The Goal of Perfection?

In a recent string, Terra made a comment about paragraph 168 in the Compendium of the Cathechism of the Catholic Church in reference to ecumenism. That paragraph reads:

168. Who belongs to the Catholic Church?

All human beings in various ways belong to or are ordered to the Catholic unity of the people of God. Fully incorporated into the Catholic Church are those who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, are joined to the Church by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government and communion. The baptized who do not enjoy full Catholic unity are in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church.

Terra’s comment was:

But here is the problem – what does 168’s (who belongs to the Church) description of ‘imperfect communion’ really mean? It’s this kind of fudging (and I do think that is the right word) that has led to multiple interpretations of what the purpose of ecumenism is for example, and finally led the Holy Father to his recent attempts to clarify this and state clearly that full membership of the Church must be the real goal (as it always has been traditionally).

I don’t think it is “fudging” at all, if we give attention to the meaning of the word “imperfect”. There is no Latin version of the Compendium available on the Vatican Website, so we will use the original source of this phrase, which is the declaration Unitatis Redintegratio from the Second Vatican Council. In Chapter three of this document, the Council said: « Hi enim qui in Christum credunt et Baptismum rite receperunt, in quadam cum Ecclesia catholica communione, etsi non perfecta constituuntur ». The word “imperfect” actually translates the phrase “non perfecta”. “Perfectus” in Latin actually has precisely the sense of “complete, finished, done”. Something is “perfect” when it has reached its goal. If we consider that baptism is the the first sacrament of initiation, it is “completed” by the other two sacraments of initiation, confirmation and reception of the Eucharist. Baptism alone therefore is a sacrament which is pressing toward a goal of completion in communion with the Church (confirmation) at the table of the Lord (Eucharist).

Far from “fudging”, I think the use of the phrase “imperfect communion” to describe faithful baptised believers not in full communion with the Universal Church as “in quadam communione, etsi non perfecta” to be absolutely right on the money. The alternative would be to posit that baptism outside the visible boundaries of the Church’s communion is either ineffective or invalid – and this assertion would need to be explained somehow in terms of ecclesiology. The Orthodox do just this. I read in an article just the other day the following quotation from Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky:

The basic principle underlying its use is that the Church has been endowed by God with authority to manage the affairs of her household. She is therefore in a full sense the steward (oikonomous) and sovereign administrator of the sacraments; and it falls within the scope of her stewardship and ecomony to make valid – as she thinks fit – sacraments administerd by non-Orthodox, although such sacraments are no sacraments if considered in themselves and apart from the Orthodox Church. Becaue a person’s Baptism is accepted as valid – or rather made valid by economy – when he becomes Orthodox, it does not therefore follow that his Baptism was valid before he became Orthodox.

While there are some similarities here with our ecclesiology, the notion that the sacrament of baptism only becomes valid when the baptised person enters communion with the Church (we would say, “when he becomes Catholic” where Florovsky above says “when he becomes Orthodox”), is foreign to us. We follow the belief that if a sacrament is performed by the right minister, with the right intent, the right matter, and the right form, then by God’s promise it is a valid sacrament. In the case of baptism, we believe than anyone – even one who is not himself baptised – can, with the right intent, form and matter, validly baptise. For this reason baptism must be a valid sacrament wherever and by whomever it is performed. It is, as Florovsky states, the Church which gives it this validity, but we would not say that the sacrament only becomes valid when the baptised person has his initiation completed by the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist.

What I am getting at is this: the words “perfect” or “imperfect” actually apply to a goal, that goal being “full communion” and membership in the Church, ie. “joined to the Church by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government and communion”. However, Baptism, wherever it is validly celebrated, is a beginning of this initiation. The goal of ecumenism is “full, visible unity of all the baptised”. It is a goal which is in fact determined by the inner reality of baptism itself. We cannot therefore regard separated Christians as anything other than our brothers and sisters in Christ, destined with us to enter the fullness of divine life and communion – destined by their baptism, that is. [I recently was in conversation with a Russian Orthodox SCE reader who very politely informed me that as an Orthodox Christian he could only regard us Catholics in the same category as Jews and Muslims. We had a polite discussion about that, and agreed to disagree! 🙂 ]

Obviously this destiny is not fulfilled in each and every baptised person during this life, so we leave that in the hands of God. But the goal is perfection, and I trust that, while God may yet bring about the “ecumenical goal” either here in this world in his own way and time by his Spirit, he will certainly do so in the world to come.

