This paper is based on a talk presented to a meeting of the Hirst Christian
Fellowship. The context was a dialogue with Baptist members, who understood
baptism to be a symbolic profession of faith rather than any kind of sacrament.
In it, I attempt to show that the Scriptural account of baptism is in line
with Catholic dogma and quite at variance with the more rationalist and
"common sense" views that characterize the (ana)Baptist account. I should
remark that typically in such circles a distinction is made between "Water
Baptism" (which is the subject of this essay) and "Spirit
Baptism" (which, while it is at least understood as a manifestation
of divine power, serves not to justify its recipient but only to grace
them with charismatic gifts).
For a Catholic, baptism is linked up with almost every other part of
theology. To discuss it in isolation from the nature of sin and justification
, the role and constitution of the Church ,
the Incarnation, the Trinity and the sacraments
of Confirmation and Penance
is necessarily to distort it. Nevertheless, a beginning must be made somewhere.
Baptism is a sacrament, an outward sign of an inward grace. Thus it is
not primarily a form for the profession or manifestation of faith, nor
a declaration or ratification of something that has already happened. Baptism
does not have an indirect effect, by eliciting a response of faith
in the heart of the person baptized and this response then having some
import. Rather, the sacrament of baptism by the grace of God directly
causes what it signifies. Now, baptism - as we shall see - signifies
the transition from "being
in Adam" to "incorporation in Christ", cleansing from sin and a sharing
in Christ's saving life, death and resurrection: so Baptism
is instrumental in causing these effects.
Naturally, it is not the external physical ritual that directly causes
these spiritual consequences, rather it is the presence of
Holy Spirit in and through the symbolic rite that is crucial and causal.
However, God has pledged HimSelves to always honour and be active in the
sacrament, for the spiritual benefit of its recipient, providing that (s)he
does not harbour a hostile intention.
Baptism is the beginning of a Christian's new life: it incorporates
them into Christ; forgives all past actual sins; and imparts Holy Spirit
to his/her soul, thereby removing the stain of original sin and making
the neophyte God's
friend, a coheir with Jesus of His Kingdom. This is remarkable and
may sound extravagant. It will, however, be found to be both scriptural
and also the teaching of the earliest of the Fathers of the Church.
The Witness of the Scriptures
The ministry of St John Baptist
The baptism administered by St John Baptist hasn't got much to do with
Christian baptism. It was common in Jewish practice at the time to wash
and baptize as a symbolic act of purification, and this is an adequate
explanation of St John's baptismal ministry. John's baptism of Jesus is
worthy of note, however.
The baptism of Jesus
Obviously, Jesus had no need for a baptism of repentance. The Baptist recognized
this [Mat 3:14] and was reticent to baptize
his divine cousin. Jesus' purpose was other than this. John's role was
rather like that of Moses, taking the People of God to the brink of the
Promised Kingdom of God [Mat 3:11-12], but
not being the one to lead them into their inheritance [Deut
34:4]. It was Joshua who did this [Deut 34:9,
Josh 1:2]. The Baptist prepared the Way for the Messiah, exhorting
the Poor of God to turn in expectant faith to their Redeemer [Mat
3:2]. He constituted them as the people of pilgrimage by baptizm
in the Jordan river [Josh 3:1]. It was necessary
for the Messiah to
be joined with His Church: those "called out" from the old desert reality,
and so be readied to lead their entry into the Promised Land of Abundant
Living. It was in order to identify Himself with His people that Jesus
(which is the Hellenized form of the older name Joshua) was baptized: not
to signify any repentance on His part.
Jesus' baptism was:
an act of at-one-ment and association with those Hebrews who responded
to the Baptist's vocation;
an epiphany (manifestation, demonstration, advertisement or proclamation)
of his Kingship;
an anointing or chrismation (Christ = Messiah
= "the Anointed One"), save that no human mediation was appropriate to
inaugurate His Messianic status [Mat 3:16-17].
During Jesus' ministry, both He and his disciples baptized people. It is
most plausible that this was a continuance of St John's practice rather
than the Christian sacramental baptism "in the Name of the Father, Son
and Holy Spirit" that we shall next consider.
The teaching of Jesus
The institution of baptism is prophesied by Ezekiel. He foretold a sprinkling
of water for purification, the giving of a new heart and the imparting
of God's Holy Spirit to enable His people to fulfil His Law [Ezk
36:24-27]. This prophecy may have been in the mind of Our Lord when
He told Nichodemus of the "new birth" of "water
and the Spirit" necessary before anyone could enter the Kingdom
of God [Jn 3:5]. The only other direct word
of Jesus concerning baptism is to be found at the end of St Matthew's Gospel.
