Perish the thought that a person predestined to eternal life could be allowed to end this life without the sacrament of the mediator. (Saint Augustine)
This article will focus on the question of explicit baptism of desire — as it was understood by most western doctors of the Church from the time of Saint Augustine (+430) until Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori (+1787), the last declared theological doctor who wrote in favor of its saving efficacy. The subject matter will deal specifically with the origin of the theological speculation, as given by Saint Augustine in one of his early doctrinal letters, and then move on to prove from authoritative testimony that the African doctor reversed his opinion in his later anti-Pelagian writing.
Go Ye, Preach the Gospel to Every Creature, and Baptize
Let us preface the following with an affirmation of the extreme importance of this issue in that the conversion of non-Christians to the Catholic Faith, in our day, is no longer considered a mission necessary for their salvation. The mandate of our Savior to “Go ye into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16), has been supplanted by a new gospel of salvation by sincerity through invincible ignorance. It is my intention to restore at least an appreciation for the zeal of the holy missionaries that went forth to convert the nations to Christ and to baptize the pagans and infidels who accepted the good news that is the gospel. These missionaries, whose exemplar since the sixteenth century is Saint Francis Xavier, were not distracted by any speculation about a baptism of desire. Xavier baptized three million pagans with his own hand. Biographers write that there were so many catechumens waiting to be baptized that assistants had to help him to lift his arm to perform the rite. Saint Francis Xavier never wrote a word about baptism of desire. Rather, he wrote these words from the Far East hoping to reach students aspiring for degrees: “How I would like to go to the universities of Paris and the Sorbonne and address many men who are richer in learning than in zeal, to let them know the great number of souls who, because of their neglect, are deprived of grace and are apt to go to hell. There are millions of nonbelievers who would become Christian if there were missionaries.” Was this missioner, considered the greatest after Saint Paul, misinformed?
Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus Can’t Possibly Mean What It Says! This Doctrine is Too Hard! Who Can Hear it?
Among traditional Catholics who oppose the doctrinal cause of Saint Benedict Center, the vast majority maintain that their opposition is over Father Feeney’s rejection of baptism of desire. This has not always been the case, but it has become so more in the past twenty to thirty years. Prior to that, it was the defined doctrine itself, No salvation outside the Church, which disturbed those whom Brother Francis, in his treatise, The Dogma of Faith Defended, called “right-wing liberals.” These are the theologians who believed in the infallible authority of the Church, but were embarrassed over the literal sense of the doctrine. “God is all-merciful,” they stressed, “most men, surely, will be saved.”
In their efforts to drain the thrice-defined dogma of its literal sense, these overly optimistic theologians insisted that the dogma needed to be “interpreted” according to the sense of the living ordinary magisterium of our time. Even Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, postulated that what extra ecclesiam nulla salus really meant was that there is no salvation without the Church:
“The doctrine of the Church also recognizes implicit baptism of desire. This consists in doing the will of God. God knows all men and He knows that amongst Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists and in the whole of humanity there are men of good will. They receive the grace of baptism without knowing it, but in an effective way. In this way they become part of the Church. The error consists in thinking that they are saved by their religion. They are saved in their religion but not by it. . . .” (Open Letter to Confused Catholics)
Then, too, there are those theologians (mostly connected with the SSPX) who insist that what extra ecclesiam nulla salus really means is that that the only thing necessary for salvation is to die in the state of grace, and this rebirth is not limited for its accomplishment to the visible means of grace provided by the visible Church because God, they say, is not bound by His sacraments. (I will address this last opinion at the end of this article where I briefly cover the teaching of the Council of Trent on justification.)
These re-formulations of the dogma have been even further eviscerated by more liberal elements to a redaction devoid of any challenge: “No one can be saved outside the Catholic Church who knows that the Catholic Church is the true Church but refuses to enter it.” Many priests and theologians draw this inference, rightly or wrongly, from a passage in Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium: “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation” (#16).
Accordingly, the class of people who cannot be saved, if they die in the bad state that they are in, has been reduced to the rare and hardly identifiable set of obstinants who know the Catholic Church is the true Church, but refuse to enter it. The belief in the possibility of salvation for those who die with only an implicit desire for baptism and for those who die invincibly ignorant of the truths necessary to be believed for salvation, is now capable of accommodating all who are sincere in their erroneous beliefs and try to live whatever a good life means for them.
