The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Did a faulty pronoun really cancel Catholics’ baptisms, marriages, confessions? Read our Q&A for details.

Father Andres Arango distributes Holy Communion while wearing a mask at Gordon Hall at St. Gregory's Catholic Church in Phoenix on May 10, 2020. (Thomas Hawthorne/The Republic)

Their marriages, confessions, promises of salvation — all of these things ceased to exist for thousands of Catholics baptized by an Arizona priest who, it turns out, was saying the sacrament script wrong.

The Rev. Andres Arango for decades said “We baptize you in the name of the …” instead of “I baptize you in the name of …” After diocesan officials found that out, they said last month that people who Arango baptized aren’t technically Catholic. That means they weren’t eligible, from a Catholic point of view, for other sacraments.

The story made news around the world. Some wondered how what appears to have been an innocent mistake over pronouns could threaten people’s very sense of religious security. Others saw evidence of a longtime debate among Catholics about who holds power, laypeople or the clergy. Cases of priests whose own childhood baptisms had the word “we” started to surface.

Looking for more information, The Washington Post this week interviewed the Rev. Thomas Reese, a political scientist and longtime journalist who has written several books about the inner workings of the Catholic Church. Reese first wrote about the baptism wording issue in 2020, in an article whose headline began: “Vatican causes chaos.”

Q: What prompted you to write about this in 2020?

A: The [Vatican’s doctrine-enforcing arm] that year issued a document saying any baptism using “we” vs. “I” is not only illicit but invalid; the baptism doesn’t happen. I said then that this will cause absolute chaos in the Church. There were priests doing this out of the feeling it might make [the baptism ceremony] more colloquial. No one thought anything serious about it. Maybe it’s against the rules but the baptisms were still valid, people thought. When the [Vatican] did this in June 2020, I felt it was a pastoral disaster for the Church and for people. I thought: “They have to pull this rule, to reverse this.”

Q: What did the Vatican do in 2020?

A: They issued what’s called a “doctrinal note,” which are usually responses to questions they get from bishops or priests. I don’t think the use of “we” was widespread. It was one of those things that happened after the Second Vatican Council [in the 1960s] when people were a little looser with liturgical rules. Some Catholics wanted to be more inclusive and less clerical, and some felt using “we” would do that. I don’t think anyone thought that deeply about it. It was one of those things some people did. Others thought: “That’s nice,” or just didn’t think it was that big a deal.

For years, a Catholic priest used one wrong word during baptisms. The church now says the rituals were invalid.

Q: Are specific words important? If so, why would some priests think they can just pick alternates?

A: The hierarchy wants priests to follow the words in sacramental ceremonies very strictly. On the other hand there is structure in [the sacrament] for some adaptations. And also there is disagreement. We know historically there were times in the Church when priests made up prayers. In different communities they had different lingos. In the early centuries of the Church, they didn’t have books. It wasn’t until the printing press that you could force people to use the exact same language.

And there’s some evidence that in ancient times, people would baptize “in the name of Jesus” [instead of in the name of the holy trinity of “the father, the son and the holy spirit,” as is said today]. Orthodox churches use a passive voice: “This person is baptized …” and the Catholic Church has recognized those baptisms for centuries.

The bottom line is, historically the words of baptism have changed. To make suddenly a big deal of whether a priest uses “I” or “we” is mind-boggling.

Q: Then why did the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issue this doctrinal note in 2020?

A: I don’t think they understood what they were doing. Also, the Church can’t admit it made a mistake.

There could be thousands of laypeople affected, by even just a few priests. But ultimately God will take care of it all. Are these people going to hell? No. The Church says: “we can guarantee God works in the sacrament” but he can also work outside the sacraments. God can give his grace and fill you with his spirit any old time he wants.

The average liberal Catholic will shrug their shoulders and say this is a bunch of nonsense. The ones who will be hurt will be the very scrupulous Catholics who might worry. They might be concerned if their sins were really forgiven? I feel sorry for them. Most people will shake their heads and say: “What’s the big deal?”

Q: What’s the big picture here?

A: It’s about how the Vatican does things. Vatican higher-ups sit in their offices and think there’s a problem and issue a document to resolve it, and they do that without any wide consultation. The proper way to do this is to say: “This issue has been raised, this is something we are studying.” Then invite theologians and canon lawyers to send in comments.

Pope Francis talks about synodality, but that’s what this is — it’s about consulting and talking and listening to all kinds of voices in the Church.

My strong feeling is, if the Church wants us to say “I,” I will. But then to say that if someone says “we,” that the baptism is invalid? I think it’s nuts.

Q: So is this emblematic of Church debates after the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which made liberalizing changes, including emphasizing the leadership roles of the laity, more community leadership? Is this baptism controversy really about that issue, of being more communal?

A: The issue is: The Church makes the rules.