There "....baptizing .... in the Name of the Father,
Son and Spirit ...." [Mat 28:18-20]
is one of the three things enjoined upon the Apostles. The picture there
presented of conversion, followed by baptism, followed by a life of faithfulness
gathers together the beginnings and continuance of the Christian life.
Baptism in the Acts of the Apostles
In the Acts of the Apostles, we read how Peter told those Jews who accepted
his preaching at Pentecost to "Repent and be baptized
.... for the forgiveness of .... sins." [Acts
2:8]. What was in the heart of his audience? Surely sorrow for any
association with the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus Messiah and a wish
to avoid God's punishment! "Brethren, what shall
we do?" was their cry. What they wanted was forgiveness and reconciliation
with God: at-one-ment. Peter did not reply simply "believe in the
Lord Jesus in your hearts and your sins will be forgiven", but "repent
and be baptized ..... and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
Naturally, only those who accepted Peter's teaching and recognized Jesus
as Messiah would wish to be baptized: however the explicit precondition
for forgiveness was repentance, not faith and it was baptism that
was offered "for the forgiveness of sins"
We find exactly the same pattern in Ananias' words spoken to Saul in
Damascus after he had been cured of his blindness: "....be
baptized and wash away your sins, calling on His Name" [Acts
6:2-4]. This could be a figure of speech and mean that "as you call
upon Jesus, your sins will be forgiven you as if they were dirt to be washed
off and I will wash your body in water to symbolize this." However, apart
from the untrustworthy prejudice of common sense I see no reason
to reject the more obvious interpretation: that baptism itself washes away
The teaching of St Paul
In St Peter's first letter we find the teaching "Baptism
.... now saves you" not as an external cleansing "....but
as an appeal to God for a clear conscience ...." In other words,
Baptism is a formal plea to God for the record of past sins to be wiped
out: the effect of which is to justify or save the person baptized
by virtue of God's response to this effective appeal. To suggest that the
qualification "not as an external cleansing"
mitigates against a sacramental interpretation is silly. Any external cleansing
that baptism may achieve is irrelevant: it is the spiritual or internal
cleansing that matters, which is the point that St Peter is making. Similarly,
to say that the use of the word "appeal" suggests
that the initiative is with the baptized - who by professing his or her
faith makes an appeal to God for forgiveness - is to do violence to the
text. This says that Baptism (which is something done to not by
itself "saves" and is itself the appeal: not
any profession of faith, nor any other act initiated by the recipient of
St Paul has a good deal to say about baptism. In his letter to the Church
of Rome, we are told that baptism unites the Christian with Jesus in His
death: the old self being crucified so that a justified (wo)man might rise
from the dead to a new life, freed from slavery to sin by the gift of the
indwelling Spirit [Rom 8:11]. In his letter
to the Church in Galatia, the roles of faith and baptism are contrasted
3:26-29]. Baptism is referred to in the past tense as having
had an effect: "....you
into Christ ...." so "....you are all one
in Christ Jesus .... heirs according to promise." Faith is talked
of in the present tense, as now having an effect: "....in
Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith" . It
is as if Baptism initiated a relationship with God, of which faith (as
also hope and charity) is the life.
In St Paul's epistle to the Church of Ephesus, whilst speaking of marriage,
Paul indulges in a characteristic aside. He speaks of Christ "cleansing"
the Church by a "washing of water with the word...."
that she might be "....holy and immaculate"
It is plausible that the phrase "with the word"
refers to the baptismal formula, the form of words given by Jesus to His
Apostles. Here, at least, it is explicitly stated that a spiritual cleansing
is brought about by a "washing of water",
and it would do violence to the text to insist on a symbolic interpretation.
Here also we have the important teaching that it is Jesus Himself who is
active in baptism. It is not the human minister of the sacrament that remits
sin: it is the action of Jesus within the human drama that is the primary
cause of the change in status of the person being baptized.
In St Paul's epistle to the Church of Colossi, baptism is presented
as an inward circumcision, "made without hands...."
by a total ".... putting off of the body of flesh...."
through identification with the crucified Lord and leading, through faith,
to resurrection and a new life [Col 2:11-12].
This is more significant than it first seems. Circumcision is the Jewish
rite of incorporation into the People of God: into "Abraham and Moses of
the promises". Baptism serves the comparable function of grafting a man
who was in Adam into Christ. It is therefore obvious that original
sin is remitted by baptism. Original sin is the state of affairs in which
we find ourselves at the start of life. We are descendants of the First
Humans who - rightly - disobeyed God's
command not to taste the fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil and so
gained independence from God at the price of loosing any automatic claim
to the intimacy with Him that is called "a
state of grace". When
someone is baptized, they are made anew and enter the race of the Second
Adam: Jesus Messiah. They are united with and incorporated in Him. They
leave the negative aspects of the legacy of our First Parents behind.
