Saturday, July 17, 2004

Baptism Question
A reader writes:  "I have a friend that asked me the question, why is it bad to be baptized more than once? I tried to answer logically, and by the good old, "because you can't" line, but neither worked. I wonder what your answer would be. "
Briefly, my answer is that baptism is the second birth of which our Lord spoke when He said, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God," and "[e]xcept a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." John 3:3 & 3:5. To baptize more than once would depart from our Lord's teaching, for He taught that we are to be born only "again" and not "again, and again, and again and again" for as many times as we might wish for sentimental or other reasons. To be perfectly accurate, we cannot be "baptized again." We can only be baptized.[1]
St. Paul preached there was one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. Ephesians 4:5.  He taught that baptism was the fulfillment of circumcision, a sign of the new covenant just as circumcision was a sign of the old.  Col. 2:11-12.  Every sacrament has an aspect of singularity. One can be baptized only once, consecrated to holy orders once, confirmed only once, baptized only once. The Mass is celebrated many times, but what is celebrated is one, single Sacrifice. We may and should confess frequently, but only to return to one Mercy granted by that single Sacrifice. And if one may marry more than once, each marriage is still unique, an unrepeatable wedding of lives and bodies. Not to sound pompous, but our God is not interested in mulligans, do-overs, rewinding and starting over again. He wants perfection, either intrinsically or by the redemption of what is imperfect.  But  He doesn't tolerate pretense about what is or what has happened.

Another reason, I think, has to do with faith. Faith in God, faith in His promises. He has promised that the rebirth achieved by grace through baptism is indelible, permanent. Even the damned will be distinguishable from one another by the presence or absence of the mark of baptism. His forgiveness achieved by grace through confession is permanent. Sometimes He wills that we not "feel" forgiven after confession. It is time to enjoy the gift of faith then, the gift of believing that we are forgiven because He forgives us, not because our emotions or psyches have reassured us of the fact. Go and try to confess to a priest a sin you have already confessed -- he will not allow it. He may pray over you, beseech God's mercy, but he will not countenance the idea that, absent some culpable flaw in your earlier confession, you were not forgiven because you don't "feel" that way. So, looking at baptism, we can see that the unrepeatability of the sacrament is actually also a gift, an opportunity to exercise the same gift of faith in His promises as opposed to our fleeting and frivolous desires to feel or experience certain things.

This has always been the Christian understanding of baptism. From the Council of Arles, 314 A.D.: "Concerning the Africans, because they use their own law so as to rebaptize, it has been decided that, if anyone from a heretical sect come to the Church, he should be asked his creed, and if it is perceived that he has been baptized in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, only the hand should be imposed upon him, in order that he may receive the Holy Spirit. But if upon being questioned he does not answer this Trinity, let him be baptized." Even the baptisms of heretics, if they believe in the Trinity, are valid; hence the heretical convert may have been baptized in his former sect, if it was in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Notice that the Council does not say, that if he has not been baptized in the name of the Trinity, he should be "re-baptized," only "baptized." Baptism could only be administered once.

In 385 A.D. Pope St. Siricius wrote a letter about this question, saying "And so on the first page of your letter you have indicated that very many baptized by the impious Arians are hastening to the Catholic faith and that certain of our brothers wish to baptize these same ones again. This is not allowed since the Apostle forbids it to be done and the canons oppose it, and after the cessation of the Council of Arminium general decrees went to the provinces by my predecessor Liberius of venerable memory prohibit it. These together with the Novatians and other heretics we join to the company of the Catholics through the sole invocation of the sevenfold Spirit by the imposition of a bishop's hands, just as it was determined in the Synod, which, too, the whole East and West observe. It is proper that you also do not deviate from this course henceforth, if you do not wish to be separated from our company by synodal decision."

[1] There are occasions when the validity of a baptism is made dubious, either because of what is known about its circumstances or what is not known about its manner. In such cases the Church allows a "conditional" baptism, namely a baptism which is intended by the Church to be administered only if the previous rite was fatally flawed and which leaves the determination of which baptism is valid to God’s secret judgment.

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