In the 2006 film Nacho Libre, there is a scene where Ignacio, a Roman Catholic (but not an ordained priest), decides to sneak up on his tag partner Steven and baptize him, despite Steven not wanting anything to do with the church.

Ignacio: I'm a little concerned right now. About…your salvation and stuff. How come you've not been baptized?

Steven: Because I never got around to it, okay?

[Ignacio shrugs and starts to fill up a bowl with water]

Steven: I don't know why you always have to be judging me. Because I only believe in science.

[Ignacio finishes filing the bowl with water and starts walking up behind Steven]

Ignacio: But tonight, we are going up against Satan's cavemen. [Makes the sign of the cross] And I just thought it would be a good idea if you … [dunks Steven's head in the water] are baptized!

[Steven is in shock]

Ignacio: Felicidades.

While this is played for comedy, would forced baptism, like that shown in Nacho Libre, be valid according to Catholicism? What would be the rationale if it isn't?

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    This will depend on your doctrine of baptism. Paedobaptists obviously believe you can be while credobaptists would not ;)
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 9, 2016 at 11:42
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    Seriously, though, please specify a) which view of baptism you are asking about (Catholic, Calvinist, Baptist, other) and b) what you mean by "this sort." There are a number of things that are involved here that aren't mentioned: Is Ignacio a minister? Has Steven been converted? How old is Steven? And besides, Ignacio didn't say "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Mar 9, 2016 at 12:16
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    @curiousdanii Note that even those who practice infant baptism (e.g., Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans) would probably agree that adults (and in general those able to use their free will) cannot be baptized against their will. Catholics and Orthodox for sure—the mileage might vary a little for the others. Mar 9, 2016 at 15:10
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    @LeeWoofenden I added Roman Catholic in an edit. Do I need to do something more? Mar 9, 2016 at 20:06
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    I would suggest removing the parts in the last two paragraphs about what other denominations believe, and adding "Roman Catholic" to the title, as in, "According to the Catholic Church, can . . . ." To be on-topic here, the question needs to ask what one particular denomination believes on the subject. If you're interested in other denominations, you can ask separate questions for any denomination whose answer you want. However, the scene from the film puts the question in a Catholic context, so that's the most obvious one. Mar 9, 2016 at 20:50

4 Answers 4


In short, the answer is “no.”

Even for the Catholic Church, according to which Baptism is an instrument through which saving (sanctifying) grace is infused into a person’s soul, a forced baptism or baptism imposed by trickery would not be valid.

St. Thomas Aquinas, in his treatise on Baptism (part of the Summa theologiae) explains as follows:

I answer that, By Baptism a man dies to the old life of sin, and begins a certain newness of life, according to Rm. 6:4: “We are buried together with” Christ “by Baptism into death; that, as Christ is risen from the dead … so we also may walk in newness of life.” Consequently, just as, according to Augustine [Serm. 351], he who has the use of free-will, must, in order to die to the old life, “will to repent of his former life”; so must he, of his own will, intend to lead a new life, the beginning of which is precisely the receiving of the sacrament. Therefore on the part of the one baptized, it is necessary for him to have the will or intention of receiving the sacrament (Summa theologiae, IIIa, q. 68, a. 7).

If the receiver of baptism, then, were opposed to receiving the sacrament, or (as in the case described in the O.P.) it were conferred on him without his consent, then it would be invalid.

(Of course, pretending to receive baptism while internally refusing to allow it to occur, or else—as in the O.P.’s example—forcing or tricking someone into being baptized, is at least objectively a grave sacrilege. Although I am not familiar with the story, it seems as though Ignacio is well-intentioned but misguided.)

Note that, at least as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, although a person with the use of reason (and hence the ability to make free-will decisions) can prevent Baptism from taking place by an internal act of the will, there is nothing to prevent infants from being baptized. Infants, not having the ability to make free-will decisions, cannot place an obstacle to baptism, and so it takes place in them without fail.

(I will also observe that Ignacio’s attempt at baptism would have been invalid, even if it were not against Steven’s will, because the Trinitarian formula is necessary for validity. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1239-1240.)

A note about Aquinas’ notion of intention

In discussing the sacraments, most Catholic theologians use Aquinas’ notion of intention, which would be good to recall. The term intention, which comes from the Latin in (which translates better in this case as “toward” or “into” than the English “in”) and tendere (to tend). Intention, then refers to any tendency toward an end.

In Aquinas, intention gets special attention when he speaks about our faculties and other natural tendencies. When applied to these, intention refers to the actuation of these faculties and tendencies in response to their proper object. For example, the proper object of the intellect is the beings that exist in the world around us, and so the concepts that we form about these beings can be called intentions.

However, intention can also apply to the will (which is the usage most familiar to us nowadays). In the case of the will, it specifically refers to choosing the means so as to obtain an end. I have the intention to go for a walk, as soon as I start to put on by walking shoes and go for the door (which are the means required for me to go for a walk).

