The good news is that Catholic teaching certainly recognizes that God’s grace can work even if the sacraments were not validly conferred.
The “bad news” is that Catholic teaching can’t pretend a sacrament happened if it failed to follow the right form, the right matter, and the right intent.
The Phoenix diocese addressed the charge of legalism in a FAQ on its website:
“It may seem legalistic, but the words that are spoken (the sacramental form), along with the actions that are performed and the materials used (the sacramental matter) are a crucial aspect of every sacrament,” said the diocese. “As a priest may not substitute milk for wine during the Consecration of the Eucharist, nor may he change the words of baptism.”
The Phoenix diocese added: “It is important to note that, while God instituted the sacraments for us, He is not bound by them. Though they are our surest access to grace, God can grant His grace in ways known only to Him. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, God has bound Himself to the sacraments, but He is not bound by the sacraments.”
What about Catholics baptized in non-Catholic Churches or ecclesial communities?
Good news: many, many non-Catholic Churches and ecclesial communities are presumed to baptize validly, if they follow the same formula, use water to baptize, and intend to perform a Christian baptism like Christ and the Catholic Church intend.
How else can a baptism go wrong?
In 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded to a question about the validity of certain baptismal formulas which use the phrasing “in the name of the Creator, and of the Redeemer, and of the Sanctifier” or “in the name of the Creator, and of the Liberator, and of the Sustainer.” These phrasings, too, are not a valid baptism and anyone who received such an attempted baptism must receive be baptized before receiving any other sacraments.
These phrasings fail to express the Catholic belief in the Holy Trinity. Sometimes they became popular through feminist motives, which consider “the Father” and “The Son” to be chauvinistic.
“Such variants, however, undermine faith in the Trinity,” the CDF said.
Are there baptisms that seem Christian, but aren’t?
Sometimes! In 2001, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that baptism by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, informally known as Mormons, is not valid.
At first sight, it seems that Mormons baptize others in the name of the Trinity. But their intention is much different.
“Mormons hold that there is no real Trinity, no original sin, that Christ did not institute baptism,” Father Luis Ladaria, S.J., explained in an Aug. 1, 2001 article for L’Osservatore Romano. Ladaria would go on to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Francis, who made him a cardinal in 2018.
“The words Father, Son and Holy Spirit, have for the Mormons a meaning totally different from the Christian meaning,” Ladaria wrote. “The differences are so great that one cannot even consider that this doctrine is a heresy which emerged out of a false understanding of the Christian doctrine. The teaching of the Mormons has a completely different matrix.”
In the Mormon understanding, baptism was begun by God with Adam, not by Christ. They deny the existence of original sin, and so do not act from the Catholic view that baptism remits both personal and original sin, Ladaria explained. If an LDS member renounces his or her faith or is excommunicated and later wants to return, they require a “re-baptism.”
For Christians, however, baptism is a unique event that can only take place once.
A minister of a Mormon baptism intends to do what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints means by baptism, not what the Catholic Church means by it.
The Catholic baptism of infants is a main reason the LDS consider the Catholic Church to have apostatized. From their perspective, none of the Catholic sacraments are valid.
How worried should I be? Was my baptism valid?
These news reports can make some Catholics worry that they, too, might not have really been baptized. But if there is no video evidence and no claims that the baptismal officiant had a habit of casually changing the baptismal formula, these worries shouldn’t dominate.
Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., a moral theologian at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., told CNA in August 2020 that it is not unreasonable for anyone who has a video of their baptism to review the tape, just in case.
Memories of a baptism aren’t necessarily reliable, he warned. People in general are prone to misremembering and those present might not have been paying close attention.
“In the vast majority of cases, the vast majority are going to be fine, and valid,” Petri said. He said he suspected that only a “very small percentage” of presumed baptisms are invalid.
He repeated Catholic teaching that God guarantees the sacraments, but he himself is not bound by them.
Editor's note: This story was corrected to use the formula for baptism set forth in the Cathechism of the Catholic Church (1240): "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."