In St Paul's epistle to bishop Titus, we read of God having "....saved
us .... by the washing of re-birth and renewal by the Holy Spirit" [Tit
3:5]. This text in isolation is ambiguous, it could mean either
that there exists some "washing" which causes "re-birth and renewal" or
that "re-birth and renewal" is like a washing. However, it is difficult
to see how either "re-birth" or "renewal" is in any regard like "washing".
The Witness of the Fathers
It is a sound principle of Scriptural interpretation, that when an issue
is in doubt the understanding of the earliest Christian commentators, teachers
and theologians should be consulted. While it is possible that they too
might find the question that concerns us perplexing, or even have misunderstood
the issue at stake; it is also possible that, being close to the Apostolic
source, they will have a clearer view of what was actually believed and
taught in the beginning and so a more accurate account of the Deposit of
Faith. So, here are a few relevant texts:
baptized we are enlightened: being enlightened we are adopted as sons:
being adopted as sons we are made perfect: being made complete we are made
immortal .... This work has many names: gift of grace; enlightenment; perfection;
washing. Washing, by which we are cleansed from the filth of our sins;
gift of grace, by which the penalties of our sins are cancelled; enlightenment,
through which that holy light which saves us is perceived, that is, by
which our eyes are made keen to see the divine; perfection means the lack
of nothing, for what is still lacking to him who has the knowledge of God?
[Clement, Patriarch of Alexandria: "Paedagogus"
I vi (26) c 200 AD]
remission of sins is granted even to the worst of offenders, and to those
who have previously committed many sins against God, when they have afterwards
believed, and if no one is shut out from baptism and grace: how much less
ought an infant to be shut out, who being newly born has committed no sin,
except that being born of Adam's line according to the flesh he has at
his first birth contracted the contagion of the ancient death? Indeed,
the infant's approach to the reception of the remission of sins is the
easier from the very fact that the sin remitted is another's, not his own."
Archbishop of Carthage: "Epistle LXIV" c 250 AD]
"It is utterly impossible
for the soul to attain salvation unless it has believed while in the flesh;
so truly does salvation hinge on the flesh. In fact, when the soul is admitted
to God's company, it is the flesh that makes that admission possible.
The flesh indeed is washed that the soul
may be cleansed;
the flesh is anointed that the soul many
the flesh is signed that the soul may
too be fortified;
the flesh is shadowed by the imposition of
hands that the soul also may be enlightened by the Spirit:
the flesh feeds on the body and blood
of Christ that the soul should be nourished by God."
[Tertullian "De Resurrectione Carnis" c 200 AD]
Although some early writes, notably Tertullian (who later fell into heresy),
were opposed to infant baptism, it must be acknowledged that the practice
rapidly became the norm once the bulk of people were Christians. This is
not surprising if it was thought that baptism was a sacrament with some
definite God endowed effectiveness. If it were thought to be a symbolic
profession of faith, it is difficult to see how the practice would ever
have got started, after all an infant cannot have any faith to profess
and it is clearly not possible for one person to express faith on behalf
".... listen to
David when he says, "I was conceived",
so it runs, "in iniquity and in sin my mother
hath borne me", proving that every soul which
is born in the flesh is tainted with the stain of iniquity and sin. This
is the reason for that saying which we have already quoted above, "No
man is clean from sin, not even if his life be one day long".
To these, as a further point, may be added an enquiry into the reason for
which, while the church's baptism is given for the remission of sin, it
is the custom of the church that baptism be administered even to infants.
Certainly, if there were nothing in infants that required remission and
called for lenient treatment, the grace of baptism would seem unnecessary."
