Is Roman Catholic baptism valid?
The question concerning the validity of Roman Catholic baptism is difficult, and Reformed people are divided upon it. The basic question is this: Was the baptism done in the name of the Trinity, with water, and with the intent to mark the person with the promises of God for His covenant? If you’ve concluded that was the original intent of the Roman baptism, then I think it is not a requirement for that person to be re-baptized.
The other position that people in the Reformed church take is this: since the Roman Catholic Church, in the sixteenth century, condemned and anathematized the gospel, she ceased being a Christian body at that time. Therefore, all of her ordinances and sacraments would henceforth be invalid.
The issue becomes more foggy because of the Donatist controversy in church history. In it, “lapsey” priests, so-called because they had lapsed in the faith, caved to the pressure of persecution, and continued to administer the sacrament. The question was whether their baptism was valid even though they had lapsed from the faith? Augustine, who was dealing with this issue at the time, answered in the affirmative because the validity of the baptism is not determined by the one who administers it. The one who baptizes is administering a promise of God for His people to receive certain benefits of the work of Christ if and when they come to faith. So, the integrity of the sacrament rests with the integrity of God, not with the one who administers it.
The way I generally treat it is this: if a person who had an evangelical baptism as an infant wants me to re-baptize him, I won’t do it. If a person who was baptized in a Roman Catholic environment as an infant doesn’t believe in the validity of that baptism and asks me to baptize him, I usually will.
This is one of those questions that is complicated and complex, but that is the gist of my view.
This is a transcript of R.C. Sproul’s answer given during our 2015 Pilgrims in Progress Regional Conference, and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, just visit Ask.Ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.