What are we to do then as members of the Church Militant? Provide a softer cushion for those outside the Church by inventing loopholes to the salvation doctrine; or, rather, ought we not to affirm the clear infallible teaching, using whatever words seem appropriate for the occasion, lest we give false hope to our neighbor? I can think of no greater offense against charity than to tell a non-Catholic that he can be saved without converting to the true Church and/or without being baptized. In a recent Ad Rem, March 16, 2011, Brother André dealt with this theme of true charity and our obligation to challenge those outside the Church, with whatever gifts of noble persuasion we have, to enter the one ark of salvation.
Baptism of Desire
Baptism of desire is the belief that a catechumen, or an unbaptized believer awaiting baptism, could be saved if he died unexpectedly prior to receiving the sacrament, provided that he had an ardent desire to be baptized, along with the true Faith and perfect sorrow for his sins. Two fathers are commonly offered as authorities who proposed this belief: Saints Augustine and Ambrose. I will first write about Saint Augustine, then Saint Ambrose, then, lastly, Saint Bernard who raised the issue again in the twelfth century, citing the two early fathers as authorities. After this, I will return to Saint Augustine to provide the evidence that he recanted his once-held speculation concerning baptism of desire.
Saint Augustine’s First Speculation
It is in one of his seven books that he wrote against the Donatists that we first find Augustine speculating on this question. He first picked up the pen to refute the Donatists, in their schism and heresy, in 391, after his ordination as a priest and before he was consecrated a bishop. So, the following quote is from his earlier days as a Catholic theologian, perhaps shortly after his episcopal consecration: “That the place of baptism can sometimes assuredly be taken by suffering, the Blessed Cyprian takes as no mean proof the words addressed to the thief who was not baptized. . . . In considering which again and again, I find that not only suffering for the Name of Christ can make up for the lack of baptism, but also the Faith and conversion of heart, if it happens that lack of time prevents the celebration of the sacrament of baptism.” And, a few sentences later in the same book, “Baptism is ministered invisibly to one whom not contempt of religion but death excludes.” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists, Bk. IV, Chap. 22, Rouet de Journel, Enchiridion Patristicum # 1630)
Early on in his writings, Augustine laid great emphasis on the natural power of the will under the influence of actual graces but, as yet, unaided by sanctifying grace. Later, in his battle against the Pelagians, he put all the emphasis on grace, which no man can merit. Even the most virtuous of unbaptized believers, he would later argue, could not merit the gift of grace that comes with the sacrament. God will call whom He will. More on this further on. For now, I would like to quote from Augustine the Theologian by Eugene Teselle, where the author makes a most revealing insight that could explain why the African doctor favored a baptism in desire, at least at one point after his conversion: “Augustine asserts that nothing is more within the power of the will than the will itself, so that whoever wishes to love rightly and honorably, can achieve it simply by willing it; the velle is already the habere.” (Teselle cites Augustine’s De Libero Arbitrio. I, 12, 26, & 13, 29 as a source for his assertion.)
Saint Gregory Nazianzen’s Contrary Opinion
Saint Gregory Nazianzen, an eastern father and doctor of the Church, wrote in opposition to this theorizing about the efficacy of a catechumen’s desire for baptism. After demonstrating four different states of conviction possible in a catechumen, he says, concerning the most ardent of them, that they are neither worthy of punishment nor glory, but still they are at a loss. I only need to quote his conclusion as regards the latter in terms of the salvific efficacy of their will:
“If you were able to judge a man who intends to commit murder solely by his intention and without any act of murder, then you could likewise reckon as baptized one who desired baptism. But, since you cannot do the former, how can you do the latter? If you prefer, we will put it this way: If, in your opinion, desire has equal power with actual baptism, then make the same judgment in regard to glory. You would then be satisfied to desire glory, as though that longing itself were glory. Do you suffer any damage by not attaining the actual glory, as long as you have a desire for it? I cannot see it!” (Oration on Divine Light, XL, #23)
Whoever it was that Saint Gregory was contending with, we know that it could not have been Saint Augustine. Saint Gregory died in 389, only two years after Augustine’s conversion.
