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According to the currently top answer to the question Who is a Christian according to the Catholic Church? a 'Christian' according to the Catholic Church is one who is validly baptized. That leads to the question, what does the Catholic Church consider to be a valid baptism?

The article Determining the fact and validity of baptism says regarding how the Catholic Church figures out if someone's baptism is valid

The Catholic Church recognizes the validity of Baptism by other Christian ecclesial communities when the proper matter and form are used and when both the baptizing minister and the person being baptized have the proper intention (CIC 869 § 2). Water is poured or the one or be baptized is immersed in water (the matter) (CIC 854; GI 18, 22), and the minister says, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (the form) (CIC 850; GI 23). The minister's intention simply "to baptize" and the recipient's intention (or, if an infant or child, his or her parents' and godparents' intention in his or her name), simply "to be baptized" is sufficient to meet this test, even if none of the parties had a full theological understanding of the sacrament of Baptism.

A Biblical Unitarian church very well may use such a formulation for baptism, because 1. Unitarians believe the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are important and 2. Matthew 28:19 straightforwardly says to do so.

"Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the holy spirit"

As the REV (Biblical Unitarian translation) commentary on Matthew 28:19 says

"Given God’s ultimate authority and power [Father], Christ’s exalted position as the risen Messiah and Lord [Son], and the power of God to believers via the holy spirit, which Jesus spoke of at the Last Supper, it makes sense that Jesus would mention all three of them here in Matthew 28."

Would a person baptized by a Biblical Unitarian church using water and the formulation "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" be considered Christian by the Catholic Church?

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Would a person baptized by a Biblical Unitarian church be considered a Christian by the Catholic Church?

The short answer is no.

It is not that they may or may not use the correct biblical phrasing in their their baptisms as the Church does or that they may have came out of the Reformation.

The crux of the matter is that they do not believe in the Trinity and as such can not baptize someone as doing so with the intention that the Church desires that the intentions of the Church, that is to say in the name of the Holy Trinity to be followed in administering the sacrament of baptism. Baptisms of other Christian denominations are considered valid if they employ the correct phrasing, matter and intention (believe in the Holy Trinity).

Unitarians do not believe in Sacred Trinity and as such can not validly baptize someone.

An example if you wish:

“The words Father, Son and Holy Spirit, have for the Mormons a meaning totally different from the Christian meaning,” Ladaria wrote. “The differences are so great that one cannot even consider that this doctrine is a heresy which emerged out of a false understanding of the Christian doctrine. The teaching of the Mormons has a completely different matrix.”

In the Mormon understanding, baptism was begun by God with Adam, not by Christ. They deny the existence of original sin, and so do not act from the Catholic view that baptism remits both personal and original sin, Ladaria explained. If an LDS member renounces his or her faith or is excommunicated and later wants to return, they require a “re-baptism.”

For Christians, however, baptism is a unique event that can only take place once.

A minister of a Mormon baptism intends to do what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints means by baptism, not what the Catholic Church means by it. - Are there baptisms that seem Christian, but aren’t?

In the mind of the Catholic Church, Unitarians are considered a ecclesiastical community and not a Christian Church.

Even then the Church only accepts baptisms from other faith communities that used the proper form and matter of the sacrament. Even these baptisms must use the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” to be valid.

This website clearly shows that Unitarian baptisms are not recognized by the Catholic Church and as such converts must be rebaptized.

A valid baptism depends for its sacramental validity upon Several components which are necessary for any valid sacrament: proper minister, matter, form, subject, and intention. The necessary intention for a valid baptism is, simply, 'generally to do what the Church does.' This is not to intend what the Church intends, but to do what the Church does, i.e., simply baptize. This general intention suffices, even if the minister and the subject hold to an heretical doctrine of the sacrament being conferred. So long as one intends seriously to perform the rite of baptism that is, seriously to perform the Christian rite however understood, the intention is valid for the administration of the sacrament. So long as one merely intends to do what Our Lord Jesus Christ or the true Church do in baptism (even in opposition to the Catholic Church's doctrine), such an baptism is valid, even if heretical views are maintained on baptism itself. Heretical views on the sacrament of order do not invalidate baptism. This position is precisely the position Saint Augustine of Hippo took against the Donatist schism, and it has been the general and authoritative teaching of the Church since the fourth century. Saint Thomas Aquinas echoes this teaching in the Summa Theologica, Supplement, Question 38, Second Article. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine defends this very point in his On the Sacraments In Gen. I.21. Those who dissent from the Catholic Church can validly baptise, even if they hold doctrines on the very sacraments themselves at odds with the Church, as long as the Church's basic rule on baptism is preserved.

The Catholic Church is a Trinitarian faith based Church and will recognize only those baptisms coming from within other Christian denominations that believe in the Trinity and provided that the other norms have been meant.