That is the precise meaning that Aquinas gives when he says (in the passage I quoted above)

so must he, of his own will, intend to lead a new life, the beginning of which is precisely the receiving of the sacrament.


it is necessary for him to have the will or intention of receiving the sacrament

That means that you can’t just sneak up on a (conscious, adult) person and baptize him without his knowledge. The receiver’s will has to be involved and actually want the baptism (provided, of course, that it is not physically impeded: as is the case in infants, or in comatose or unconscious persons, or mentally handicapped persons).

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    How would this apply to, e.g., an adult (someone with the ordinary use of reason) who is unconscious and in the opinion of a potential baptizer unlikely to recover before death - someone who might be subject to an "emergency" Baptism? Mar 9, 2016 at 14:44
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    @MattGutting If it were known beforehand that the person would not want baptism (e.g., if he were an atheist or something like that), then his wishes should be respected. If the person has expressed explicitly a desire for baptism, then he may be baptized as normal; if there is a doubt, then he may be baptized conditionally. Basically, whatever the person’s disposition toward baptism was, before he went unconscious, would be definitive here. Mar 9, 2016 at 14:56
  • I disagree. For the Catholic Church, when a child is born, they should not leave the house until they're baptized. This has changed to "a few weeks" - however the point remains. I'm pretty sure the child didn't use his/her will to choose to be baptized. vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P2X.HTM "Can. 867 §1. Parents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks; as soon as possible after the birth or even before it, they are to go to the pastor to request the sacrament for their child and to be prepared properly for it." Mar 9, 2016 at 17:19
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    @Freemason I was talking about the baptism of unbaptized adults in danger of death (hence people not raised Catholic). Mar 10, 2016 at 6:36
  • Parents have profound affects on their children. Through the parents own experience they try to impart what they believe to be important to their children. Children's world views are naturally shaped by how their parents raise them. The parents are in essence making choices for their child. In baptizing infants, it is the parents who are making one of these choices to raise their children in the faith of the Church. Not to baptize would also be making a choice for the child. It can not be escaped. Even an attempt at neutrality would impart what the parents think is important to the child.
    – Matthew
    Mar 14, 2016 at 18:49

Charles Elliott (Delineation of Roman Catholicism, pages 208; 1841) cites the Catechism of the Council of Trent, which says that an adult must desire and propose to receive baptism, however he says that compulsory baptism may also be practised. He cites Pope Innocent III, who said that any voluntary consent is sufficient, although mixed with an involuntary one such as force or fear, or to accomplish a flagitious deed, or to obtain the favour of a prince or some other temporal gain. Innocent said that a person so baptised is forced to the observance of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, this seems to be contrary to the teachings of the Church.

On page 214, under the heading of Compulsory Baptism, Elliott says that adults who are permanently deranged can be baptised without consent. He then list various circumstances in which children can be baptised without the consent or, in some cases, the knowledge of their parents.

Mother Teresa, Catholic missionary to India, appears to have pushed the boundaries of voluntary baptism, encouraging members of her order to secretly baptise dying patients, without regard to the individual's religion. Susan Shields, a former member of the Missionaries of Charity, writes that "Sisters were to ask each person in danger of death if he wanted a 'ticket to heaven'. An affirmative reply was to mean consent to baptism. The sister was then to pretend that she was just cooling the patient’s head with a wet cloth, while in fact she was baptising him, saying quietly the necessary words. Secrecy was important so that it would not come to be known that Mother Teresa’s sisters were baptising Hindus and Muslims." Mother Teresa is to be recognised as a saint in 2016, so no culpability has been attached to these actions.

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    Note that compulsory baptism is now prohibited in the Catholic Church. It was never a good idea to begin with, obviously, although it did happen (e.g., in Spain with the Jews and Muslims there in the 15 and 16th centuries). Note that, although emergency baptism of those in danger of death is permitted (i.e., the person who does it is not guilty of wrongdoing), the Church does not promote such a practice, when it goes against the express will of the parents: see catholic.com/quickquestions/… Mar 10, 2016 at 7:29


According to most Christians, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, it would not be valid because there is no mention of the baptism being in the name of the God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Therefore the Baptism was not administered in the right form.

Apart from form there must be water, and the baptizer must genuinely intend to baptize. Both these criteria seem to have been met.

If Ignacio had included a mention of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, might it be valid then? An adult, at any rate if conscious and able to make a decision, is required to desire to be baptised, if it is to be valid. Ignacio asked Steven the reason he had not already been baptised. Steven gave as the reason that he had never got around to it. If that was genuinely his only reason; if, that is, he fully intended to get baptised, but had simply not got round to it, then he could validly receive baptism. If that were indeed the case, and if the right words had been used, then the baptism would be valid.

The fact that Ignacio was not an ordained priest or minister, would have no effect on the validity of the Baptism, from the Roman Catholic and Church of England perspective. As a separate matter Ignacio could be said to be performing baptism illicitly, of doing something wrong, but that would not affect the validity of the baptism as far as Steven was concerned.