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33 Comments

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33 responses to “The Goal of Perfection?

  1. PM

    You have put the issue very well.

    I was puzzled by the Orthodox views you quoted. The Catholic position – that baptisms performed by schismatics, heretics are still valid – was hammered out in the aftermath of the Donatist schism, long before the East-West rift was sealed in 1054. I would have assumed it was common teaching. (But, like too many Catholics, I know my Western history better than my Eastern.)

  2. Kyle

    I too am puzzled by the comments of the Orthodox position on this. I think, however, that this is not quite comparable to Donatism. While denying the validity of baptism conferred by a non-Orthodox, they do still seem to consider the ritual significant. This is plainly obvious by the fact that the Orthodox do not require converts to be baptised again. The event still leaves some mark; it just does not have the mark of sacramental grace. This differs very significantly from Donatism which required that the sacrament be conferred again.

    I think, however, that the requirement that baptism be conferred by an Orthodox Christian is utter nonsense. It would be bizarre for there to be Christians worldwide, some living as clerics and religious, who have not received the graces of baptism. It would seem to me contrary to the mercy of God that He would deny His grace, essential for salvation, because the person was baptised by a non-Orthodox man.

    • The Florovsky quote seems to indicate that there is an “economy” in God’s action that “validates” baptism performed outside the Orthodox Church when the one baptised becomes Orthodox. I think this is one way of approaching the “extra ecclesia nulla salus” doctrine. The other way is the way we do it, by saying that wherever the sacrament of baptism is validly celebrated, the Church is in fact present there – even if imperfectly – and saving grace is also therefore present. Of course, I prefer our way of solving this problem, but you can see that the problem is there to be shared.

      We actually have another problem in our ecclesiology, which the discussion below about schismatic bishops and Local Churches has brought about. It is easy enough to say that those communities of Christians who are not in communion with us and have not preserved valid Holy Orders are not “true Local Churches”, but we are stuck with the difficulty of affirming of our Orthodox brethren that they ARE “true Local Churches”, with the true Eucharist and all the rest, and yet not visibly in communion with “the Universal Church”.

      I, of course, completely accept our Catholic ecclesiology, but I have yet to meet an ecclesiology which is, in every respect, “neat and tidy”. The Church is, of course, feminine, and perhaps that is why it is so difficult for those theologians among us who are male to understand her! 🙂

    • Peter

      It depends what you believe is a valid baptism. I believe that a Mormon baptism satisfies the requirements in terms of the words and actions but not in the intention. Wheras the loose forms used in some independant groups (baptising in the name of Jeeeeeeeesus) are not valid in form, nor were the baptisms in the name of the ‘creator, redeemer and sanctifier’ (or the more PC version ‘creator, liberator and sustainer’). One part of the form is the application of water. If the orthodox believe that full immersion three times is necessary then not doing so would make the baptism invalid. We Catholics insist on the application of water, and we would not consider the ‘baptism’ valid if someone waved a custard tart over the baby instead, so we shouldn’t be surprised if the Orthodox don’t accept what they consider to be an invalid form.

  3. An Liaig

    There is no pan orthodox approach to this. The position of the Greek Orthodox Church is that no non-orthodox baptism is valid and they will insist on re-baptism. Other Orthodox Churches will take a different view with some accepting even Catholic Confirmation. The “economy” approach is used only when it suits. There is no consistancy in its application. The argument about form is also inconsistant. Full imersion is the norm but baptism by pouring is also practised in emergencies and often for adults where full immersion is difficult. Neither the Orthodox not Catholics accept sprinkeling as a valid form, although the Orthodox often claim that this is normal Catholic practice. Florovskey was an interesting character. He is the most confrontational of the Orthodox theologians and he does not represent the full diversity of views on this matter within the Orthodox Churches

    • Thanks, Doctor. Are you sure we don’t accept “sprinkling” as valid form? In an emergency, a prem baby can (for eg.) be baptised with just a drop of water? I think pouring is for us rather like immersion for the Greeks – usual, but not essential to the validity of the baptism.

