A couple of weeks ago, many Catholics were bewildered by the story of Father Matthew Hood, associate pastor of St. Lawrence Parish in the Archdiocese of Detroit.
Watching a video of his baptism taped 30 years ago, Father Hood noticed that the deacon administering the sacrament didn’t use the proper words when baptizing him, rendering his baptism and all the sacraments he received afterward — including the sacred orders — invalid. Some expressed dismay at the “legalism” of the whole affair.
How important is the language used to administer sacraments? Why would a sacrament be invalid just because the minister changed a couple of words in the formula established to administer it? We have a look at the case in this issue of The Tablet with quotes from experts in both fields, but it would be useful to point out two details about the case.
First of all, the insistence on precise language is not limited to the Catholic Church and its sacraments. During the 2009 presidential inauguration, when Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was swearing in President Barack Obama, he stumbled over the oath at the inauguration ceremony. That led Obama to mix up his words too.
Many people thought that oath was not valid because they didn’t say the proper words, so the oath was repeated the next day at the White House.
Obama was elected by the vote of almost 70 million Americans, and the election was valid, but the oath was retaken because some felt that if it wasn’t properly done the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency could be put in doubt.
These formulas are part of what linguists call “performative language.” Performative statements do not describe, they perform, the action they designate.
For example, when umpires call a strike or when a judge pronounces a verdict, they are using performative language.
The performative function of language involves a change in the status of the receptor, linguists say.
Throughout history, phrases that can be classified as performative language have been carefully and strictly formulated.
From that point of view, it is mystifying that a person would simply decide to change the established formula. Of course, it is also shocking that a priest or deacon would change the formula of Baptism, rendering the sacrament invalid.
Beyond that essential issue, you have to wonder why some priests or deacons would change the general liturgical language established by the Church.
Every word in the Mass and the rituals of the sacraments come from the Scriptures or from the works of the best minds the Roman Catholic Church has produced over the past 2,000 years.
One of the goals of the established formulas is to keep the unity of the Church and the consistency of the revealed truths she should announce. Why would anybody change those words casually?
If you were a violinist, would you tell your fellow musicians, minutes before a concert, that you just decided to change three of four passages of Mozart’s First String Quintet you are going to play that night?
They would be in shock — the First String Quintet is beautiful and perfect beyond measure.
“Do you think you are better than Mozart?” they would probably ask you.
Catholic liturgy, in a sense, is like the First String Quintet.
The best way to play it is by following the original score as faithfully as possible — unless you are sure you are better than Mozart, of course.