ROME – Fans of the epic British period drama “Downton Abbey” will recall that in the series finale, at one point Gladys Denker, maid to the Dowager Countess Lady Violet Crawley, schemes to sabotage her chief rival, Spratt the butler, by revealing that he moonlights as an advice columnist for a lady’s journal, expecting that he’ll be fired. Instead, the dowager declares herself amused, and Spratt’s job is safe.
Later, Spratt says to Denker that she made a fatal mistake regarding their employer in her haste to be rid of him. When Denker asks what it was, the reply is lapidary.
“She never likes to be predictable,” Spratt says.
Anyone who’s been paying attention for the past decade knows there’s a fair bit of the dowager inside Pope Francis too, who also seems to recoil from the idea that someone has him figured out. Just when you expect him to zig, he’ll zag instead, seeming to take an almost perverse delight in confounding expectations.
Yesterday brought a couple of these Downtown Abbey moments, in the form of a new note from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith on the formula employed in administering the sacraments, and a personal letter from Francis to the Jews of Israel.
To begin with the note on the sacraments, which carries the Latin title Gestis verbisque, or “actions and words,” technically it’s not a papal document but rather the result of deliberations by a recent plenary assembly of the dicastery. Nonetheless, on Jan. 31 it was approved by Pope Francis, who ordered its publication, so it carries his direct blessing, and one imagines that Argentine Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández would not have brought it forward if it weren’t what the pope wanted.
Here’s the surprise: For a pope who has spent much of his reign inveighing against fussy legalism and rigorism, Gestis verbisque takes a remarkably legalistic stance vis-à-vis sacramental formula, insisting that if they’re not followed to the letter, the sacraments administered are invalid and must be repeated.
The new note essentially confirms the line taken by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in August 2020, when the erstwhile Holy Office decreed that a baptism employing the language of “We baptize you” rather than “I baptize you” is invalid, on the theological basis that the minister of the sacrament is not the “we” of the community but the “I” of Christ acting through the priest.
Emblematic cases in this regard have arisen in the U.S., in Detroit in 2020 and in Phoenix in 2022.
In Detroit, Father Matthew Hood came forward after the 2020 Vatican document appeared to report that the deacon who celebrated his 1990 baptism, which had been captured on video, used the “We baptize” language, thus rendering the sacrament invalid, along with Hood’s priestly ordination in 2017 and every sacrament he’d administered in the years since. Hood was ordained anew by Archbishop Allen Vigneron, and people who’d received sacraments from him before were invited to repeat them.
In Phoenix, it emerged that a local priest named Father Andrés Arango had been using the “We baptize” formula for 26 years, rendering thousands of baptisms he’d performed over that time invalid. He was removed from his post, and the diocese set up a special section on its website to help people arrange to be baptized anew.
When those stories broke, many critics argued that the church was being overly harsh and ritualistic, that the more compassionate thing to do would have been to say that while the baptisms in question were illicit, meaning conducted without permission and thus subject to sanction for the minister, they were nevertheless valid, since the people undergoing baptism had a sincere intention to receive the sacrament.
Making such a distinction would, arguably, be a very Pope Francis move. It’s worth noting that Gestis verbisque appeared shortly after Fiducia Supplicans had created a firestorm precisely by overturning a previous ruling from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2021, which had held the Church could not bless same-sex unions.
In that context, it would have been completely reasonable to expect the dicastery, with the pope’s encouragement, to draw a similar conclusion about the sacraments, once again overturning a previous ruling. Instead they cut the other way, doubling down on the conservative position.
Later on Saturday, the Vatican also released a letter the pope had dispatched the day before to Jews in Israel, which was addressed to Karma Ben Johanan, a 41-year-old professor of Christianity and Jewish-Christian relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and who’s also engaged in teaching and research at the Jesuit-sponsored Gregorian University in Rome.
The unpredictable element here is that Francis is a pope who generally doesn’t like to even acknowledge, let alone placate, his critics. That’s another point of contact with Lady Violet, by the way, who once famously pronounced her motto as “never complain, never explain.”
Yet in this case, Pope Francis has gone out of his way to reach out to his detractors, trying to calm tensions that have developed in Jewish-Christian relations due to his response to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
“This war has also produced divisive attitudes in public opinion worldwide and divisive positions, sometimes taking the form of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism,” the pope wrote.
“The path that the Church has walked with you, the ancient people of the covenant, rejects every form of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, unequivocally condemning manifestations of hatred towards Jews and Judaism as a sin against God,” Francis said.
“Together with you, we, Catholics, are very concerned about the terrible increase in attacks against Jews around the world,” he wrote. “We had hoped that ‘never again’ would be a refrain heard by the new generations, yet now we see that the path ahead requires ever closer collaboration to eradicate these phenomena.”
Those lines come after many Jewish leaders have objected to what they see as the pope’s troubling moral equivalence regarding the war in Gaza, lamenting violence on all sides without clearly identifying Hamas as the aggressor and Israel as engaged in legitimate self-defense. Many Jewish leaders became especially incensed in November after a Palestinian delegation reported Francis had used the word “genocide” to describe Israel’s offensive, a claim a Vatican spokesman tried to deny but without great success.
In that context, the new letter clearly seems an effort on the part of Pope Francis to mend fences.
Whether Catholic theological conservatives will be reassured by the new edict on the sacraments, or whether Jews disappointed in the Vatican will be consoled by the new letter, remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that both developments have shown us the pope still capable of surprise.