      • “[Is An Liaig] sure we don’t accept “sprinkling” as valid form?”

        I’m wondering about that too, Mr. Schütz. I thought that there were three valid methods for conferring Baptism, and that those three methods were immersion, infusion (pouring) and aspersion (sprinkling), the key thing being, so I thought, for the water to have contact with the recipient’s body and move along his or her body, thus signifying the washing away of original sin and actual sin. Could someone please chase up a citation to prove or disprove whether sprinking is valid?

        • “thus signifying”–and, of course, effecting, I should add–“the washing away of original sin and actual sin”

        • Salvatore

          Well I always thought aspersion was invalid. Until this morning when I checked with Dr. Ott, who seems to think otherwise:

          The materia proxima of the Sacrament of Baptism is the ablution, by physical contact, of the body with water. (Sent. Certa.)

          The washing can occur by dipping (immersion), pouring-on (infusio) or sprinkling (aspersio). … (Fundamentals p352)

          Unfortunately he doesn’t cite a source; but if it’s good enough for Ludwig Ott; it’s good enough for me. 😉

          The danger with the ‘drop’ Baptism it seems to me is that there might not be sufficient water to truly ‘ablute’. I would suggest that whatever method is employed, it’s meant to call a reasonable amount of water into play, so that some degree of washing takes place. But perhaps in an emergency even a drop is enough.

          Penitenziagite!

          • Well, Dr Ott again… Although he may agree with my thoughts, I don’t think he is a reliable source for determining Canon law – which again, I might point out, has changed since he was writing. I repeat: Dr Ott may be all very well and good as an indication, but he cannot be used as if he were the living voice of the magisterium.

            I think the point here is about what is sufficient in an emergency, not as normal practice. I suspect that in this case, Dr Ott is correct, but we can’t rely upon him as a source.

            However, I did find this opinion (on Google Books) from “New commentary on the Code of Canon Law By John P. Beal, James A. Coriden, Thomas J. Green” published in 2002. On page 1044, they state:

            “Although the 1917 code permitted sprinkling as a licit manner of baptising, the revised code does not retain this option. During the revision of the code it was proposed that sprinkling be retained. However, it was suppressed on the ground that the use of water is meant to symbolise a real washing, something that sprinkling fails to do. The Rite notes that “either immersion or infusion should be chosen.” This use of “should” implies that while sprinkling would be illicit, it would nonetheless be valid.”

            That seems about right, but a definitive ruling would have to be given by proper authority. I am certainly not such an authority, but neither is Dr Ott, who would have based his statement on the 1917 Code which is no longer in business.

            • Salvatore

              I’m sorry, I was only teasing in bringing in the good Doctor again so soon.*

              In any event our various authorities seem to point in the same direction; that aspersion is valid. The difference is that prior to the new code it was also licit whereas now it’s not. This, as I say, was news to me.

              * Though if you can think of contemporary source which is as comprehensive, unequivocal and concise as Dr Ott, I’d love to know it.

              • Peregrinus

                Mmm. It is possible – quite easy, in fact – to be comprehensive, unequivocal, concise and wrong. Not that I am saying that the good doctor is wrong, but his comprehensiveness, unequivocality and concision is in itself no guarantee of truth, accuracy or reliability. There are, after all, many theological questions to which a good answer needs to be either equivocal or lengthy or both. The fact that Ott gives me answer that I can digest, or that I can understand, or even that I like, is no guarantee of his reliability.

                • Salvatore

                  “…his comprehensiveness, unequivocality and concision is in itself no guarantee of truth, accuracy or reliability.”