Homilies on Leviticus, in "Selections from the Commentaries and Homilies
of Origen", p 211 translator: R.B. Tollinton]
Objections to infant baptism were mainly based on the idea, strange as
it might seem, that forgiveness of sins committed after baptism was either
not possible or difficult
to come by! Somehow, the existence of baptism had caused people to lose
sight of the Scriptural principle that God was always
ready to forgive a sinner - no matter how wicked - if only (s)he repented
and made what restitution was possible. This mistaken belief led people
to conclude that it was best to postpone baptism for as long as possible:
certainly until after marriage and possibly until the death bed! The problem
wasn't that it was meaningless or futile to baptize a child. On the contrary,
it was thought to be imprudent to waste the once in a life-time chance
to have sins forgiven "for free" on one who hadn't yet committed any. After
all, they were liable to commit sins many times after baptism, when they
would be unforgivable and so lead to inevitable
"The Lord indeed says: 'Forbid them not
to come to me.' Let them come, then, when they are growing up. Let them
come if they are learning, if they are being taught whither they are coming,
let them become Christians when they are able to know Christ. Why does
the age of innocence hasten to the remission of sins? .... For no less
reason, the unwed should be deferred; for temptation is waiting for
them alike in the case of virgins because of their maturity, as in
the case of the widowed because they are without partners. Let them
wait until they marry, or until they are strengthened for continence. Those
who understand the importance of baptism will rather fear its attainment
than its delay; unimpaired faith is certain of salvation "
[Tertullian "De Baptismo" c 200 AD]
St Augustine was not baptized as an infant by his sainted mother, Monica,
yet he partly based his explication of original sin on the practice of
infant baptism. He argued that if the newly born are not in some sense
separated from God - suffer from original sin - what was the point of baptizing
them? While a modern proponent of this argument might prefer to couch it
in positive terms: "if an infant is automatically a Member of the Church:
the Body of Christ, a Friend of God and a Temple of the indwelling Spirit
- what is the point of baptizing them?" thee point is exactly the same.
In the case of an infant, baptism can have no subjective effect: the subject
is incompetent to contribute anything other then his/her mere presence
It is a fact that the Church baptizes infants.
this practice is futile, misguided and should be stopped,
baptism must have an objective effect.
Now, there has never been any will in the Church to stop the practice of
infant baptism on the ground of futility:
it must be the belief of the Church that baptism has an objective effect.
Witness of the Contemporary Church
Infant baptism, with its implication of sacramental efficacy, is the practice
of the overwhelming majority of Christians. The Catholic Church, both Western
and Eastern, together with the various independent Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions;
the Coptic, Abyssinian, Armenian, and antique Persian and Indian jurisdictions,
whatever their doctrinal stances regarding the Incarnation, are all united
in this practice. The vast majority of Protestants concur: Anglicans, Methodists
and Lutherans all baptize infants. The practice is, for example, commended
in the 27th "Article of Religion" of the English "Book of Common Prayer".
It is not sensible to talk of baptism without mentioning Confirmation.
This is a difficult topic, because contemporary understanding of the Tradition
is confused. The following can be said:
The practice of Confirmation
Confirmation and baptism have always been closely related.
Originally, as far as adults were concerned, both were ordinarily carried
out by the bishop at the Easter Vigil.
As far as infants were concerned, Presbyters and Deacons were also considered
to be ordinary ministers of baptism.
In case of reasonable necessity (not emergency) Presbyters and Deacons
were allowed to baptize adults.
The laity were always allowed to baptize in case of emergency.
Originally, confirmation was simply part of an extended process of initiation
anointing with the oil of catechumens
credal scrutiny and profession of faith
bathing in water
anointing (by pouring?) with the oil of chrism
marking by the thumb of the sign of the cross
in the chrism on the forehead
laying on of hands with prayer for the Holy Spirit
reception of the eucharistic species
The first passage from Tertullian clearly envisages
this sequence of events,
Some elements of this process were clearly sacraments,
others clearly sacramentals .
Some of the boundaries were unclear, the
elements highlighted happening in quick succession.
In the stories of the deacon Philip and Simon [Acts
8:9-24] and the Ethiopian Eunuch [Acts 8:26-40],
a clear distinction is made between baptism, which Philip was competent
and happy to perform and laying on of hands which was the province
of the Apostles [Acts 8:14-17].
It is not absolutely clear whether the Apostolic laying on of hands
is to be identified with confirmation.
The alternative is that there are three elements:
normally administered by deacon, presbyter or bishop
can be lay administered
normally administered by a bishop
can be administered by a presbyter
" baptism in
originally restricted to the Apostles
can be lay administered
The difficulties with this second account are:
why is no mention made anywhere in the New Testament of chrismation or
but only "baptism in the spirit"?
where and how and why did confirmation arise?
and most importantly: why did "baptism in the spirit" die out so rapidly
In neither Western nor Eastern practice is laying on of hands a
prominent part of the sacrament of confirmation. Of course, a form of this
inevitably occurs when someone is anointed and signed.
Confirmation was always and everywhere restricted to Bishops and Presbyters.
In both East and West, baptism with water outside the Easter Vigil was
followed immediately by an anointing with consecrated oil (chrism).
In the East:
it was normal for confirmation to be administered by presbyters.
the anointing at baptism was identified with confirmation, and called
an anointing with chrism may be repeated later in life.
In the West:
presbyters were only allowed to confirm in exceptional and rare circumstances,
until very recently.
the chrismation at baptism was not considered to be confirmation.
a bishop would generally confirm children or young adults by the laying
on of hands and chrismation.