There are some cases, of which this might be one, where traditionally the Church does not itself claim to know whether a baptism is valid or invalid, even if in possession of all the facts. In such a case if baptism were subsequently requested then a conditional baptism would be performed: "Steven, if you are not already baptised, I baptise you ...".

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    At least as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the intention of the receiver of baptism (in those with the use of reason) is a necessary condition for baptism to take place. See my answer. Mar 9, 2016 at 14:18
  • @AthanasiusOfAlex I understand that the recipient must havethe intention of receiving baptism, and mention this. If however a person has definitely resolved upon receiving baptism, but is not expecting it at that moment, would that element of surprise invalidate it? I can't see clearly from your quote from Aquinas that it definitively would.
    – davidlol
    Mar 9, 2016 at 23:10
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    I see also that the question has now been edited to say that Steven wanted nothing to do with Church, In that case, clearly my scenario is invalidated and so is my answer.
    – davidlol
    Mar 9, 2016 at 23:13
  • The answer lies in what Aquinas means by “intention.” “Intention” can apply to any faculty or tendency, but when it regards the will, it means the choosing of means in order to obtain an end. Having the “intention” of receiving baptism (or any other sacrament) means basically “wanting to receive it here and now.” You can’t run up behind someone, dump water on his head while pronouncing the formula, and produce a valid baptism. “Intention” is not the same as the person’s disposition toward baptism: “intention” is how that disposition works out here and now. Mar 10, 2016 at 6:25
  • So, Steven’s ”baptism” would be invalid, even in he were well disposed to baptism, and even if he had expressed a desire for baptism in the past. Mar 10, 2016 at 6:30

In Catholicism as with the majority of Christian traditions, it is recognised that baptism in itself is not the thing that saves, but rather faith made complete by the action (James 2:22). It is the common 'point of entry' for a Christian because it functions as a point where an individual places their faith in God to save them through the death and resurrection of Jesus:

"this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also--not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ" - 1 Peter 2:31

Similarly, it is affirmed throughout the New Testament that salvation comes by faith, not works or actions which we do or which are done to us:

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God" - Ephesians 2:8

So in conclusion - no, forced baptism is not valid. Salvation only results from an individual's repentant faith in God to save them through Jesus, as outworked in their life thereafter.

EDIT: The role of Baptism and Faith in Catholicism

The catechism of the Catholic Church is clear on this matter - Baptism is the point of entry as outlined above, but not the driver or 'enabling factor' for salvation itself. Faith in Jesus as outlined in the New Testament is still the only means by which men and women are saved. Baptism is called "the sacrament of faith", because it is the key action by which that saving faith is completed (again, James 2:22), though it must also be followed by other sacraments including the Eucharist:

Catechism of the Catholic Church > Part Two > Section Two > Chapter One

1229 From the time of the apostles, becoming a Christian has been accomplished by a journey and initiation in several stages. This journey can be covered rapidly or slowly, but certain essential elements will always have to be present: proclamation of the Word, acceptance of the Gospel entailing conversion, profession of faith, Baptism itself, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and admission to Eucharistic communion.


1236 The proclamation of the Word of God enlightens the candidates and the assembly with the revealed truth and elicits the response of faith, which is inseparable from Baptism. Indeed Baptism is "the sacrament of faith" in a particular way, since it is the sacramental entry into the life of faith.


1253 Baptism is the sacrament of faith. But faith needs the community of believers. It is only within the faith of the Church that each of the faithful can believe. The faith required for Baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop. The catechumen or the godparent is asked: "What do you ask of God's Church?" The response is: "Faith!"

1254 For all the baptized, children or adults, faith must grow after Baptism. For this reason the Church celebrates each year at the Easter Vigil the renewal of baptismal promises. Preparation for Baptism leads only to the threshold of new life. Baptism is the source of that new life in Christ from which the entire Christian life springs forth.

  • "In the majority of Christian traditions" - in half. Catholicism and Protestant. Mar 9, 2016 at 17:23
  • ... Are those the only two you know? Mar 9, 2016 at 17:27
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    Now that the question has been changed to be specifically for the Roman Catholic denomination, your answer no longer fits. Mar 9, 2016 at 20:34
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    Just wanted to mention that, according to the Catholic Church at least, baptism is instrumental for salvation. That is, it efficaciously produces sanctifying grace (provided the person has the proper disposition), which is what then saves the person. There are some nuances, as well, as to what exactly is meant by “faith.” If by “faith” we mean “the theological virtue by which we know God and the truths revealed by Him,” then the Church would say that faith is necessary for salvation, but not sufficient: what is absolutely necessary for salvation is sanctifying grace. Mar 10, 2016 at 8:23
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    @SteveTaylor OK, I'll accept the "overly critical" as a fair criticism of my comment. Agree that with the question revised, it didn't fit anyway. FWIW, the 'by faith alone' gambit that Freemason pointed out adds nothing to the answer given what the question asks. All it does is act as a red flag. (You otherwise raise many good points). Mar 10, 2016 at 16:27

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