                  No, of course not. It’s the nihil obstat which guarantees that. 😉

                  In any event no-one’s arguing that Ott is the Beginning & End of all Catholic knowledge – after all there are whole encylopædias devoted to Catholicism – but simply a rather convenient handbook or overview. Where’s the harm in that?

                  • Peregrinus

                    No harm at all, and in fact I have nothing against Ott. Not owning a copy, I don’t use Ott and have no great opportunity to form much opinion of what is in it.

                    But, as regards a “convenient handbook or overview”, it’s hard to go past the Catechism. As David points out, the Catechism has the merit of being up-to-date . (If I’m not mistaken, Ott’s fourth and final English edition came out in 1960, and therefore takes no account of any expressions of magisterial teaching delivered since that time, including the entire corpus of teachings of the Second Vatican Council.) And of course the Catechism does come from an authoritative magisterial source. What’s not to like?

      • An Liaig

        I don’t have my catechism with me but a quick note from Wikipedia ( the font of all wisdon) supports what I thought;

        “The Roman Catholic Church regards baptism by aspersion as valid only if the water actually flows on the person’s skin and is thus equivalent to pouring (“affusion”). If there is doubt about this, conditional baptism is administered.”

        Aspersion in the normal sense, where a few drops touch the person and dry in situ, is not considered valid form.

  4. Terra

    I agree the position taken by this particular Orthodox theologian probably goes beyond what is tenable as the Catholic position, but his arguments don’t really go to my fundamental point and about fudging around the real issues.

    (Valid) baptism is of course a necessary prerequisite for full communion. But catholics also need to be taught the faith to be considered practicing Catholics, and for example to be eligible to be receive the eucharist. And they need to receive the other sacraments, most particularly confession if they want to be sure of salvation.

    So what I’m looking for is some articulation of what the brotherhood of all the baptised mean in practice, and how it differs in nature from that of the unbaptised (who after all are called to salvation also and with whom we share the image of God)? To me, the failure to articulate this is what has led to the failure of effort to convert people as opposed to simply engaging in feel-good ecumenical activities.

    In previous catechisms of course it was spelt out explictly that what is needed is not just some vague sense of the brotherhood of all Christians, but a commitment to conversion to catholicism in order to secure salvation.

    I accept that many non-Catholics today (though by no means all) can perhaps claim a state of invincible ignorance in relation to their heresies and/or schism, so perhaps may not be held to account for these sins.

    But what about the consequences of other personal sins? I guess we must hope that many non-Catholics regularly make perfect acts of contrition, and so remain in a state of grace and in some real sense ‘in communion’ however imperfectly. But that seems a rather optimistic position to take in the context of sour very secular society…

  5. Hi, Terra.

    A couple of points.

    You said “they need to receive the other sacraments, most particularly confession if they want to be sure of salvation.”

    First, the Sacrament of Penance is not in itself “necessary for salvation”. Many Christians in the first millenium of the Church – not to mention afterwards – never made use of this sacrament, nor did the Church require them to do so. This was for various historical reasons, and there has been some advance in our understanding of what sin is and of the benefits of the Sacrament. I am, of course, in no way belittling the Sacrament to point out this historical development. Baptism is necesary for salvation, and, by extension and if possible, confirmation and eucharist as completion of entry into the Church. But Penance is only necessary for salvation if one has committed a mortal sin. Even then, as you point out, the grace of God is always accessible where there is perfect contrition.

    And thus we can be assured that our separated protestant brothers and sisters – although deprived of the grace of a valid Eucharist and valid absolution – nevertheless receive God’s grace when they turn their hearts in full faith and repentance toward him. That they are able to do so is dependant upon two things which they do have: God’s Word in Scripture and God’s Grace in Baptism.

    Of course, in the Canon prayed at the Eucharist by the priest, he says that he offers the sacrifice for “all who hold and teach the Catholic faith”, so you are quite right that “catholics [and indeed all Christians] also need to be taught the faith to be considered practicing Catholics, and for example to be eligible to be receive the eucharist.”

