There is a very odd discussion at the Commonweal blog about the Vatican’s pointing out that the formula some priests are using: “I baptize you in the name of the Creator, Liberator, and Sustainer (or any such variant that omits the hated masculine names of Father and Son) is not valid Christian baptism. It began very badly when the blogger David Gibson titled his comments Baptism, Shmaptism.
The use of this formula by priests shows a deep misunderstanding of the Trinity, and I would question whether such priests are in fact some sort of modalist. Father, Son, and Spirit are the inner-Trinitarian names; Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier name the action of the one God on us.
Those who have not been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit have not received Christian baptism. Moreover, to receive any other Christian sacrament, a person must be validly baptized, initiated into the inner life of the Trinity at work in the Church.
God could certainly have chosen to act without any sacraments, any outward signs of his action, but he chooses to operate within and by actions (although he is certainly free to operate outside them. Remember how the pagans in Acts received the Spirit before they were baptized). The sacraments are not the only ways God chooses to act, but he assures us that he does act through the sacraments.
A person who is not baptized sacramentally may in fact be a believer, having received a baptism of desire (which is not sacramental and does not insert one into the sacramental order), and can receive the graces that are in the sacraments, but they do not come to him through the sacraments.
Most of the Catholics who were not validly baptized because of the use of a non-Trinitarian formula will be finally baptized. Some may have to have their marriages witnessed by the Church. Others (and this will create real problems) may have to be really ordained, since if they were not baptized, they could not be ordained. That means that apart from baptism (which even a non-believer can perform), all other sacraments such putative priests performed were not really sacraments.
The real problem comes if a non-baptized person is consecrated a bishop, especially a bishop. Concerns about the apostolic succession, the historical link with the apostles, led to the use of multiple consecrators, in part to assure that if one consecrating bishop were invalidly consecrated or fraudulent, the other consecrating bishops would supply his deficiency. I am sure that has happened in the course of history.
Fortunately the use of the non-Trinitarian formula is only about twenty years old, and it is unlikely that anyone who received such invalid baptism is now ordained. But for a while there may have to be a lot of conditional baptisms in Australia. This practice has been known to the hierarchy for decades, and only now is the Vatican doing anything. The current mess is the Vatican’s fault. The offending priests should have been removed at the very beginning when there were only a few doubtful baptisms. Now there are probably thousands of doubtful baptisms.
But even more importantly what the Commonweal discussion shows is that many Catholics think that the concept of the “validity” of a sacrament is ridiculous and incomprehensible. This lack of concern for validity bodes ill for the future of the Church. Such Catholics think (although thinking may be a generous term for what goes on in their minds) that anyone can administer any sacrament using any fashionable form and matter.
The source of this is two fold: the total lack of doctrinal catechesis is for a generation, and the false catechesis that extreme informality and casualness in the liturgy gave. A 1992 Gallup poll seemed to indicate that Catholics had a more Zwinglian idea of the Eucharist than Lutheran did. Most Lutheran and Episcopal churches have a far more reverent celebration of the Eucharist than Catholic churches do – and the mode of celebration conveys a message.