You may have seen an article recently about a Roman Catholic priest who resigned as pastor of a church in Phoenix after it was revealed that, according to church teaching, he had performed thousands of baptisms incorrectly. When pouring the holy water over the head of the baby presented for baptism, Father Andres Arango would say “we baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” instead of saying “I baptize you . . .” As a result, anyone who was baptized by Father Arango in the last twenty years needs to be baptized again. This may mean that, depending on the circumstances, subsequent sacraments received by invalidly baptized persons may also need to be redone. The story references a similar case where a young priest watched a video of his own baptism and realized that he had not been validly baptized. Since he was not actually a baptized Catholic, his priestly ordination was thus invalid and many of the actions he had taken since his ordination were also invalid. The priest had to be rebaptized and subsequently reordained and some of his parishioners had to have their own sacraments re-performed.
As a rabbi who has a lot of familiarity with the Catholic church and also has an interest in the intricacies of religious law, I found this case really fascinating.
A lot of my Jewish friends who wrote something about this on social media found it puzzling. My Catholic friends, especially from college, did not find it puzzling per se because they understand what the issue is, but they mostly agree with Father Arango and disagree with the bishop who made the ruling.
The heart of the issue is a theological dispute over the source of religious authority. When a priest or deacon says “we” baptize you -- and this is something many priests and deacons have done since Vatican II -- they are saying that the source of authority is found, and the blessings of baptism come, from the community. But the official church doctrine is that the work of grace is God’s alone and when the priest says “I”, the priest is the vessel through which the blessings from God are transmitted. (As a Kohen, I always explain that when I perform the Priestly Blessing it is not I who is blessing the congregation but rather God is blessing the congregation and I and the other Kohanim are simply conduits.)
I take no position on the internal disputes of other religions but I find this interesting because it raises the question of whether or not the words we say in our religious acts are performative or not. As a general rule halacha holds that b’rachot ainan me-akvot, that not saying a blessing or saying the wrong blessing does not invalidate an action. At times we specifically omit a blessing in cases of doubt -- when putting on tefillin on Chol Ha-Moed or, closer to the case in question, when performing a conversion for someone who might actually already be Jewish. But while the words might not matter the intention does; a medical circumcision performed on or after the eighth day could count as brit milah but the doctor would have to be Jewish and also clearly intend to fulfill a mitzvah and not simply do a medical procedure. But in other circumstances the words might really matter -- if a groom gives his bride a ring but doesn’t say “harei at mekudeshet li . . .” then it is probably not kiddushin, a consecrated Jewish marriage.
The situation with Father Arango is food for thought and I may have more to say on this subject at a later time.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. Although I am working primarily from home, I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian