Odd bits of canon law I’d like to know more about!

You know how the internet sucks you in and several hundred links later you end up pondering obscure bits of Catholic doctrine? (Or maybe that’s just me. Other people end up at RickRolling or worse…) Random surfing today brought me to the Catholic Encyclopaedia’s page on the sacraments, and this odd piece of information:

For administering Baptism validly no special ordination is required. Any one, even a pagan, can baptize, provided that he use the proper matter and pronounce the words of the essential form, with the intention of doing what the Church does (Decr. pro Armen., Denzinger-Bannwart, 696). Only bishops, priests, and in some cases, deacons may confer Baptism solemnly (see BAPTISM).

I would *dearly* love to know how that piece of canon law came about. Was there some sort of emergency in which a pagan had to be called on to perform baptism? Why would you call on a pagan instead of a nearby Christian? Why would a pagan be inclined to perform baptism “with the intent of doing what the church does”? Or is this some kind of theological brain twister which no one ever expected to use…?

So far as I can make out, the Denzinger-Bannwart thing is a 19th century canon law compilation, but this piece of knowledge tells me nothing about what prompted the decretal in the first place. Fisher Library has it, but it’s out, it’s in Latin, and I’m in Canberra, so it’s not much use to me anyway.

Does anyone HAPPEN to know why a pagan can perform baptism? Not the theological justification, that seems to make sense (as much as canon law ever does) – but why someone felt the need to theologically justify it in the first place?

Failing that, any suggestions as to how to find out this piece of interesting information – short of learning Latin and borrowing the book out, which is possible but rather a long-term goal.

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7 Responses to “Odd bits of canon law I’d like to know more about!”

  1. Michelle Says:

    Anyone can preform a baptism, their own status doesn’t matter. Whether the know the minimal rite is questionable though. Why have a pagan do it? Because the person is dying and there is no one else there. Remember the church considers everyone except a Roman Catholic to be essentially a pagan. They are a little more polite about how they say it these days but they still pretty much mean that.

  2. Chris Says:

    Probably originally aimed toward the need to immediately baptize newborn babies in danger of dying. (A baby in the birth process could be baptized as soon as the head was visible.) Generally midwives were allowed to baptize such babies well into the Early Modern era, even though baptism was otherwise generally restricted to clergy, i.e. men.

    The “pagan” thing would probably only come into play in mission territory, where perhaps the only midwife available would not be a Christian. All the person would really need to know is the essential formula (“I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”) and the fact that the Church requires this as an essential act of initiation — something even a laboring mother could explain in 10 seconds.

    It was *absolutely* essential that the formula be correct, though. There’s a Middle (?) English poem addressed to midwives consisting of a cautionary tale about a midwife who got it wrong (“..in the name of Christ and Saint John,” IIRC) and as a result the infant’s soul was not saved.

  3. Ben Says:

    See the fourth-century controversies about the validity of baptism done by heretics and St. Augustine’s arguments against the Donatists.

  4. swain Says:

    Minor correction: Everyone not Catholic is *not* automatically a pagan. Protestants range from the heterodox to the heretical, but that’s a different category than pagan. Orthodox and Copts are recognized as apostolic communiions as well, but the Roman church would argue supremacy, a kind of supremacy among equals.

    As for stipulating a pagan….the way I read it is that it is an underscoring of the concept that *anyone* may administer the rite as long as they get the words right. Anyone, even a pagan….I’m not sure its a stipulation that a pagan may. But in the late antique/medieval period when families and communities were of mixed religions, it is easy to see how a Christian on his/her deathbed or the field of battle may have no recourse but to be baptized even by a pagan.

  5. magistra Says:

    There is an English translation of Denzinger online, which includes the section you mention (para 696). It apparently comes from a bull of Eugenius IV in 1439, when he was trying to reunify the Catholic and Armenian churches and giving them an outline of doctrine. The Google Books version of ‘The Christian Sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist’ By Kenan B. Osborne (sorry no link, I’m not sure it’ll work to that) says that the bull is based on Thomas Aquinas’ work.

    I agree with earlier commentors that the context is emergency baptism of a dying child. I presume that cases had happened of people baptizing whose Christian status was unclear and so a theology had to be developed to deal with this. Emergency baptism brought up all kinds of theological problems like this. There’s a ninth century case where a Pope had to decide about whether someone who’d baptised his own child in an emergency could stay married to his wife (given that incest rules prevented the marriage of a woman to her child’s baptizer or godfather). The pope decided in the end not to split the couple up.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      Ahhhh. The Eugenius bit is the answer I was after! I could pretty easily see the theological justification (baptising a dying child), but was wondering exactly what crisis prompted someone to write it down. Thank you!


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