    There is a very clear difference then between our relationship with someone who has been baptised and our relationship with someone who has not been baptised.

    A rough analogy – although not a very positive one – can be seen, for instance, in the way we treat criminals in this country. If they are Australian citizens, we subject them to the penal code of our country. If they are not, we deport them. We distinguish between those who belong to us, even if they do not behave the way we wish and those who do not.

    A better analogy is that which Jesus and St Paul both use – the distinction between the “son” and the “hired hand/slave”. Our separated but baptised and believing brethren and sistern are children of the household of God. They therefore have a share in the privileges of the household, even if they may be estranged from it. Their rightful place is at the table with the rest of the family, and if something prevents this, it is our duty to find ways of overcoming it.

    So yes, the “brotherhood of all the baptised…differs in nature from that of the unbaptised (who after all are called to salvation also and with whom we share the image of God)”, because the latter is a share a brotherhood in the old creation and the former is a share in the brotherhood of the new creation. This is why ecumenism differs from interfaith relations, even though we believe and confess that all human beings are called into the unity of the One Church.

    “To me, the failure to articulate this is what has led to the failure of effort to convert people as opposed to simply engaging in feel-good ecumenical activities.”

    Possibly. But there is nothing “vague” about our affirmation of the validity of the baptism of our separated brethren and sistern, nor about our affirmation that they are indeed already in a “certain communion” with the Church. Nor is there anything vague about our affirmation that their baptism and faith seeks perfection in the bonds of Catholic faith.

    “In previous catechisms of course it was spelt out explictly that what is needed is not just some vague sense of the brotherhood of all Christians, but a commitment to conversion to catholicism in order to secure salvation.”

    The Council put it thus (Ad Gentes, p.7):

    “Therefore, all must be converted to Him, made known by the Church’s preaching, and all must be incorporated into Him by baptism and into the Church which is His body. For Christ Himself “by stressing in express language the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mark 16:16; John 3:5), at the same time confirmed the necessity of the Church, into which men enter by baptism, as by a door. Therefore those men cannot be saved, who though aware that God, through Jesus Christ founded the Church as something necessary, still do not wish to enter into it, or to persevere in it.”(17) Therefore though God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith without which it is impossible to please Him (Heb. 11:6), yet a necessity lies upon the Church (1 Cor. 9:16), and at the same time a sacred duty, to preach the Gospel. And hence missionary activity today as always retains its power and necessity.”

    But what about the consequences of other personal sins? I guess we must hope that many non-Catholics regularly make perfect acts of contrition, and so remain in a state of grace and in some real sense ‘in communion’ however imperfectly. But that seems a rather optimistic position to take in the context of sour very secular society…

    Indeed, it IS what we must hope and it DOES seem “rather optimistic”, and HENCE we must never cease our witness to the Catholic faith and our encouragement of others to enter into the Church. Nevertheless, we Catholics ARE an “optimistic” and “hopeful” people – because we know that our salvation rests not in us – or, for that matter, in our separated brethren – but in our God and in his Son, Jesus Christ.

    • Terra

      I would strongly dispute that confession was rare in the first millenium (or thereafter) – it might not have been frequent but was always part of the practice of catholic life, even though the form of confession has changed a lot, the substance has not.

      Remember after all the controversies in the very early Church where there were heretical claims that certain sins (such as apostacy at times of persecution) could not be forgiven. Indeed, the Council of Trent makes it clear that individual confession of sins is essential – it is possible that we and others can achieve perfect contrition, but we can never truly know that we have; confession provides the safer route. That is why I used the word ‘sure’ of our salvation, not essential.

      And this is the core reason that people must convert: we can be hopeful about ourselves if we are doing everything the Church asks of us – but there is no reason to be optimistic, and every reason to be pessimistic about those outside full communion with the Church, deprived of the grace of the sacraments and whose interpretation of the Word of God is marred by error. Where they actively reject the teaching of the Church even when exposed to it, the hope of the baptised outside the Church must surely be much less.