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    Is there a reason that Pentecostal denominations are lumped into one as invalid baptisms? +1 May 16 at 12:50
  • @mike definitely fodder for another question, but do Pentecostals say "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" or "in the name of the Creator and the Redeemer and the Sanctifier" or something like that? Until Ken posted this, I'd thought it was just the words that mattered; but I guess this is as it should be - the intention behind the words (the Terms) are what really matter.
    – Peter Turner
    May 16 at 14:11
  • It seems the key to this answer is the Valid Baptisms Reference list, can you pull out what you think is relevant from that doc? I can find Unitarian/Universalist, but it's not clear if this is a reference to Biblical Unitarians or Unitarian Universalists, which I wouldn't consider Christian either and don't use "In the name of F, S, HS" in their baptismal equivalent rituals. May 16 at 16:25
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    @PeterTurner The Pentecostal baptisms I have attended have used the typical wording. May 17 at 11:52
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From the partial quotes given below, I suspect that Biblical Unitarian baptism would not be deemed acceptable by the Catholic Church. I assume that Biblical Unitarianism is not based on the theology of Roman Catholicism but has emerged out of the Protestant Reformation.

However, the Catholic Church expressly excludes "those Christian communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century," since, according to Catholic doctrine, these communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of orders, and therefore lack a constitutive element of the Church. This includes the Anglican Communion, the validity of whose orders the Roman Catholic Church has declared "absolutely null and utterly void". This judgement, as enunciated in the papal bull Apostolicae curae of 1896, has been given as an example of a truth connected to revelation that is to be held definitively.

Source: Wikipedia article Ecclesial Community

Here is an extract from an official Roman Catholic document on the validity of Christian Baptism:

The Roman Catholic norm for valid baptism must follow the proper matter and form. The “matter” is water baptism by immersion or pouring. The “form” is the Trinitarian formula (canons 849, 850; RCIA 226). Always ensure that this has been followed.

If the rituals or established customs of a church or community prescribe baptism by immersion, pouring, sprinkling together with the Trinitarian formula (in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit), doubt can only arise if it happens that the minister did not observe the regulations of his or her own church or community.

The article goes on to list which denominations are considered by the Catholic Church to be valid and which are invalid. Unitarians/Universalists are deemed to be invalid.

Source: US Catholic Diocese of Columbus's Reference List: Determining Baptismal Validity by Church of Origin

I can only assume this is because Unitarians do not uphold the Trinity doctrine.

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    The point of those paragraphs is that Anglicans and other Protestants aren't valid "Churches", but they are "Christian ecclesial communities", which according to the quotes in the question mean their baptisms are recognised. The question is whether Unitarians fit in that group or not.
    – curiousdannii
    May 16 at 8:14
  • @curiousdannii Noted, and irrelevant material removed. I have edited my answer to include a relevant link with regard to how the Roman Catholic Church views Unitarian baptism.
    – Lesley
    May 16 at 9:45
  • +1 Interesting info. I'm nor sure if Unitarians/Universalists (what is listed in the Valid Baptism Reference List) is the right category, tho'. This seems to be referring to Unitarian Universalists, which I wouldn't consider Christian either. May 16 at 16:22
  • @Lesley, the first quote is misleading because although the Catholic church deems all Trinitarian Protestant churches "ecclesial communities" it doesn't preclude the Catholic Church from recognizing the validity of the single sacrament performed there, namely Baptism, which is the "gateway" to all other 6 Catholic sacraments. Unitarian baptism is denied not because they are "non-Catholic" (how the Catholic church defines "Protestant") but because the correct formula & intention wasn't used. May 16 at 16:25
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    @OneGodtheFather - Because there is a differentiating slash between Unitarians and Universalists, I took that to mean both groups, and not just Unitarian Universalists. However, the sticking point seems to be whether a denomination accepts the Catholic view of the Trinity doctrine. Ken Graham's answer is useful.
    – Lesley
    May 16 at 16:42
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Possibly

The Catholic Church recognizes baptisms that fulfil four requirements: the use of the proper baptismal formula, the use of water, triple immersion or pouring, and an intention to perform a baptism as the Church understands it. The beliefs of the baptizer are actually irrelevant-a baptism by an atheist who doesn't believe in God or that baptism is in any way efficacious is nonetheless valid IF they understand and all involved intend to perform a Christian baptism (as the Catholic Church understands it). A strict understanding of the full depth and nature of Christian baptism is not necessary-otherwise I'd expect most baptisms would be invalid, as it is a very deep mystery!-only the intent to do what the Church does in baptizing.

