When you have a Church that’s been around for 2000 years, just about everything that can happen has happened. This is one of these stories – and it has an important lesson.
In the 13th century, Pope Gregory IX issued an unusual decree, one saying that baptisms with beer (instead of water) were not valid. He wrote:
Since according to the Gospel teaching, a man must be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, those are not to be considered validly baptized who have been baptized with beer.
The line about being “born again of water and the Holy Ghost” is a reference to Jesus’ teaching about baptism in John chapter 3. Apparently there was a region in Norway that had a water shortage that was using beer as a replacement for the sacrament, and he was forced to intervene.
But so what? If the people weren’t trying to make light of the sacrament and were just using what they had available, why does it matter? It’s because of what baptism does and where it comes from.
First, baptism is one of the most important sacraments in the Catholic faith. It’s the first one – you can’t receive other Sacraments if you haven’t first been baptized – and receiving it (or the desire thereof) is necessary for salvation. In other words, you don’t want to mess around with it; you really want to get it right.
Second, baptism is not something created by the Church. Rather, it is was given to the Church by Christ himself. As such, we don’t have the authority to change it as we please. Based on the revelation of Christ in Scripture and Tradition, and guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church has been able to specify clearly exactly what constitutes a baptism.
Among those requirements, which include things like the proper intention (to do what the Church does) and the proper words (“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”), the minister must use water, as was used in the New Testament. An attempted “baptism” without any of these essential things is not a true baptism.
So getting “baptized” with beer, even with the best of intentions, doesn’t count! And anyone in the 13th century who had been “baptized” with beer would have needed to be baptized correctly with water. Imagine having to go back to your parish to be “re-baptized” over something like that!