WASHINGTON –– Representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and four Protestant denominations in the Reformed tradition have publicly reaffirmed a mutual agreement in effect since the Second Vatican Council that recognizes the validity of each other's baptisms.
The four Protestant bodies are the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Christian Reformed Church in North America, the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ.
The signing took place Jan. 29 at St. Mary Cathedral in Austin, Texas, during a prayer service at the opening of the annual meeting of the ecumenical association Christian Churches Together, which includes over 40 Christian denominations and groups.
It marked the first time the Catholic Church in the United States has ever signed on to such an agreement, although Catholic bishops' conferences elsewhere in the world have done so.
The USCCB in Washington announced the signing Feb. 1 and released the text of the agreement.
The signing in Austin comes amid a trend that has developed over the past 20 or so years to introduce nontraditional baptismal rites in which Protestant pastors, and sometimes priests, use a formula other than the traditional Trinitarian formula of "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," according to the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. A common example of this nontraditional formula is "Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer," which the Catholic Church cannot accept as the proper form of baptism.
The common agreement was the result of six years of study and consultation by Catholic and Reformed scholars during the seventh round of the Catholic-Reformed dialogue in the United States. The first round of that dialogue began in 1965.
The key provision in the common agreement is that only those baptisms which are performed "with flowing water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" will be considered valid by the signatories. Proof of baptism is to be accomplished by the use of common wording on baptismal certificates for baptisms performed after the effective date of the agreement.
"There has already been a strong response from CCT (Christian Churches Together) members who have said this represents healing," said a Feb. 1 statement from Fr. John Crossin, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales who is executive director of USCCB's Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. "In the past, there has been much confusion, and even pain, over the failure to reach an understanding on this question. Our hope is that this would be a model for similar agreements."
"We are overjoyed at this historic recognition of one another's baptism and are committed to move forward in a new round exploring a common vision of the church," said Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden of Baltimore, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, in a Feb. 1 statement.
Representatives at the signing said they hoped other denominations would reflect on this agreement and respond to it.
The 2010 common agreement urged pastors of all participating churches to "continue their commitment to dialogue about theology and pastoral practice" both locally and internationally.
"Pastoral leaders engaged in such dialogue embody our hopes for unity and collaborative effort and common witness, it added.
"We believe that respectful dialogue can provide a strong witness to the wider church about our commitment to a relationship in Christ and can stand as a safeguard against the unreflective judgments that have, at certain times in our history, diminished and distorted our relations."