In the Western or Latin church, the “ordinary ministers” of baptism are bishops, priests, and deacons. In cases of necessity, however, anyone can baptize—even people who are not baptized themselves (CCC 1256). (“Necessity” is commonly understood as a situation where there is danger of death or a situation where no ordinary minster is available for a prolonged period of time.) This distinguishes baptism from the consecration of the Eucharist, which can be performed only by an ordained priest.
For a baptism to be valid, three conditions must be met. First, the proper matter must be used: water. Second, the person who baptizes must do so with the required intention. This entails having the “will to do what the Church does”—not having full knowledge of the nature of baptism or what it does. Third, the trinitarian baptismal formula must be used: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
The teaching that anyone can baptize was definitively taught in 1215 by the Fourth Lateran Council. The council’s confession of faith reads,
The sacrament of baptism (which is celebrated in water at the invocation of God and the undivided Trinity, that is, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) conduces to the salvation of children as well as of adults when duly conferred by anyone according to the Church’s form.
Pope Eugenius reaffirmed this teaching in his 1439 papal bull Exsultate Deo (Decree for the Armenians). He added to Lateran IV’s declaration by highlighting the need for proper intention:
The minister of this sacrament is the priest, to whom by reason of his office it belongs to baptize. But in case of necessity not only priests or deacons, but also laymen or laywomen or even pagans and heretics may baptize, provided they observe the Church’s form and intend to do what the Church does.
We can look to St. Thomas Aquinas for the rationale behind this teaching. Aquinas starts with the idea that “in those things which are necessary for salvation, man can easily find the remedy.” He roots this in the mercy of God, which is expressed in God’s desire to save all men (1 Tim. 2:4). Aquinas identifies baptism as “the most necessary among all the sacraments” and concludes both that “the matter of baptism should be something common that is easily obtainable by all [water] . . . and that the minister of baptism should be anyone.”
The Catechism concurs: “The Church finds the reason for this possibility in the universal saving will of God and the necessity of baptism for salvation” (1256).
The practice of allowing others besides the ordinary ministers of baptism—bishop, priest, or deacon—to administer the sacrament in times of necessity dates to around the turn of the third century. Initially, permission was restricted to baptized laity, and particularly lay men. (The first mention of the permissibility of women administering baptism is found in the Middle Ages— see Pope Urban II’s Epistle, 271.) It wasn’t until the eighth century, at the Synod at Compiègne (757), that the Church permitted unbaptized persons to administer baptism. Pope Nicholas I, more than century later (866), confirmed the Synod of Compiègne’s teaching.
What about heretics? Can they baptize?
This was a divisive issue in the third century. Great bishops, such as St. Cyprian of Carthage, taught that heretics could not validly administer baptism. At the time, Pope St. Stephen I appealed to Sacred Tradition and authoritatively opposed Cyprian on this issue. Others, like St. Augustine, would follow suit and teach that heretics could validly administer baptism. Augustine famously defended this view in his work On Baptism, Against the Donatists.
The Council of Trent definitively settled the issue in the sixteenth century, infallibly teaching that a heretic could validly administer baptism: “If anyone says that baptism, even that given by heretics in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, with the intention of doing what the Church does, is not true baptism, let him be anathema.”
Now that we know who can administer baptism, let’s answer the next question: who can receive baptism? The Catechism states it plainly: “Every person not yet baptized” (1246).
The “not yet” part is rooted in the Church’s teaching that a valid baptism can be received only once. This teaching came to the fore during the early centuries, when the Church dealt with the issue of whether apostates who repented had to be rebaptized. Cyprian of Carthage was a leading figure arguing that they should be. Stephen I opposed Cyprian on this issue as well, and later popes and councils would re-affirm and uphold the teaching that re-baptism is not necessary even for those who have left the Faith and returned.
Note that the Catechism does not give any age requirements. Both adults and infants are capable of receiving baptism. For adults, the preparation for baptism—also known as the catechumenate—plays an important role. It is meant to “dispose the catechumen [the person preparing to receive baptism] to receive the gift of God in baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist” (1247).
Unlike in the case with adults, the practice of infant baptism is not explicitly attested to in Scripture. (This is reasonable, given that much of the New Testament chronicles the conversion of adults.) Infant baptism is, however, attested to within the Christian tradition as early as the second century. For example, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in his work Against Heresies (A.D. 180), wrote,
For he [Jesus] came to save all through means of himself—all, I say, who through him are born again to God—infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men.
For Irenaeus, “born again to God” refers to baptism. And infants are included among those who are baptized.
Hippolytus of Rome, a second- and early-third-century theologian, similarly taught that children should be baptized, stating plainly, “Baptize first the children.” He then specifies that children should be baptized regardless of whether they can speak for themselves: “If they [the baptized children] can speak for themselves, let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them.”
There’s one last group that is sometimes mentioned when discussing who can receive baptism: the dead. This question about the dead arises due to a statement that Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 15:29: “What do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?”
It’s generally agreed that whatever Paul was talking about, it was not baptism administered to the dead. Rather, either it was a representative baptism, in which a person was baptized on behalf of someone who died to obtain the baptismal graces for that deceased person, or it was a baptismal ceremony that someone underwent viewing it as a way by which he could intercede for his deceased loved ones. Regardless, Christians have never believed that a dead person could be baptized. In fact, the Synods of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) explicitly condemned such baptisms.
This article is an excerpt from our new 20 Answers booklet, “Baptism,” now available to buy in the Catholic Answers shop.