      This is the issue that we are dancing around – and I agree it is a question of perspective and debatable. But the long tradition of the Church, supported by Scripture, is to take the view that salvation requires walking the narrow path. It is a ‘spirit of Vatican IIism’ in my view to take the optimistic view that almost everyone might be saved even though they are outside full communion, or even not baptised at all.

  6. Bruce

    I first made my profession of faith in a charismatic ministry, and was baptised by immersion but only in the name of Jesus. Before entering the Catholic Church, I made my way through one of the more conservative Presbyterian denominations. After entering the Church, I was reminded of my ‘Jesus only’ baptism, so my pastor performed a conditional baptism (there was also a question of whether or not I had been baptised as an infant).

    Below are some of the relevant texts from the Code of Canon Law.

    Can. 845 §1 Because they imprint a character, the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and order cannot be repeated.

    §2 If after diligent enquiry a prudent doubt remains as to whether the sacraments mentioned in §1 have been conferred at all, or conferred validly, they are to be conferred conditionally.

    Can. 854 Baptism is to be conferred either by immersion or by pouring, in accordance with the provisions of the Episcopal Conference.

    Can. 869 §1 If there is doubt as to whether a person was baptised or whether a baptism was conferred validly, and after serious enquiry this doubt persists, the person is to be baptised conditionally.

    §2 Those baptised in a non-catholic ecclesial community are not to be baptised conditionally unless there is a serious reason for doubting the validity of their baptism, on the ground of the matter or the form of words used in the baptism, or of the intention of the adult being baptised or of that of the baptising minister.

    §3 If in the cases mentioned in §§1 and 2 a doubt remains about the conferring of the baptism or its validity, baptism is not to be conferred until the doctrine of the sacrament of baptism is explained to the person to be baptised, if that person is an adult. Moreover, the reasons for doubting the validity of the earlier baptism should be given to the person or, where an infant is concerned, to the parents.

    • §2 Those baptised in a non-catholic ecclesial community are not to be baptised conditionally unless there is a serious reason for doubting the validity of their baptism, on the ground of the matter or the form of words used in the baptism, or of the intention of the adult being baptised or of that of the baptising minister.

      Again, we find an interesting thing here: the Canon refers to doubt of validity “on the ground of the matter or the form of words used in the baptism, or of the intention etc.” Nothing about the method of applying the water. Interesting, no?

      • Peregrinus

        That raises the issue, I suppose, of whether the matter of baptism is water, or something more specific, such as “flowing water”, or “Water poured, or in which the individual is immersed”. We could also worry about whether immersion/pouring/sprinkling is to be considered as an aspect of the matter of the sacrament, or as an aspect of the form of the sacrament.

        Trent, in the Decree on the Sacraments, had this to say:

        CANON II.-If any one saith, that true and natural water is not of necessity for baptism . . . let him be anathema . . .

        CANON IV.-If any one saith, that the baptism which is even given by heretics in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, with the intention of doing what the Church doth, is not true baptism; let him be anathema.

        It seems fairly clear that Canon II is addressing matter, and Canon IV form. However, since they are expressed negatively (“such-and-such is not true”) they are not necessarily exhaustive of Catholic teaching as to what is true with respect to the form and matter of baptism. Thus somebody who asserts that flowing water, or water which is poured or in which the individual is immersed, is necessary for baptism is not anathematised.

        The Catechism of Pius X says that the matter of baptism is “natural water which is poured on the head of the person to be baptised in such a quantity as to flow”. But the legalists among us could quibble as to whether the “which is . . .” phrase is part of the dogmatic definition, or merely an gloss explaining how the matter of “natural water” is employed. The fact that canon law at the time did permit sprinkling would suggest the latter. So does a later passage in the same Catechism, indicating that if pouring on the head is for some reason impossible, then pouring on “some other principal part of the body” is sufficient.

