Leaders of U.S. Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches will sign a historic agreement Tuesday in Austin by which the two traditions will formally recognize each other’s liturgical rites of baptism.
The product of seven years of talks among five denominations, the agreement will be signed at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday at a prayer service and celebration at St. Mary Cathedral. The service will be open to the public and will be part of the opening day activities of the national meeting of Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A., which will continue through Friday in Austin.
Representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Christian Reformed Church in North America, Reformed Church in America and United Church of Christ will sign the document.
“This ecumenical effort, this mutual recognition of baptism, is part of our response to Jesus’ prayer that ‘we may all be one,’ ” said Bishop Joe Vásquez of the Catholic Diocese of Austin.
Before the agreement, Protestant denominations of the Reformed Church tradition normally accepted Catholic baptisms, but the Catholic church did not always accept theirs, said the Rev. Tom Weinandy of the Catholic bishops conference in Washington.
Weinandy, who participated in the discussions that led to the agreement, said Catholics questioned the validity of baptisms if they did not invoke the names of the Trinity.
The document to be signed Tuesday says, “For our baptisms to be mutually recognized, water and the scriptural Trinitarian formula “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28: 19-20) must be used in the baptismal rite.”
The agreement confirms that baptism is the sacramental gateway into the Christian life and that it is to be conferred only once.
“We wanted to assure one another that we had common liturgical practices and a common theology to the extent that the baptism of one church would be recognized by the other churches,” Weinandy said.
Denominations also agree to keep standard baptism records.
Keeping records “becomes especially important in the Catholic Church when you have marriages between a Catholic and someone who is not of the Catholic Church,” Weinandy said. “It’s important to the other churches as well.”
A representative for the Presbyterian Church in San Antonio said it welcomed the agreement.
“We’re very much in concert with it,” said Ruben Armendariz, associate presbyter of the San Antonio-based presbytery, which includes the Austin area. “It’s a historical moment.”
UPDATE: Some readers expressed surprise at this news — “Haven’t we always recognized Protestant baptisms?,” someone asked —but Jaweed Kaleem at Huffington Post explains the nuances of this agreement, from a USCCB document:
In 2002, concerns over certain practices (such as baptism by sprinkling) and spoken formulas (such as baptism in the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier) used by some Christians led the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity to urge national bishops’ conferences to study their mutual understanding of baptism with other Christians. These questions were examined and resolved by Round Seven of the Reformed-Roman Catholic Dialogue-USA, which produced the Common Agreement, as well as a study entitled “These Living Waters.”