This divergent understanding is based on a superficially similar praxis.
In both cases, almost all infants are baptized by a priest, who then anoints
them with chrism.
In both cases, chrismation is liable to be repeated later in life.
The differing practice can be reconciled in the following way:
The ordinary minister of confirmation, who has the intrinsic authority
of office to do so validly, is the Bishop.
It is unclear whether this is because it
belongs to a peculiar Episcopal character, or
is canonically restricted to holders of this office.
However, in the East:
The necessary authority to confirm is routinely and implicitly delegated
Presbyters regularly exercise this extraordinary authority when
they chrismate infants after their baptism, in the absence of but acting
for the bishop.
In the West:
The chrismation at baptism is usually a sacramental
rather than the sacrament of confirmation.
It is a prefiguring, promise and anticipation of
The Eastern practice of repeated chrismation is sacramental: not
a repeat of the sacrament of confirmation.
Similarly, the modern Western practice of "reaffirmation of baptismal
vows, followed by a sprinkling with water", is a sacramental: not
a repeat of the sacrament of baptism.
The use of chrism in confirmation was not original, but is sacramental,
just like the use of the oil of catechumens.
Once the practice of chrismation became established, the act of laying
on of hands was subsumed in the act of anointing and signing.
The fact that the sacramental chrism is consecrated by the bishop,
even when used by a presbyter, links the bishop to every confirmation.
Theology of confirmation
Like baptism, confirmation grants a status.
Unlike baptism (but like ordination), the status granted by confirmation
relates to other human beings, not to God.
Baptism is the beginning of the Christian's new life: the life of faith.
It is conducted in the context of the Church: the Community of Faith. From
one point of view it is the incorporation of the person baptized into the
Church. The spiritual life it initiates will die if it is not nurtured
within the womb of that fellowship. The new life of charity is exercised
in works of faith: prayer, penance and alms deeds.
Baptism in isolation from faith is meaningless; however, an active faith
is not the cause of the baptismal transformation. To baptize an adult who
believed nothing would be a mockery. In this case, not to believe
is indistinguishable from disbelieving in an active way. This is
not true for someone who has not reached the age of reason.
In the case of infant baptism, faith is involved in two ways.
First as a context. Although it is not possible for one person to believe
on behalf of another; the sacrament is always celebrated by a minister
who acts on behalf of the Church, the Community of Faith. This authority
gives definite meaning to the action. The Church allows that even an unbaptized
atheist can validly baptize, so long as they adhere to the core ritual
and have the minimal intention of "doing what the Church does, whatever
in fact this is".
Second, as a ratification. The fact that the neophyte is a friend of God
and hence member of the Church should lead (unless it is impeded or frustrated
in some way [cf Mat 13:1-23]) to a mature
life of faith. As the child gains understanding of the Gospel and makes
the Apostolic Tradition their own, then (s)he ratifies and acknowledges
what was done for them by God at Baptism by the ministry of the Church.
Consider the miracles of Our Lord. Although faith is constantly implicated,
one can hardly say that it was the faith of those whose faith made them
well that actually caused their healing. Was it the faith of the servant
of the High Priest which caused his ear to be restored after it had been
cut off by St Peter [Lk 22:51]? No! Rather
in all cases of miraculous healing, it was the gracious action of Jesus,
the power of God, that effected the cure.
When St Paul contrasts faith with works he is contrasting faith in and
love of the person of Jesus with a kind of cold-hearted and calculating
obedience to the Jewish Law which saw this as a means of obligating God
towards one. Works of faith, whether of religious ritual character, or
- more importantly - of charity and simple humanity and friendship have
a crucial part to play in the sustenance of the Christian's relationship
with God. "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood,
you have no life within you" [Jn 6: 53], "Faith
without works is dead" [Js 2:26], "all
who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not
love his brother" [1Jn 3:10]. Baptism
is the work of faith instituted explicitly by Jesus that initiates the
process of justification by forgiving sins; imparting the Holy Spirit;
and incorporating into His Mystical Body: the Church.
The doctrine you propose is foreign in character to Christianity, which
is a Spiritual Religion.