More on Saint Augustine
What Saint Augustine expressed about baptism of desire in his treatise against the Donatists was not his conviction when he wrote his commentary on the Gospel of Saint John. Therein, he states that “no matter what progress a catechumen may make, he still carries the burden of iniquity, and it is not taken away until he has been baptized.” (Chapter 13, Tract 7) Again, Father van der Meer, in his book, Augustine the Bishop, cites a like passage from the doctor: “How many rascals are saved by being baptized on their deathbeds? And how many sincere catechumens die unbaptized and are lost forever” (Page 150). Note here that Augustine was not referring to hesitant catechumens who presumptuously put off their baptism, but to “sincere catechumens.”
Moreover, when Saint Augustine speculated about baptism of desire he offered no authority for his view, as he did with Saint Cyprian in favoring baptism of blood. But, beginning with Saint Bernard, those western doctors who opined in favor of baptism of desire usually cite both Saint Augustine and Saint Ambrose as their authorities. Saint Thomas Aquinas is a perfect example.
Saint Ambrose’s Actual Teaching on Baptism
It would seem that, at least with Saint Ambrose, there should be a question here, especially when considering his definitive writing on the subject. Father Jacques Paul Migne (+ 1875) seems to think so. One of the great, if not the greatest authority on patristic teaching, he doesn’t see a warrant for this optimism in the writings of the doctor from Milan: “From among the Catholic Fathers perhaps no one insists more than Ambrose on the absolute necessity of receiving Baptism, in various places, but especially in Book II De Abraham; Sermon 2 In Psalm.; and the book De Mysteriis.” (Migne, Patrologia Latina 16, 394, translated in Nicene Fathers, Vol. 10, p. 319)
Writing about the sacrament of baptism in his book, De Mysteriis, Ambrose affirms: “One is the Baptism which the Church administers: the Baptism of water and the Holy Ghost, with which catechumens need to be baptized . . . Nor does the mystery of regeneration exist at all without water, for ‘Unless a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom.’ Now, even the catechumen believes in the cross of the Lord Jesus, with which he also signs himself; but, unless he be baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, he cannot receive remission of his sins nor the gift of spiritual grace.” (4,4: 4,20 Patrologia Latina, 16, 394)
The Imperial Catechumen and the Eulogy
Saint Ambrose was the bishop to whom Saint Augustine came for knowledge, under the inspiration of actual grace, while studying in Milan. The holy bishop also regenerated him in Christ. If Saint Ambrose held such a view on baptism of desire, surely Augustine would have cited him as an authority. What is offered by Saint Thomas (and Saint Bernard implicitly) as proof that the Bishop of Milan believed in baptism of desire is his oration in 393 at the funeral of the young Emperor Valentinian II, who was a catechumen, recently converted from Arian influences.
The western Emperor, at the time of his death, was dealing with a rebellion within his ranks led by a pagan general, named Eugenius, and Arbogast, the Count of Vienne. Eugenius wanted to outlaw Christianity in the West and restore Roman paganism. When Valentinian, through the efforts of Theodosius, Catholic Emperor of the East, requested Bishop Ambrose to come to Vienne and baptize him, Eugenius revolted and had the Emperor assassinated in his quarters. Ambrose was deeply pained and delivered a hopeful eulogy at the funeral in which he compared the deceased catechumen to a “martyr,” slain for the Faith, and “baptized in his own blood.” He said nothing about a baptism of desire, but merely asked the faithful not to grieve over the fact that Valentinian died before he could baptize him. Then, he asked the question: “Did he not obtain the grace which he desired? Did he not obtain what he asked for?” And then he concludes, “Certainly, because he asked for it, he obtained it.” This could easily be an expression of hope that, knowing the danger he was in, the Emperor asked someone to baptize him secretly. Or, it could also mean that the royal catechumen received the grace of salvation because he died a martyr for Christ. Ambrose, apparently, had no proof of the former supposition, for he never mentioned it publicly, but he did have hope that Valentinian’s holy resolve was the cause of his being killed by this murderous usurper who hated the Faith. And that is part of the qualification for martyrdom, along with true repentance for sin. This is what the saint prayed as he ended the eulogy:
“Grant, therefore, to Thy servant the gift of Thy grace which he never rejected, who on the day before his death refused to restore the privileges of the temples although he was pressed by those whom he could well have feared. A crowd of pagans was present, the Senate entreated, but he was not afraid to displease men so long as he pleased Thee alone in Christ. He who had Thy Spirit, how has he not received Thy grace? Or, if the fact disturbs you that the mysteries have not been solemnly celebrated, then you should realize that not even martyrs are crowned if they are catechumens, for they are not crowned if they are not initiated. But if they are washed in their own blood, his piety also and his desire have washed him.” (De Consolatione in obitu Valentiniani, 51-54 = PL 16, 1374-75. Translated by Roy J. Deferrari, Ph.D., in Funeral Orations by St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. Ambrose, pp. 287-288)
The translation is not the problem here. The last two sentences, which seem contradictory, are exactly accurate from the Latin of Migne’s Patrologia Latina. In the next to the last sentence Saint Ambrose says “that not even martyrs are crowned if they are catechumens, for they are not crowned if they are not initiated.” Does he mean that they are saved, but not crowned? Then, in the last sentence, he says that “if they [martyrs] are washed in their own blood, his piety also and his desire have washed him.” I cannot understand what the holy doctor is affirming or denying in these sentences. Perhaps something is missing from the original transcription itself.
