Sandro Magister has alerted us to a change, promulgated on 22 February this year, in the Rite of Baptism for Infants. While Magister paints a compelling and not improbable picture of the personal reasons for Pope Benedict’s decision to make the change, the underlying basis for the decision is not so hard to discern.
First, the change. It concerns the minister’s ritual welcome of the newly baptised. From 1973 till last February the particular text read:
The Christian community welcomes you with great joy.
The text in Latin, and thus in all translations, has been amended to read as follows (in English):
The Church of God welcomes you with great joy.
This is not so much a correction of an error as a clarification not just in wording but in meaning. The “Christian community” option no doubt reflects the prevailing ecclesiology of the 1960s that sought to downplay the hierarchical and institutional elements in the Church’s identity, and emphasize the Church as the People of God. To this extent “Christian community” is hardly wrong.
However, one suspects that it might also have been influenced by the debate about the identity of the Church of God, which came to an unsatisfying climax at the Second Vatican Council in its constitution Lumen Gentium, section 8, where the Church is said to “subsist in” the Catholic Church governed by the Pope. The debate about this phrasing endures to this day, arising from the (deliberate?) ambiguity of the word “subsist”. Is the Church of God to be identified with those Christian churches in communion with the Pope, and no others? Or is the Church gathered in communion with the Pope to be see rather as the fullness of the Church’s identity, with separated communities sharing an imperfect identity with this Church of God?
The question gains extra spice from the fact that any Baptism made in the name of the Blessed Trinity by means of the sprinkling of water (or immersion into water) is considered valid by the Catholic Church. Into what does such a Baptism insert one – into the general Christian community, be it the fullness of the Church under Peter’s Successor, or into one of the imperfectly-ordered Christian denominations having an impaired identity with the one Church of God?
The previous formula allowed the easy inference to be made that Baptism was made into the more general Christian community, not to be strictly identified with the Catholic Church. However that makes no real sense theologically. Christ founded a Church, built on the Rock of Peter, and it is into this creation of His that he commanded his apostles to baptize disciples of all nations, and it was this Church that Christ commanded to be One. Thus Baptism can only ever be into the Church of God, which “subsists in” the Church in communion with the Peter’s Successor, and not into to some amorphous “Christian community”. So we can say, then, that “Christian community” is not an adequate synonym for “Church of God”.
In fact, on this logic, every valid Baptism, be it Anglican or Lutheran etc, inserts one into the Catholic Church and makes the newly-baptized a subject of communion with the Pope and the one Church gathered in communion with him. As politically incorrect as many may still find it, the logic is clear: every baptized person has an impaired and deficient Christian identity while he or she is outside communion with the Catholic Church. This highlights the importance of the Church’s missionary effort, not just towards non-Christians, but also towards those who are deficiently Christian.
So Pope Benedict’s little change has huge significance and clarifies a question perhaps deliberately (at times, by some) confused. When we baptize anyone, he or she is baptized into the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” which is always and of necessity in communion with Christ’s Vicar, the Rock, St Peter and his successors. Which raises the question: what of those ministers who do not intend to do this?
But that is another issue…