There is quite a bit in the New Testament concerned with sacramental
acts: mud placed on eyes to cure blindness; laying on of hands for various
purposes; and anointing with oil. While I concede that Christianity is
a spiritual religion, not bound to externals at all, I do not concede that
human beings are of that sort of nature! We are embodied and physical by
constitution. All that we effect is physical, though in the case of the
writing of a tome of theoretical physics, the import of what is done may
be highly intellectual and abstract! We express and celebrate those things
that are most important to us in physical ways: using flowers, chocolates,
parties, caresses or whatever. Such is appropriate to our life, our style
of being. It would be inhumane for God not to cater for our embodiment
- which after all is His good pleasure, willl and design for us - in the
Gospel that He graced us with. As we have already read:
"It is utterly impossible for the soul
to attain salvation unless it has believed while in the flesh; so truly
does salvation hinge on the flesh. In fact, when the soul is admitted
to God's company, it is the flesh that makes that admission possible. The
flesh indeed is washed that the soul may be cleansed; the flesh is anointed
that the soul many be consecrated; the flesh is signed that the soul may
too be fortified; the flesh is shadowed by the imposition of hands that
the soul also may be enlightened by the Spirit: the flesh feeds on the
body and blood of Christ that the soul should be nourished by God." [Tertullian
"De Resurrectione Carnis" c 200 AD]
So it is that God condescends to work for and with us: in and through sensible
things, so that we can be encouraged and affirmed in our faith.
The incarnation sets the precedent for this. God, who is spirit par
excellence, came to participate in our life and reality by taking upon
Himself the form
of man. He plunged, as Fire from Heaven, into our physicality: redeeming
and ennobling it. This incarnation is prolonged through history in the
visible Church, His Mystical Body, and the Seven Sacraments - especially
the Holy Eucharist.
You say baptism forgives sins, and yet all that is needed is repentance.
As I have already indicated, the Sacramental System is a divine condescension
or concession to human physicality. It is a help, not a burden to entrap
or constrain us. Neither is it any kind of limit on God's generosity. God
is always willing to forgive the repentant sinner.
"We are horrified, I confess, that anyone
is found of such great impiety, that he despaires of the love of God, as
if He were not able at any time whatever to hasten to the aid of the one
who runs to him for help and to free from his burden a man endangered by
the weight of sins, from which he longs to be liberated ..... Since God,
most ready to succor, inviting to repentance, thus promised: 'In
whatever day', He says 'the
sinner shall be converted, his sins shall not be imuted to him'
[cf Ezech 33:16]." [Pope
St Celestine I, "Cuperemus quidem", 428 AD, Denz 111]
God is not bound by the sacraments of Baptism, Penance
and Extreme Unction: in the sense that He either refuses or is unable to
act except via these means. On the other hand, God is bound to these
sacraments: in the sense that He will always honour them and be operative
within them. These sacraments were instituted by Jesus (either personally
or via Holy Spirit's guidance of the Apostles) to make it easier for us
to believe and accept that God has forgiven us. They are windows of opportunity,
means of grace, not hurdles to leap over.
It is true that baptism, penance and extreme unction are now the necessary
means for the forgiveness of original and mortal sin. In this sense they
an additional condition over and above "repentance and restitution", but
this is of no practical consequence. Anyone who does repent of whatever
sin they are conscious of, by that act of repentance necessarily (though
perhaps only implicitly) has a intention (or desire) to take part in the
relevant sacramental act, and the Church has quite clearly recognized that
such a desire is quite good enough for salvation. Just as faith is an adequate
anticipation of sanctification, desire - even implicit desire - for the
sacrament is an adequate anticipation of its performance. God is never
one to make things difficult!
Tertullian was obviously somewhat confused about this issue. We have
already read him saying"Those who understand
the importance of baptism will rather fear its attainment than its delay;"
(because baptism is both necessary for salvation and unrepeatable)
and yet immediately adding: "unimpaired faith
is certain of salvation", as though baptism was superfluous!
Equally St Monica's postponement of her son's baptism indicates a conflict
between a conviction that baptism was absolutely crucial and yet somehow
not necessary! As it became
clearer, in particular via papal teaching, that all repented post baptismal
sins were forgivable without exception, and as the Church's penitential
discipline became less draconian, this tension resolved itself. The following
is a proper view of the matter:
Baptism is the only means by which someone can enter the Church.
Entering the Church is identical with Justification.
Mortal sins committed after reception of the Sacrament of Baptism can only
be forgiven by repentance and restitution through the sacrament
However, an implicit desire for this sacrament is enough to obtain forgiveness.
The function of the sacrament of penance is to help people
to accept the responsibility for making amends,
to believe that God will forgive or has forgiven them.
What can it possibly mean for an infant to
Subjectively, not a lot! Objectively exactly the same as any one else!
