I administer the RCIA Program at our parish. Occasionally, a question arises as to whether a person was baptized. When is a conditional baptism appropriate?
Baptism is the gateway to all the other sacraments and is necessary for salvation by actual reception or at least by desire. Through baptism, one is freed from sin, reborn as a child of God, configured to Christ by an indelible character, and incorporated into the Church. (c. 849). Therefore, it is not repeated. (CCC 1272).
A conditional baptism is appropriate only if: (1) there is a doubt whether the person was baptized or whether the baptism was validly conferred; and (2) the doubt continues after serious investigation. (c. 869).
Two types of doubts arise: (1) whether the baptism occurred at all; and (2) whether baptism was validly conferred (e.g., whether the Trinitarian formula was used, whether water was used, or whether the minister and the baptized had the proper intentions).
A serious investigation as to whether the baptism occurred involves a documented diligent search for the record at all possible places as to where the baptism may have occurred. If the search for the documentation is unsuccessful, the investigation then requires a search for witnesses of the baptism and attempts to obtain proper documentation from the witnesses (e.g., photographs, affidavits, etc.). The diocesan Pastoral Manual contains a form affidavit that may be useful in documenting testimony about the baptism from the baptized, their parents, or godparents (E-49). Additionally, the diocesan Office of the Tribunal or the Office of the Chancellor can assist in drafting affidavits from proper witnesses and discussing the type of documentation that one should seek from the proper witnesses.
A serious investigation as to whether the baptism was validly conferred is accomplished by first determining which church conferred the baptism and whether that church’s baptisms are generally recognized as valid or invalid. The diocesan Pastoral Manual contains information concerning the validity of baptisms in non-Catholic churches and communities (L-14). Additionally, the Office of the Tribunal can help clergy evaluate the validity baptisms of non-Catholic churches and communities. Secondly, the investigation may need to obtain information about how the specific baptism was conferred, which is usually accomplished by obtaining written statements (preferably affidavits) from the baptized and witnesses.
A conditional baptism would not be appropriate in the case of an illicit baptism or in the case of an unrecorded baptism. For example, the serious investigation may reveal that a baptism did occur but that the baptism was not recorded. In such a case, the Office of the Tribunal or the Office of the Chancellor may assist in communicating the information to the appropriate diocese or parish for recordation.
There are times when the evidence as to whether a baptism did or did not occur is questionable (e.g., conflicting evidence is presented or the reliability of the evidence is doubted). In such cases, a discussion with the Office of the Tribunal, Office of the Chancellor, or the Vicar General is suggested.
The response to this question is a general response intended to give guidance. The specific conclusions reached in an investigation into whether one was or was not baptized may involve other action or consultation. In such cases, the pastor and deacon are encouraged to discuss the matter with the Judicial Vicar, Vicar General, or Chancellor.
The foregoing response summarizes the cited canons and paragraphs from the Catechism. The full text of the cited provisions are as follows.
Canon 849 – Baptism, the gateway to the sacraments and necessary for salvation by actual reception or at least by desire, is validly conferred only by a washing of true water with the proper form of words. Through baptism men and women are freed from sin, are reborn as children of God, and, configured to Christ by an indelible character, are incorporated into the Church.
Canon 869 – §1. If there is a doubt whether a person has been baptized or whether baptism was conferred validly and the doubt remains after a serious investigation, baptism is to be conferred conditionally.
§2. Those baptized in a non-Catholic ecclesial community must not be baptized conditionally unless, after an examination of the matter and the form of the words used in the conferral of baptism and a consideration of the intention of the baptized adult and the minister of the baptism, a serious reason exists to doubt the validity of the baptism.
§3. If in the cases mentioned in §§1 and 2 the conferral or validity of the baptism remains doubtful, baptism is not to be conferred until after the doctrine of the sacrament of baptism is explained to the person to be baptized, if an adult, and the reasons of the doubtful validity of the baptism are explained to the person or, in the case of an infant, to the parents.
CCC 1272 – Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation. Given once for all, Baptism cannot be repeated.