        The old Catholic Encyclopedia, for what it’s worth, affirms immersion, pouring and aspersion as valid. It suggests that pouring and sprinkling were initially used where the candidate was infirm or ill and immersion was not practicable, but later became widespread (in the West). It does add, though, that it is not enough for the water to touch the body; it must also flow, but it cites no authority for this.

        f water is sprinkled in sufficient quantities, it will of course flow. It seems to me that the line between pouring and sprinkling is a fairly blurry one, and I struggle to believe that the church ever definitively taught that on such a line depended the validity or invalidity of the sacrament.

      • Salvatore

        Well, classically ‘matter’ in this context can refer not only to the substance (materia remota) but also the action (materia proxima). So a defect in the application is, therefore, a defect of matter.

        • Peregrinus

          Sure. But that just raised the question of whether aspersion is a valid materia proxima, as to which I don’t think we have anything absolutely absolutely conclusive in the way of dogmatic teaching.

          Perhaps we don’t need anything absolutely conclusive, though. Perhaps – gasp! – God doesn’t’ actually care greatly about this.

          I can’t avoid the suspicion that this rather legalistic analysis of a sacrament into form and matter, and sub-analysis into remote and proximate matter, is perhaps limited as a way of approaching the mysterious and miraculous action of the Trinity. Such an analysis may help our inevitably inadequate understanding of the sacrament and what it means and effects, but I think we should be hesitant about using it to define or delimit the action of the Trinity. Let’s face it, it’s not for us to delimit God, is it?

          The Orthodox have a saying that I think we should bear in mind here; we can say where God is, but not where he is not.

          I’m sure Terra doesn’t intend it this way, but to me there’s a whiff of presumption, even of arrogance, in speculation about how much poorer are the chances of salvation for non-Catholics and non-Christians than for us fortunate [good] Catholics. It is, frankly, not our business to be making a book on who will make it to the pearly gates and who will meet a different destiny. God will save whom God will save, and God’s will is ineffable. It is, if not actually blasphemous, then downright silly to think that God’s grace is ultimately constrained by whether we pour or sprinkle water.

          • Salvatore

            I think you misinterpret the tenor of the discussion. In trying to define the minimal requirements for Baptism one is not trying to limit, the Sacrament but rather the reverse; to broaden its boundaries so that it can be available in the widest possible range of circumstances; to make it as accessible as possible.

            As far as authorities go the best I can do is the Catechism of the Council of Trent (magisterial enough I should have thought, though of course suffering from the cardinal flaw of being out of date). It says:

            “… according to the common practice of the Church, baptism may be administered by immersion, infusion, or aspersion; and that administered in either of these forms it is equally valid. In baptism water is used to signify the spiritual ablution which it accomplishes, and on this account baptism is called by the Apostle, a “laver.” This ablution takes place as effectually by immersion, which was for a considerable time the practice in the early ages of the Church, as by infusion, which is now the general practice, or by aspersion, which was the manner in which Peter baptized, when he converted and gave baptism to about three thousand souls.” (Pars II, Caput II, Quæstio XVII)

            From this I would conclude that:
            1 – aspersion was (and is) a valid way of administering the Sacrament, and
            2 – there should be a sufficient quantity of water to convey (however minimally) washing.

            • Is it possible that the Church may regard one way of doing the sacrament as valid at one time and later determine that – while it was valid to do it that way then – it isn’t valid to do it that way now? If so, then there would be little point on quoting old sources, like the Catechism of the Council of Trent or the good Dr Ott, on this matter.

              • Salvatore

                Not as far as I can see. If it was valid then, then it’s valid now.*

                However, the Church can certainly vary certain aspects of the administration of the Sacraments according to what she judges to be opportune in a given instance. For example the Church is at liberty to decide whether it’s opportune to administer Holy Communion to the Laity under one or both species at Mass; but not to dispense with one species entirely (at Mass that is) or substitute some other beverage for natural wine.

                So I would say that whilst the Church currently discourages Baptism by aspersion she doesn’t rule it out as invalid (your earlier citation from the Commentary on the New Code seems to point in this direction).

                In short, as far as aspersion goes: formerly valid and licit, now valid but not licit.