Sin - in this case only original sin - is remitted;
Holy Spirit somehow takes the child to Herself as a Temple to "dwell in";
and the child is adopted as a coheir with Jesus of the Kingdom. Baptism
is not about feelings and aspirations, but about objective reality: salvation;
forgiveness; reconciliation with God and incorporation into Christ. All
this is as open to an infant as to the greatest sinner. As we have already
"If remission of sins is granted even
to the worst of offenders, and to those who have previously committed many
sins against God, when they have afterwards believed, and if no one is
shut out from baptism and grace: how much less ought an infant to be
shut out, who being newly born has committed no sin, except that being
born of Adam's line according to the flesh he has at his first birth contracted
the contagion of the ancient death? Indeed, the infant's approach to
the reception of the remission of sins is the easier from the very fact
that the sin remitted is another's, not his own." [
Cyprian, Archbishop of Carthage: "Epistle LXIV"c 250
A further question arises: "what is the fate of children and foetuses who
die unbaptized?" The only wise answer is that the Tradition is unclear.
Sacred Scripture is entirely silent on the question. The Fathers do not
consider it, but only - as we have seen - the converse question: "Should
infants be baptised, and if so why?" Strangely, as soon as the question
is considered, it seems to be treated in a cursory way, on the lines of
"Anyone who is not a Catholic is certainly damned; if a person has not
been baptised they are not a Catholic, hence they are damned". Various
Councils give unequivocal teaching: unbaptised infants are certainly
".... if anyone
says that .... in the Kingdom of Heaven there will be some
middle place or some place anywhere where the blessed
infants live who departed from this life without baptism ..... let him
be anathema. For .... what Catholic will doubt that he will be a partner
of the Devil who has not deserved to be a coheir of Christ? For he who
lacks the right part will without doubt run into the left."
[A disputed canon of the local Council of Meleum,
416 AD, given as a footnote to Denz 102]
"The souls of those
who die in mortal sin, or with original sin only, however, immediately
descend to hell, yet to be punished with different punishments".
[The Second Oecumenical Council of Lyons,
"The Profession of Faith required of the Emperor
Michael Palaeologus" ]
".... we define,
with the approval of this holy universal council of Florence ..... the
souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in
original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but
with unequal pains.
IV at the Oecumenical Council of Florence, 1439 AD]
While these texts are compatible with the teaching of Cyprian,
and Origen that has already been quoted, they go
far beyond it and a simplistic interpretation of these texts cannot be
justified on the basis of patristic teaching.
On the contrary, the principal that:
an infant has committed no actual sin, it cannot deserve any
properly speaking, must be maintained, even though it seems to be contradicted
both by the teaching of the Council of Trent and the excellent Catechism
written in its name.
"If any one denies, that, by the grace
of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is conferred in baptism, the guilt
of original sin is remitted; or even asserts that the whole of that which
has the true and proper nature of sin is not taken away; but says that
it is only rased, or not imputed; let him be anathema."
[The Oecumenical Council of Trent, Session
Five "On Original Sin"]
"Wherefore, the pastor should not omit to remind
the faithful that the guilt and punishment of original sin were
not confined to Adam, but justly descended from him, as from their source
and cause, to all posterity."
[The Catechism of the Oecumenical Council
These texts associate the linked words "guilt"
and "punishment" directly to original sin.
However, the question of what can or might be meant by these words must
be considered before any simple conclusions are reached. In the definition
quoted, I suggest that the "guilt of original sin"
may be taken to mean "the full reality and totality of original sin in
itself, together with all its juridical consequences". I take the phrase
and punishment" in the Catechism to mean exactly the same thing.
The Tridentine definition was not seeking to determine the nature of original
sin: for that had already been covered in previous anathemae, which clearly
and carefully delineate original sin as the loss of original justice and
- figuratively - the "death of the soul". RRather, it looks toward the condemnation
pernicious doctrine that follows in Session Six of the Council.
Moreover, an infant cannot possibly have positively rejected God, either
explicitly or implicitly.
Hence a dying unbaptized infant cannot possibly finish up in Hell
This contradicts any simple reading of the Oecumenical Councils of Lyons
II and Florence.
Hence it must be presumed
either that these councils use the term "hell"
or that unbaptised infants that die do not "depart
However, neither can a dying unbaptized infant have explicitly or implicitly
come to have desired baptism in its brief life. A foetus may not even have
developed a mind with which to desire anything whatsoever! Hence just
prior to its death, an unbaptized infant cannot be a member of the
Church and so cannot possibly be accounted a friend of God.
Hence a dying unbaptized infant has no positive claim to enter Heaven.
Hence medieval Councils and theologians taught that unbaptised infants
went to hell.
