Whose Baptism Is It Anyway? Old and New Ecumenicalism

English: St. Augustine arguing with donatists.

The Huffington Post reports that the Roman Catholic Church in America and certain Protestant denominations signed the “Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism”, which is a statement accepting each other’s baptisms. These Protestants groups are all mainline denominations from the Reformed tradition: the Presbyterian Church USA, Christian Reformed Church in North America, Reformed Church in America, and United Church of Christ.

Probably many readers of this story will think, “Wow, that’s mighty accommodating of the Roman Catholic Church to accept the baptism of those Protestants!” Actually it’s the Reformed churches that are changing their minds, not the church in Rome. Rome has a long tradition of accepting the baptism of schismatics.

Way back in the fourth century, the Christians of the Roman province of Africa divided into two separate churches. The schism began at the end of the Great Persecution. During the persecution, some bishops had handed over their copies of the Bible to the Roman authorities. After the persecution, the African church couldn’t agree how to deal with this problem. Some Christians wanted to show Christian forgiveness and mercy, letting these bishops return to their office once they had demonstrated repentance. A more rigorous group of Christians believed that the church should forgive these bishops but must not let them resume their former duties. Their crime was forgiven, but it disqualified them from further service.

Both sides appealed to the bishop of Rome, and he sided with the more lenient group. The rigorous faction, who would become known as “Donatists,” did not accept this judgement, and they eventually separated from Rome. They believed that the sacraments of a tainted bishop were invalid. Any bishop ordained by a tainted bishop was not really ordained at all. If that new bishop tried to baptize anyone, it would be futile since his ordination would be false. Thus another Christian hierarchy emerged in Africa, claiming to be the only pure church.

Enter Augustine of Hippo. Augustine was a Catholic bishop of the late fourth century and early fifth century. By the time he gained his office, Donatists outnumbered those Christians who were loyal to Rome. Augustine spent much of his career trying to convince the Donatists to come back, but he achieved mixed results. However, in the process of disputing with the Donatists, he developed a model of baptism that would become typical of Roman Catholicism.

Augustine claimed that baptism belonged to God, not the bishops. Since it belonged to God, it could not be invalid, no matter who performed it. Baptism’s efficacy relies on the atoning work of Christ, not on the moral purity of the bishop performing it. Therefore, it didn’t matter who had ordained the bishop. Augustine argued that Catholic baptism was valid, and what’s more, Donatist baptism was valid too. Even though they were grumpy schismatics, it was still God’s baptism. Augustine welcomed all the Donatists back, informing them that they need not reenter the font.

So, it’s pretty typical for Catholics to be ready to sign an agreement like the one signed this week. The real question is, “Why did the Reformed denominations sign it?” My best guess is that these mainline churches continue to get soft. Unlike the Catholic Church, the Reformed tradition has no mechanism for accepting a foreign baptism. Probably these mainline denominations are merely engaging in some mushy-gushy ecumenical acceptance of others. It’s just more of the spirit of the age for them. Everyone’s welcome. They’re probably even foolish enough to believe that the Catholics feel the same way.

But for the Catholics it’s not I’m-okay-you’re-okay. The Catholics believe they have the only true church, and they believe that the grace they offer can even cover the multi-cultural mumbo jumbo of these Reformed schismatics.


After looking into this matter a little more deeply, I discovered that the German and Dutch Reformed traditions have tended to accept Catholic baptism as genuine. It was only the Presbyterians USA who have traditionally balked. Even so, I still think that the Catholic Church and the Reformed traditions probably had very different motives for signing this current agreement.

4 responses to “Whose Baptism Is It Anyway? Old and New Ecumenicalism”

    • Dear Roma,You can book your tickets now. Please write to with your name and email aserdds, and say how many tickets you wish to book. With best wishes,Tanya

  1. According to Catholicism, anyone baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has been made a member of the Church. Baptized Protestants are considered “separated brethren.” As I understand it, Protestant denominations viewed as ecclesiastical structures are not recognized as “true Churches,” but Protestants are recognized as true Christians. I wonder whether the Reformed denominations in this case are making use of at least some of the same teaching on Christian initiation that is found in Catholicism.

    • Tony, they very well may be. I should probably actually read the text of the agreement before I pass judgement. 🙂

      Even so, my point still stands. The Catholic Church is acting just like we should expect it to. The Protestants, however, are not following their own tradition. And given what we know of these Reformed denominations, we should not expect that their decisions are based on robust theological reflection.

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