The relevant section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is 1256, Who Can Baptize:

1256 The ordinary ministers of Baptism are the bishop and priest and, in the Latin Church, also the deacon. In case of necessity, any person, even someone not baptized, can baptize, if he has the required intention. [T]he intention required is to will to do what the Church does when she baptizes, and to apply the Trinitarian baptismal formula. [T]he Church finds the reason for this possibility in the universal saving will of God and the necessity of Baptism for salvation.

https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P3L.HTM

Edit: In the comments, Ken Graham has brought up a document on a similar case, where the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has determined that Mormon baptism is not valid. It is worth reading to see the logic of the Church as it relates to a possibly analogous case. The link is here: https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20010605_battesimo_mormoni-ladaria_en.html

It is worth nothing that despite being hosted on the Vatican's website the document originated as an article in L'Osservatore Romano, rather than being an absolutely official document of the Church. However, I would still expect it to accurately report on the official decision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is about as official as you can get.

Some sections are particularly worth bringing out in the context of this question:

Doctrinal errors usually do not invalidate baptism… [E]rrors of a doctrinal nature have never been considered sufficient to question the validity of the sacrament of Baptism. In fact, already in the middle of the third century Pope Stephen I, opposing the decisions of an African synod in 256 A.D., reaffirmed that the ancient practice of the imposition of hands as a sign of repentance should be maintained, but not the rebaptism of a heretic who enters the Catholic Church… The validity of the sacrament depends neither on the personal sanctity of the minister nor on his belonging to the Church.

The heretics considered by Pope Stephen I were the Donatists, who though separated from the Catholic Church did not definitively hold unorthodox views towards the Trinity (or at least, as those doctrines weren't defined until later they weren't condemned for such beliefs). However, as the whole point of THAT struggle was over the validity of sacraments performed by those who separated themselves from the Catholic Church it is interesting that I am unaware of any similar struggle over the Christological and anti-Trinitarian heresies from roughly the same era. I've asked a question about that here: Was there any controversy over the validity of sacraments during the Arian Controversy?

Right intention is the intention to do what the Church wants, what Christ wants (...) Even non-Catholics can validly administer Baptism. In every case, however, it is the Baptism of the Catholic Church, which does not belong to those who separate themselves from her but to the Church from which they have separated themselves. This validity is possible because Christ is the true minister of the sacrament: Christ is the one who truly baptizes

As above, the Catholic Church holds that Christ is the minister of Baptism, and is able to make up any defects of the minister, including those of doctrine.

Precisely because of the necessity of Baptism for salvation the Catholic Church has had the tendency of broadly recognizing this right intention in the conferring of this sacrament, even in the case of a false understanding of Trinitarian faith, as for example in the case of the Arians.

(Emphasis mine) Regardless of whether there was controversy at the time, it appears that the resolution was to consider the (anti-Trinitarian) Arians to be validly able to baptize, at least in the understanding of this author.

The article goes on to note that until this response in 2001, the presumption had been that Mormon baptism was a valid Christian baptism, due at least in part to the sheer number of new religious movements and the difficulty in investigation or communication by the relevant authorities and earlier precedents, especially the case of the "Hidden Christians" of Japan (who were ruled to have been validly baptized).

Huge divergence on Trinity and baptism invalidates the intention of the Mormon minister of baptism and of the one to be baptized

… The Form (…) The formula used by the Mormons might seem at first sight to be a Trinitarian formula. The text states: "Being commissioned by Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit". The similarities with the formula used by the Catholic Church are at first sight obvious, but in reality they are only apparent. There is not in fact a fundamental doctrinal agreement. There is not a true invocation of the Trinity because the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, according to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are not the three persons in which subsists the one Godhead, but three gods who form one divinity. One is different from the other, even though they exist in perfect harmony. The very word divinity has only a functional, not a substantial content, because the divinity originates when the three gods decided to unite and form the divinity to bring about human salvation. This divinity and man share the same nature and they are substantially equal. God the Father is an exalted man, native of another planet, who has acquired his divine status through a death similar to that of human beings, the necessary way to divinization. God the Father has relatives and this is explained by the doctrine of infinite regression of the gods who initially were mortal. God the Father has a wife, the Heavenly Mother, with whom he shares the responsibility of creation. They procreate sons in the spiritual world. Their firstborn is Jesus Christ, equal to all men, who has acquired his divinity in a pre-mortal existence. Even the Holy Spirit is the son of heavenly parents. The Son and the Holy Spirit were procreated after the beginning of the creation of the world known to us. Four gods are directly responsible for the universe, three of whom have established a covenant and thus form the divinity. As is easily seen, to the similarity of titles there does not correspond in any way a doctrinal content which can lead to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The words Father, Son and Holy Spirit, have for the Mormons a meaning totally different from the Christian meaning. The differences are so great that one cannot even consider that this doctrine is a heresy which emerged out of a false understanding of the Christian doctrine.