Later theologians perceived that this was an unreasonible position, and
addressed the dilema they saw by inventing a third outcome, the "Limbo
of the Innocents". [Ott II.25] This was
considered to be formally a part of Hell (in order to escape directly
Lyons II and Florence),
but a relatively pleasant part. In it, the souls of those "bound by original
sin" but free of personal sin were supposed to have an entirely bearable
existence: to be contrasted with the joyful existence that flows from the
The lack of the Beatific Vision is construed as a punishment, in order
to escape directly contradicting the teaching of Lyons
II and Florence.
This position seems to be in conflict with a (disputed) and non-infallible
canon of the local
Council of Meleum, which may or
may not have been ratified by either Pope Innocent or Zozimus.
Personally, I think this theory is little more than a naïve rationalisation.
Ott is obviously unhappy with the idea of "Limbo of the Innocents", but
says that there is no basis to decide the matter one way or another. I
disagree with him. I suggest that the following considerations together
form a basis for developing
the doctrine of "Baptism of Desire".
Many foetuses spontaneously miscarry.
Conventionally, ensoulment is understood to occur either at or very shortly
Accepting the notion that the "Limbo of the Innocents" is the fate of the
souls of these foetuses implies accepting that a significant proportion
of the human race has no chance whatsoever to be saved.
This directly contradicts the generally accepted (though not defined) doctrine
that everyone receives sufficient grace to be saved
The Church celebrates the feast of the "Holy Innocents".
Conventionally, these children who died at the will of Herod are accounted
as martyrs and to have been baptized in their own blood. [Ott
However, unlike all other martyrs, they had no intention, ether explicit
or implicit, of "dying for the faith".
Rather, they were "martyrs" only by accident, not from any free
choice of their own.
What is the difference between the status of these saints and that of the
multitude of aborted foetuses?
Both died at the will and the hands of those who considered the termination
of their lives expedient.
The Church enthusiastically baptizes infants whose parents or guardians
ask for it.
The Church has a desire, aligned with the revealed will of God, that all
who can be saved should be saved.
Hence, God and the Church have a common desire that all children should
be baptized before dying.
For what reason, then, should God not treat unbaptized innocents in the
same way as baptized innocents?
The fact that because they are in a state of original sin God is not
obligated to them does not imply that He will fail to be gracious
towards them because He is Love.
This view has been espoused by Cajetan and called "vicarious baptism of
desire". [Ott II.25]
Jesus descended "into Hell" to deliver the souls of the Just who died before
Why should he not preach to and so seduce and convert the
souls of unbaptized infants?
Perhaps they are never sufficiently aware or reasonable to respond.
At the particular judgement of each unbaptised innocent, they will certainly
It cannot be said that their wills are at this moment in any way fixed
in antipathy to God.
It isn't even clear that they have a will to be fixed one way or another!
Given that they have no personal sin, what is to prevent each infant
soul responding positively?
This view has been espoused by Klee [Ott II.25].
Pope John Paul II has recently constituted a theological commission to
look into this very question.
It is also possible that when someone dies
without attaining the use of reason, God may, exceptionally, re-incarnate
their soul. This view is recommended by the consideration that there
must be some point to mortal life before death. If this purpose (whatever
it is) is not achieved by some individual (as would be ascertained at their
particular judgement) then it would be fitting for them to be given some
additional means of achieving it.
Now, it is clearly the official teaching of the Church that reincarnation
is not the norm! When someone dies, they go first to judgement and then
Heaven (perhaps via purgatory) or Hell. On the other hand, there is no
index entry in either Ott or Denzinger for "reincarnation"; and, as far
as I know, no direct condemnation of the theory. The only basis for rejecting
it is, as far as I am aware, is the implicit positive teaching of the Second
Oecumenical Council of Lyons and the explicit definition of the Oecumenical
Council of Florence that has already been quoted.
The first says that after they "die" souls
immediately pass to Heaven or Hell,
This teaching is positive (rather than negative, with an anathemetization
It is in the form of a profession of faith that was required of the Emperor
It is therefore hardly infalible!
The second says that after
"departing this life"
a soul straightaway passes to Heaven or Hell.
This teaching is clearly in the form of a definition.
Neither teachings mention the particuar judgement, rather seeming to exclude
it as a possibility!
This suggests that they should be subject to careful interpretation.
Reincarnation can be reconciled with the definition of Florence (if not
the positive teaching of Lyons II), on the basis that if someone is reincarnated,
clearly they do not depart this life, but rather return to it. I
accept that this was not the intended meaning of Pope Eugenious or the
Synod assembled with him. However, I believe that in interpreting definitions
it is necessary to consider what in fact was written and spoken: not what
the writer(s) or speaker(s) might have intended or meant by what they wrote
or spoke. I have successfully applied this interprative principle elsewhere.
This argument may seem far-fetched; but I suggest it is less odd than the
notion of a "Limbo of Innocents".
Back to top