                * I’m afraid that if you convinced me that the Church now regarded as invalid a performance of the Sacrament which she formerly regarded as valid you’d be convincing me of the truth of Terry Maher’s opinions of the current Church – and I’d really rather you didn’t do that. 🙂

                • Peregrinus

                  The church did precisely that in relation to marriage. Did at Trent, interestingly enough, by imposiing minimum ages for marriage, and requiring canonical form for validity. Hence many marriages celebrated in a form which has certainly been invalid since Trent would certainly have been valid if celebrated before Trent. This was quite controversial at the time, I believe.

                • I too am reticent to give any fuel to Terry’s fire, Salvatore! However, as the case on marriage cited by Perry below indicates, there have been times. Today’s marriage tribunals – partly as the result of Trent, it would seem, not Vatican II – work with a rather more stringently defined understanding of when marriages are valid and when they are not. I guess the whole thing about the age limit for valid celebration of the sacrament of marriage may be viewed in the light of the “one or two kinds” category. It is conceivable that at some stage in the future the Church might raise the age for a valid marriage – given the increasing immaturity of “young adults” today. The constant then would be that the Church has always recognised the requirement for both partners to be sufficiently mature to validly make the marriage committment – the variable is what age that is determined to be. Again, another example: the minister of the sacrament of confirmatin has changed in Western practice. Not so long ago it would have been invalid for priests to confirm. Nevertheless the constant has always been that confirmation must be done with the licence of the Bishop, and this has been arranged differently at different times and in different rites. In this light, the determination that aspersion is “not valid” would not be seen to touch the validity of the matter of the sacrament.

  7. Your Russian Orthodox reader may have been ‘very polite” but he was certainly less than charitable, placing Catholics in the same category as Jews or Muslims. Goodness!

    One can only surmise that it is this sort of chauvinism which makes life so uncomfortable for religious minorities in Russia, including Lutherans and Catholics. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if such a comment acame from the over-zealous pen of a Western convert, either.

    Thankfully, the Russian Orthodox Church is rather more circumspect in what is says officially:

    1.15. The Orthodox Church, through the mouths of the holy fathers, affirms that salvation can be attained only in the Church of Christ. At the same time however, communities which have fallen away from Orthodoxy have never been viewed as fully deprived of the grace of God. Any break from communion with the Church inevitably leads to an erosion of her grace-filled life, but not always to its complete loss in these separated communities. This is why the Orthodox Church does not receive those coming to her from non-Orthodox communities only through the Sacrament of Baptism. In spite of the rupture of unity, there remains a certain incomplete fellowship which serves as the pledge of a return to unity in the Church, to catholic fullness and oneness.

    1.16. The ecclesial status of those who have separated themselves from the Church does not lend itself to simple definition. In a divided Christendom, there are still certain characteristics which make it one: the Word of God, faith in Christ as God and Saviour come in the flesh (1 Jn. 1:1-2; 4, 2, 9), and sincere devotion.

    1.17. The existence of various rites of reception (through Baptism, through Chrismation, through Repentance) shows that the Orthodox Church relates to the different non-Orthodox confessions in different ways. The criterion is the degree to which the faith and order of the Church, as well as the norms of Christian spiritual life, are preserved in a particular confession. By establishing various rites of reception, however, the Orthodox Church does not assess the extent to which grace-filled life has either been preserved intact or distorted in a non-Orthodox confession, considering this to be a mystery of God’s providence and judgement.

    From the document, ‘Basic Principles of the Attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church Toward the Other Christian Confessions’, adopted by the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, August,2000.

    • Thanks for this, Pastor Mark. I had forgotten about this very important statement from the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000. It is important, because it shows an ecclesiology that is fairly close to our own Catholic ecclesiology – perhaps with the only difference that (characteristically) the Orthodox are happier to live with the “mystery” of God’s economy than Catholic theologians have tended to be.

      I find the phrases “incomplete fellowship” particularly interesting, as it comes very close to what we mean by “imperfect communion” – both indicate the goal of complete communion with the Church of God.