Basically, the Catholic Church doesn't see the Church of Latter-day Saints as a heretical, non-Trinitarian religious group. It sees them as not being even Christian, due to the dramatic difference in doctrine concerning what god[s] exist, what it means to be a god and the like. As a valid Christian baptism must at least be Christian, the conclusion is that Mormon baptism is not valid.

Two other points are brought up in relation to the doctrine of baptism itself:

A) According to the Catholic Church, Baptism cancels not only personal sins but also original sin, and therefore even infants are baptized for the remission of sins. This remission of original sin is not accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which denies the existence of this sin and therefore baptizes only persons who have the use of reason and are at least eight years old, excluding the mentally handicapped. In fact, the practice of the Catholic Church in conferring Baptism on infants is one of the main reasons for which the Mormons say that the Catholic Church apostatized in the first centuries, so that the sacraments celebrated by it are all invalid.

To me, at first glance this might imply a sufficiently different understanding of what baptism is as to bring into doubt whether the intention is to "do what the Church does when she baptizes". However, numerous Protestant sects deny original sin, and I am unaware of any controversy over whether Lutheran or (Ana)Baptist baptism is valid for the Catholic Church.

B) If a believer baptized in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, after renouncing his or her faith or having been excommunicated, wants to return, he or she must be rebaptized (cf. AF, pp. 129-131). Even in regard to these last elements it is clear that the Baptism of Mormons cannot be considered valid; since it is not Christian Baptism, the minister cannot have the intention of doing what the Catholic does.

As above, to my understanding at least some Protestant sects hold similar views without their baptism being considered invalid by the Catholic Church. Hence, IMHO while these elements may cause doubts about the validity of Mormon baptism, in themselves they are not sufficient to rule one way or another.

Hopefully that is at least somewhat illuminating from the Catholic side. On the Biblical Unitarian side, I must confess a great deal of ignorance as to precisely who you're talking about. Unlike the Catholic Church or the Mormans, Biblical Unitarianism appears to be a blanket term applied to a number of groups, many of which are themselves relatively loosely connected without a central hierarchy to define doctrine. From what I can tell, the defining belief here is that the Son and the Father are separate beings, and that the Son was created by the Father and is lesser to Him. Wikipedia at least includes Arians as Unitarians, and as above Arians were considered to validly baptize by the Catholic Church. Other Unitarians appear to outright deny the divinity of the Son and claim that Jesus of Nazereth was purely human; I'm unsure as to whether or why they would baptize "in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit", but (IMHO) that would throw much greater doubt on the validity of their baptisms

So,

  • A blanket "non-Trinitarian = invalid baptism" is contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church, as the Arian baptism was considered valid despite claiming Christ was a creation of the Father.
  • In at least one case, a sufficiently alien understanding of who God is is sufficient to make the baptism invalid, despite observing a similar form (possibly in conjunction with other significant doctrinal irregularities).
  • This case itself was considered new and exceptional in the history of the Catholic Church. As such, it should probably be read as narrowly applying to the Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints rather than broadly as applying to any group that holds any similar beliefs.
  • However, it cannot be held definitively that another group with grossly incompatible beliefs nevertheless baptizes validly either-the Church initially presumed Mormon baptism to be valid and continued to do so for over 150 years, only to determine that it was not when it looked into matters more closely.

Without further information on the baptizer or baptism, or an official investigation by the relevant authorities, it is difficult to say definitively whether the baptism would be valid or not. Hence, my answer of "possibly"

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    +1 " [T]he intention required is to will to do what the Church does when she baptizes" What does this mean, though? May 17 at 20:39
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    The question implies baptized by a Unitarian Church not simply baptized by one who is a Unitarian. The key distinction is that we expect the former to baptize according to its doctrine (and thus the Catholic Church wouldn't recognize it) and the latter we would expect to baptize according to his/her believes unless we had evidence to the contrary (like a witness indicating that the baptizer specifically intended a Catholic baptism)
    – eques
    May 17 at 21:03
  • @OneGodtheFather The simplest answer to that would be to ask the Unitarian minister if they intended and understood the baptism given to do the same thing as what a Catholic priest does when baptizing. If the answer to that is yes, then assuming all other particulars are met it would be a valid baptism. If the answer to that is no, it is not. Whether or not the Unitarian minister properly understands or agrees with all the theology behind that is not immediately relevant. May 17 at 21:11
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    The intention is a big issue here: The Question of the Validity of Baptism Conferred in the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saint. What is of importance here is that both LDS and BU use correct wording. Both deny the Divinity of Jesus Christ! How can they baptize in the name of the Holy Trinity? This is a Vatican issued statement. We baptize in the name of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), they do not. They deny the Trinity! Baptisms invalid!
    – Ken Graham
    May 17 at 23:46
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    @KenGraham That is an interesting document! May 20 at 23:57

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