Austin, Texas — Leaders from several Protestant denominations met with representatives from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last night to sign an ecumenical document agreeing to recognize each other’s baptisms.
The document, entitled “These Living Waters: Common Agreement on the Mutual Recognition of Baptism,” has been approximately four years in the making. The Presbyterian Church USA was reportedly the first to deliberate the move, followed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“The Common Agreement affirms that both Catholic and Reformed Christians hold that baptism is the sacramental bond of unity for the Body of Christ, which is to be performed only once, by an authorized minister, with flowing water, using the Scriptural Trinitarian formula of ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” wrote the bishops in a news release about the matter two years ago.
Therefore, if a person is baptized by a Catholic priest but later converts to a Protestant church, the denominations involved in the ecumenical gesture agree to accept the baptism and not ask that the person be baptized over again — and vice versa.
The Common Agreement was signed last night in Austin, Texas by members of both the Presbyterian Church USA and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as the Christian Reformed Church of North America, the Reformed Church of America and the United Church of Christ.
Writer Brian Cross says that while there has been somewhat of an alliance between Protestants and Catholics over the matter for centuries, disagreement has remained.
“The Catholic Church has long recognized the validity of Protestant baptisms in which the person was baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” he explained. “In the last ten or fifteen years, however, there were concerns among Catholic bishops regarding Protestant baptisms in which different names were substituted for the Holy Trinity, or in which a method of sprinkling was used that did not achieve any flow of water on the skin.”
“The Dutch and German Reformed traditions have generally recognized the validity of Catholic baptisms, as have most Presbyterian churches. The major exception to this were the Presbyterian churches in the United States since the time of James Henry Thornwell in the mid-nineteenth century, especially in the south. Thornwell argued that Catholic baptisms were invalid because Catholic priests were not ‘lawful ministers of the Word,'” Cross continued. “Some Reformed denominations in the United States remain on Thornwell’s side of that debate, and still do not necessarily accept the validity of Catholic baptisms.”
While there remains debate over whether Protestants — those who agree with Reformers such as Martin Luther, who rebuked and separated from the Roman Catholic Church with his “95 theses,” a document that outlined his many concerns with the establishment’s traditions and teachings — should agree to recognize Catholic baptisms, the greater question of whether Protestants and Catholics should engage in any forms of ecumenicism at all continues to be an issue among Christians.
“Everybody’s afraid to say that Roman Catholics are not Christians, and that if you make that statement, you are perceived as unloving or old school,” stated Pastor Jon Speed of the Log College and Christ is King Baptist Church in Syracuse, New York. “But, either we’re trying to hide what we believe about the Gospel, or we don’t really believe it.”
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