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One widow’s pathetic gesture hardly shows that the ‘invalid practice of sacraments is proudly publicized’ by the AOD

January 6, 2012

Several weeks ago I saw a short article in Mosaic, our alumni magazine, about a recently deceased deacon.* It seemed to be one of those pleasant, human-interest kinds of stories, the sort of thing alumni magazines specialize in, until I reached, near the end, a paragraph describing, supposedly, the dying deacon’s last act—the baptism of his grandbaby.

Except, it wasn’t the dying deacon’s last act. It was something quite else.

What happened was: as the unconscious deacon lay near death, his bereft wife and daughter brought his grandchild into the hospital room, found some devotional objects (like a crucifix, which they placed on the cleric’s chest), cupped the man’s hand, filled it with holy water (retrieved from the hospital chapel), and poured the water over the grandbaby’s head while pronouncing the baptismal formula.

Now, I’ve been full-time in ecclesiastical work for more than 25 years, and I regularly use “grandma baptism” stories to walk my students through discussions of canonical validity and liceity (c. 841), and I can say without hesitation that this is the oddest grandma baptism story I’ve ever come across. It is certainly stranger than any example I’ve ever made up for class, confirming the dictum that truth is always stranger than fiction.

Naturally, my mind went first to canon law and, checking my sense of things against standard authorities like Cappello and Regatillo, I verified that, objectively speaking, grandma’s act was, at a minimum, illicit (starting with c. 861, but there’s more to it than that); indeed, the whole episode, however pathetic (in the old sense of that word) it was, made little sense at any level. How, one might ask, would a civil court have viewed grandma’s placing of a pen in her unconscious husband’s hand and tracing out his signature on a legal document? Not very benignly, I suggest.

As real people were involved in the episode, however, and as the story had appeared in our magazine, I passed my thoughts on to seminary administration more than a month ago, and (not to anticipate their own addressing of the matter) they responded promptly and correctly. Moreover, I confirmed a fact implied in the article—that grandma herself poured the water and pronounced the form—which means the baptism was, per the weighty authorities consulted above, certainly valid. Illicit, yes, but quite valid.

Anyway, there the matter rested until a website called “Acts of the Apostasy” reported on grandma’s baptism and, with the phrase “Pardon my French, but, like, wtf ?”, purported to analyze the episode in some detail. May I ask, first, what does the abbreviation “ wtf ” stand for? Is it a phrase that befits the discussion of Catholic sacraments? Is it a phrase that should be used in regard to a grieving widow’s sad gesture? Are these terms to be used to share the truth in charity, or are they instead the crude phrases of derision? Yes, a Catholic widow acted suddenly and strangely out of grief and love, and yes the paragraph describing this embarrassing deed escaped adequate notice by an editor. But is that proof that the “invalid practice of sacraments is proudly publicized [b]y the freakin’ seminary”? Does the incident justify the schadenfreude being exhibited over it? These questions answer themselves, I think.

Let me close with a couple wider points.

1. Christ made sacraments powerful things, and baptism, in light of its ability to be conferred by virtually anyone, is perhaps the most powerful of all. But when Christ instituted Baptism, He surely knew it would be misadministered countless times. Such misuses should spur correction, not insult.

2. This baptism was not the last act of an AOD deacon (it was the act of a woman watching her husband die), and so the episode reveals absolutely nothing about the quality of the education that the deacon received at Sacred Heart Major Seminary nor about the sacramental policy of the Archdiocese of Detroit. Claims to the contrary are recklessly false.

3. The larger the organization or group, the more members there will be who can do something (wittingly or otherwise) to embarrass that community. That’s always been true, of course, but our electronic information age gives instant prominence to the bizarre, casting it as representative of the whole, when it is no such thing. It’s time people start remembering that.

4. The internet has one huge advantage over print media: the internet reaches people instantly, while print requires time. The Mosaic editorial statement that, as a matter of fact, will address the grandma baptism story won’t appear for two more months; in the meantime, this sad episode will be used by some as another stick with which to beat a local Church.

What else can I say? Personally, I support using the internet more forcefully to defend the Church against her cyberspace detractors. Not that every misrepresentation can be corrected or every thrust parried, of course—there are far too many to deal with—but at least some sort of qualified, reasonable, fact-based response should, I think, be made to such attacks when circumstances allow.

As I have done here. + + +

* The article was J. Sanders, “Judy, We’re Home!” (Mosaic, Fall 2011) at p. 24; it has since been removed.

Update, same day: The author of the offending AoA post has, I am pleased to see, retracted the rude language of his original. That is to the good, quite. He continues, however, to ask, rhetorically I guess, whether anything is going to be done about the article itself. I said plainly that something was done about it one month ago, but that it takes time to see it in the context of the print world. Bureaucracies, especially Church bureaucracies, simply do not move at the pace accustomed in cyberspace. Perhaps he, like me, has some Missouri ‘Show Me’ blood in him. I respect that. But the correction is coming.

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