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Why intention is not everything

The story only broke a few days ago, but it is already familiar to many: a priest had recently watched a video of his baptism and was surprised by what he saw. The Vatican in early August had issued a clarification that baptisms using the form “We baptize” and not “I baptize” are invalid. The priest realized that his own baptism had used the erroneous formula, which meant his baptism was invalid. Not only was he not a priest, he wasn’t even a baptized Catholic. He brought this fact to the attention of his archbishop, and was subsequently baptized and confirmed, received First Communion, and was ordained a deacon—and then ordained a priest.

The story was strange and even shocking. Perhaps just as intriguing was the variety of reactions on social media. Many expressed dismay that a deacon had spent 15 years invalidly baptizing people. Some worried aloud that their own baptisms had been invalid. But others were shocked and disturbed, not by the actions of the deacon, but by their fellow Catholics’ reaction. These comments were along the lines of: “What’s the big deal? Why are they making such a fuss over this? Isn’t this a hysterical overreaction? Isn’t nitpicking over one word gross legalism? Do we not trust in the grace of God?” Perhaps most of these responses came down to “Surely the deacon had a good intention. Isn’t that what matters?”

According to the Church’s teaching on the sacraments, intention does matter—but it’s not the only thing that matters. It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. This is because of the sort of creatures we are. Because we are beings who are at once physical and spiritual, when God wishes to share His own divine life with us by grace, He does so through some physical means. Thus every sacrament is an efficacious sign, a sensible action that conveys and communicates to us what spiritual reality is being effected.

The matter of the sacrament is the physical substance and action—for example, the pouring of water in Baptism. The matter is a natural analogous sign to the spiritual reality; that is, just as water is associated with cleansing, birth, and death, so baptism removes original sin, gives us birth to new life as adopted children of God, and gives us a share in Christ’s death and resurrection. The form of the sacrament explicitly states the spiritual reality taking effect, making clear that, for example, a baptism is happening, and not a bath or a drowning. So, in baptism, the form is “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Read more at Catholic World Report

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