Sacraments and Personal Identity

Q1: Our son got his girlfriend pregnant. Both are Catholics. He freely admitted that the child is his, and wanted to give financial support and also to marry her if she agreed.  But for some reason the minute his girlfriend found out she was pregnant, she abruptly dumped him, and now won’t have anything to do with him.  When their son was born, she privately arranged with her pastor to have the baby baptized, and told him that the father of the child is “unknown.” The pastor wrote this in the baptismal record. We only found out afterwards by accident. Is the baby’s baptism valid? The mother failed to give the true identity of the baby. She knows perfectly well that our son is the father; she just didn’t want any of us present at the baptism. –Kathleen

Q2: A friend of mine is an identical twin, and she recently got married, and her twin sister was the maid of honor. At a party before the wedding, the two of them were kidding the groom that they might switch places and he wouldn’t know which one he was getting. Of course this was a joke, but now I’m wondering, if they really had switched places, would the poor man really have been married to the wrong girl by accident? –Joe

A: It may be difficult at first to see the connection between these two questions, as they superficially appear to have absolutely nothing in common. But underlying both of these situations is a single, basic question: does a person’s true identity really matter when he/she receives the sacraments?

Back in the July 26, 2007 column we discussed the concept of sacramental validity. In a nutshell, we saw that it is possible that all the external, visible trappings that are necessary for the celebration of a sacrament seem to be present, and yet something is missing—something so important to that particular sacrament that its absence meant that the sacrament was not really conferred. In such a case, we say that the sacrament was conferred invalidly, meaning that in reality, it had no effect.

So in order to answer Kathleen’s question, we first have to take a look at what is necessary for a valid baptism. In the September 11, 2008 column, we saw that the sacrament of baptism is the easiest sacrament to administer validly. Canon 849 states clearly that a valid baptism is conferred by a washing in real water with the proper form of words.

Speaking generally, that’s pretty easy to do! So what would make a baptism invalid? For starters, baptism can only be administered once, so the person to be baptized must have never received the sacrament before—a subsequent baptism is thus automatically invalid (c. 864). Additionally, using a liquid other than real water would invalidate the sacrament. Failing to actually touch the person to be baptized with the water would likewise render the baptism invalid, for it is necessary for some sort of “washing” to take place (c. 854). Finally, as we saw in that September 11, 2008 column mentioned above, using a form of words other than that found in the liturgical books can invalidate a baptism. The key phrase is, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This echoes Christ’s specific instruction to the Apostles, found in Matthew 28:19, when He told them to go forth and preach to all nations. Because it is such an unequivocal, direct command by Jesus Himself, the Catholic Church naturally will not permit tampering with this phraseology.

Note that nowhere is there any reference to the minister needing to really know the identity of the person to be baptized. The fact is, it technically doesn’t matter! True, it is ordinarily a matter of course that the parish priest or deacon knows the family of the person to be baptized, at least by sight; and mentions the person by name during the course of the baptism (which is why our first name is commonly referred to as our “baptismal name,” or “Christian name”). But further details, including the parentage of the person to be baptized, are generally irrelevant.

This is why the baptism of Kathleen’s grandson is certainly valid—assuming, of course, that all the required elements mentioned above were done correctly. The baby’s mother misled the pastor as to the full identity of her son, but it did not affect the validity of the baptism.

The scenario presented by Joe, however, is an altogether different matter. Canon 1055.1 provides a theological definition of Christian marriage: it is a covenant by which a man and a woman establish a partnership of their whole life. As we saw in the same July 26, 2007 column mentioned previously, marriage is unique in that it is the only sacrament which is administered not by the priest or deacon who officiates, but by the very persons receiving the sacrament, who administer it to each other. Thus both the bride and the groom have to “get it right” in order to have a valid marriage ceremony.

If a man and a woman intend to make a covenant to establish a partnership of their whole life, it follows naturally that they each have to know whom they’re making this covenant with! But how well do they really have to know each other?

Probably most of us have found at some point in our lives that we thought we knew another person quite well, but then discovered some characteristic about him/her that was a surprise to us. If it was a negative quality, it may have been quite a turn-off! And if we had been close friends with the other person for a long time, the new revelation may have been a complete shock to us.

This routinely happens to people after they get married. Once they begin living together—the “partnership of their whole life” mentioned in the code—they inevitably find out things about each other which they didn’t realize before. He grinds his teeth in his sleep; she can’t balance a check-book. Such new discoveries may be disappointing, annoying, exasperating—but they don’t nullify the marriage. When two spouses exchange consent, they agree to marry the whole person, warts and all. This is why canon 1097.2 states that error about a quality of the person one marries does not render a marriage invalid. (There are some extreme situations which are exceptions to this rule, but they need not concern us here.)

But the case Joe describes is far more serious. It is one thing for a husband to discover after his wedding that his wife is not a natural blonde after all; it is quite another thing to find out that she is a different woman altogether! When one spouse consents to marry the other, the natural presumption is that he or she at a minimum knows the identity of the other person. We are perhaps all familiar with Shakespearean-era spoofs in which a desperate father tricks a bridegroom into marrying his unattractive older daughter (rather than the younger, beautiful one whom he actually loves), by keeping the bride’s face veiled during the ceremony; but under current canon law this situation is absolutely impossible. This is why canon 1097.1 states unequivocally that error of person renders a marriage invalid. You cannot consent to form a partnership of your whole life with another person if you don’t even know who that person is!

Thus we can see that a person’s identity is unimportant to the validity of a baptism, while in the case of marriage, personal identity matters very much indeed. The requirements for a valid sacrament differ because the purpose of the sacrament is different in each case. We can see, however, that the Church strives in both cases to ensure that her spiritual goods are readily available to those who ask for them.

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