For both liturgy and the law, the words we use matter

The words we use matter

By Professor Clare Johnson
Professor of Liturgical Studies and Sacramental Theology
Faculty of Theology and Philosophy, ACU

Recent commentary on the investigation and resignation of Fr Andres Arango of Phoenix AZ for invalidly baptising thousands of people, has generated questions regarding the importance of the words used in Catholic rituals, whether it really matters if a priest changes the official ritual wording, and what results if he does.

Institutions entrusted with the care and welfare of individuals and society appreciate that conceptual precision requires lexemic precision, because words hold power. If we consider it important to get the wording of legal formulae or civic oaths of office right then why is it difficult to accept the need to get the wording of Catholic liturgy right?

The power contained in legal formulae or oaths of office results in a change in legal status or level of public authority for those to whom the words pertain in civil proceedings. The Australian Constitution instructs that a person elected to Parliament “must make and subscribe an oath or affirmation of allegiance before the Governor-General or some person authorised by the Governor-General.” (Constitution, s. 42) Any departure from the approved formula places into question the liceity of the oath/affirmation and means that the elected person may not take part in any proceedings of the House. The Federal Government guidelines include no provision for altering the official wording of the oath/affirmation. The words we use matter.

On February 24, 2022, Victorian Police Minister Lisa Neville announced that more than 1000 police officers were incorrectly sworn in due to an administrative oversight. For the past eight years, acting assistant commissioners have been swearing in police officers and protective services officers invalidly which means they have been undertaking their duties without having the legal powers to do so. These officers must now be sworn-in again and emergency legislation must be enacted to ensure the legality of arrests they made and legal proceedings involving them. Validity of administrative authority and validity of wording results in the valid performance of duties. The words we use (and the valid authority to execute the power contained in those words) matter.

All institutions have expectations regarding the liceity and validity of their rituals – the Victorian Police Force as much as the Catholic Church. For the sacrament of baptism to be valid (and efficacious) in the Catholic Church, both the precise baptismal formula and immersion into or sprinkling of consecrated water are necessary (along with the intention of the minister to enact the sacrament and the recipient to receive it) – if one element is missing the sacrament is invalid.

The exact wording for the conferral of the sacrament of Baptism is: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” “Ego te baptizo” in Latin is unequivocally first-person language. No optional or alternate wording is provided, therefore any departure from this wording invalidates the sacrament. Even in an emergency baptism (at the point of death), validity requires that the person administering the sacrament must know the customary formula.

Catholic liturgy is regulated from the highest authorities in the church (i.e., the Pope and as laws may determine, the local episcopal conference or local bishop) and “no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 22§3). Vatican II taught that liturgical rites are not private functions, but celebrations which pertain to the whole church because they “manifest it and have effects upon it”. (SC 26)

Why does the Catholic Church insist on getting liturgical words right? Because the faith of the faithful is at stake when we celebrate liturgy. An ancient axiom expressing the rationale of the church’s liturgy is: lex orandi, lex credendi (attributed to Prosper of Aquitaine, c. 370-c. 463/5) which is generally translated as: ‘let the law of prayer establish the law of belief’. What we do and say in liturgy both effects and affects our faith. The church’s rites are privileged expressions of what we believe, distilled and polished over time, and performed by the faithful in the presence of God.

The church’s ritual texts are linguistic facts – they do what they say they will do and have the power to change lives: from unbaptised to baptised, from lay person to ordained leader, from unforgiven to forgiven. The ritual words that effect such changes in people are considered sacred because God’s power is enacted when they are spoken. Changing these sacred words also changes the theological tenets they contain and convey.

Fr Arango’s error was a small but significant one: in an attempt at inclusivity he said ‘We baptise you’ instead of ‘I baptise you’ which according to church law invalidated the baptisms he performed. When the ‘I’ of Christ who has the power to sanctify someone through baptism is replaced with ‘We’, the end result is that the assembly is led to worship itself rather than to worship God who is the only source of sacramental grace. ‘We’ as an assembly (with all our human flaws and tendency to sin) have no power to baptise anyone; the priest as a man has no power to baptise anyone. As an ordained representative of Christ standing in persona Christi when enacting a sacrament, the priest speaks Christ’s words over the candidate as Christ’s power effects the sacrament in that individual.

Fr Arango’s re-wording seriously misrepresents a core aspect of the faith and risks sidelining the sacramental presence of Christ in favour of a touchy-feely horizontalism that displaces the almighty in an inappropriate overreach of communal agency. Just as changing the smallest aspect of a civil law can have major civil consequences (e.g., including women among those with the right to vote), changing the smallest aspect of a liturgical law (as contained in the official liturgical books) can have major theological consequences. The words we use matter.

The church refines its enacted theology as thought advances. Liturgia semper reformanda. The liturgy is always in a state of reform and liturgical changes are made only after due and careful consideration, rigorous research, theological investigations, and identification of clear pastoral need; not on a whim or to appeal to the latest trend. What was declared by the church as sacramentally valid in previous eras does not lose its historical validity, but like all living organisations, the church has the power to clarify its current definitions of validity from time to time and to declare that from here onward, this will be our way of proceeding. Fr Arango’s errors highlight why it is essential for clergy and laity working in this area to maintain currency with official teaching and changes in liturgical law. The words we use matter.


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