Walking Points: How to Respond to Evangelical Christians

Column by Rev. Jim Burklo on 7 April 2022 0 Comments

All of us at some point will be approached by evangelical Christians attempting to convince us to become their kind of Christians. What’s the most Christian way we can respond to them?  -- whether we are Christians or not?

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I don’t know if this is a question or just an expression of exasperation. A Roman Catholic priest recently resigned and all of his baptisms were declared invalid because he said “we” baptize instead of “I” baptize. Words fail me.


Dear Reader,

This kind of legalism leaves me gobsmacked, too. Especially if one considers the ripple effect: imagine that one of these invalid baptizees went on to be ordained a priest himself. Since his baptism is now invalid, then he’s not really a Roman Catholic, his ordination is invalid and all the sacraments he’s ever performed are, likewise, invalid. Too bad for those who can’t come back for a re-do of their last rites (Commendation of the Dying)! This kind of obsession with the letter of the law is a perfect example of why people get fed up and abandon organized religion. Where’s the grace? Where’s the kindness?
Look, I’m not a Roman Catholic and I’m certainly no canon lawyer, but in thinking about this situation my thoughts go back to a question raised in seminary: what about the efficacy of sacraments distributed by morally flawed clergy?
Traditionally, the effectiveness of the sacrament isn’t supposed to depend on the merit of the person doing the dispensing. A sacrament is effective simply because it is being performed. The fancy Latin term is “ex opera operato.” This was first clarified back in the 4th century in a dispute with the soon-to-be-declared-heretics, the Donatists (who believed the validity of the sacrament was contingent upon the holiness of the clergyperson). St. Augustine said, whatever the sacrament, it was Christ doing the “work” and flawed clergy performing the sacraments are just a spigot through which the blessing flows: If that power “should pass through defiled beings, it is not itself defiled.”  (In Ioannis evangelium tractatus, 5, 15)
The issue in today’s case, though, is control. Since the priest said “we” baptize (instead of “I” baptize), he is accused of implying that the community at large possesses a modicum of “power” in the administering of sacraments. The presiding Bishop, Thomas J. Olmsted, said, “it is not the community that baptizes a person, rather, it is Christ, and Him alone, who presides at all of the sacraments, and so it is Christ Jesus who baptizes." In other words, the church holds the licensing agreement to all things “Jesus.” God forbid anyone (especially “the people”) threaten that monopoly.
So, it finally comes down to being a turf issue. The Church knows that it is losing influence and has ceased to be authoritative in any real way in the world. It’s only hope in maintaining any relevance is to protect what it perceives to be commodities that are available nowhere else: in this case, baptism. Any hint of a loss of control over this product cannot be tolerated.
This also plays into the longstanding effort to infantilize the faithful into believing that the sacraments are not symbolic, but actually some sort of magic. If the incantation (expellio ridiculoso!) is not done exactly as printed in the book of spells, there’s no telling what dark magic could be unleashed. Sound silly? It is.
If only it were as simple as assuming that the person participating in the sacrament receives whatever “power” is advertised by virtue of their having agreed to participate in the sacrament in the first place and leave it at that. But alas, an increasingly desperate and irrelevant Church needs to protect its “turf” — even when doing so means reinforcing its reputation for pettiness and magnifying its obsolescence.

~ Rev. David M. Felten




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