on the case.

Then no Pope can be claimed to be an invalid Pope, even if his baptism were invalid, even if the baptism of the Bishops who ordained him was invalid. A Pope accepted by the body of Bishops, a Pope who has the universal peaceful acceptance of the body of the faithful, is certainly valid, and this is beyond dispute, because the Church is indefectible and Apostolic. She can never be led by an invalid Pope. She can never have a body of Bishops who go astray from the true faith as a body, nor a body of Bishops who are largely invalidly ordained. Thus, every Ecumenical Council is a valid Council, for each has been approved by a Roman Pontiff, and subsequently accepted by each successive Popes.


The current accepted idea, that an invalid baptism means that all subsequent Sacraments, even holy Orders, is invalid, creates serious problems for the entire Church. These problems are intractable, especially in the very likely case of some priests who do not know that their baptisms were invalid. The problems are unsolvable in the case of a hypothetical Pope was either invalidly baptized or ordained by someone invalidly baptized. These problems multiply as one generation leads to another and another. The chain of valid ordinations is what makes the Church Apostolic. Introducing the idea of an invalid ordination due to an invalid baptism, which might never come to light, threatens the Apostolic character of the Church and threatens the surety of the Faith.

The only solution that makes sense, that accords with the mercy of God, and that secures Apostolic succession and the indefectibility of the Church, is the simple answer that an invalid baptism does not make subsequent Sacraments of Confession, Confirmation, or holy Orders invalid.

See my previous posts on this topic.

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.

This entry was posted in commentary. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Invalid Baptisms and Apostolic Succession

  1. MichaelT says:

    Your series of articles relevant to the Papacy has instilled a deep appreciation for the sublime nature of the gift Jesus bestowed on us with His assurances regarding the Pope and Church. I have faith that a solution to the problems and concerns you outlined is indeed wrought through the mercy of God.

Comments are closed.