Father Joseph Pfeiffer of the SSPX, in his article “The Three Baptisms” (The Angelus, March 1998), asserts that Saint Augustine heard the eulogy of Valentinian and, consequently, that is why the African doctor believed in baptism of desire.
“One would think, however,” writes Father Pfeiffer, “from reading some of the recent works of the followers of Fr. Feeney that the doctrine of the baptism of desire was held as an obscure opinion amongst some misguided Catholic theologians and saints —saints who got it wrong in deference to Saint Thomas, who believed the doctrine only in deference to Saint Augustine, who held it because he once heard a sermon of Saint Ambrose, “On the Death of Valentinian” . . . Are we to assume that Mr. Hutchinson and like-minded followers of Fr. Feeney have a better understanding of Ambrose than Augustine, his own disciple, who was baptized by the same Ambrose?”
Four quick points: 1) No one supportive of Saint Benedict Center would venture to assume that they would know the mind of Saint Ambrose better than Saint Augustine. That is absurd. 2) As I already noted, if the doctor from Milan intended to identify himself with the speculation concerning baptism of desire, Augustine would have cited his authority, especially if, as Father Pfeiffer assumes, he was “his disciple.” 3) There is no mention of Saint Ambrose’s eulogy for Valentinian in Saint Augustine’s writings, nor are there any known letters of correspondence between them. 4) Saint Augustine began his work against the Pelagians after the death of Saint Ambrose (+397). Again, it would seem likely that in changing his opinion on baptism of desire when confronting the anti-sacramentalism of the Pelagians, he would respectfully at least have made reference to Bishop Ambrose’s alleged contrary view.
Who are the Hosts of Doctors Before Aquinas Who Taught Baptism of Desire?
From the time of Saint Augustine to that of Saint Bernard (+1153) in the twelfth century, I could discover no doctor of the Church who affirmed a belief in baptism of desire. Father Pfeiffer asserts in his article that there are “a host of other saints and Doctors before and after Aquinas,” who taught baptism of desire. “After Aquinas?” Granted. “Before?” With Augustine’s recantation (full text supplied later on), I do not know of any, other than Saint Bernard.
Rev. Father Jean Marc Rulleau in his booklet, Baptism of Desire: A Patristic Commentary, attempts to defend the same point as Father Pfeiffer concerning the fathers’ approval of baptism of desire, but he provides only the flimsiest of evidence from the fathers. He maintains that Saint Cyprian (+258) believed in baptism of desire — not for catechumens (Cyprian does not raise that question), but for those converts who he thought were invalidly baptized in a heretical sect. The question Cyprian raised was this: if they converted and were received into the Church without being re-baptized, could they be saved? He believed that they could be saved.
I agree with Father Rulleau that this opinion could be translated into a baptism of desire. In any event, the historical fact is that Saint Cyprian refused to accept Pope Stephen’s correction (including the threat of excommunication in case of non-compliance) of his teaching concerning the invalidity of baptisms in heretical sects that used the correct matter and form. He even summoned a council at Carthage in 256 to gather the support of a synod of African bishops. The decision of that council, to which Cyprian acquiesced, was that the question of re-baptizing converted heretics was a disciplinary issue reserved for the local bishop. In this, he had what appears to be the support of the eastern Catholic bishops whom he had also sollicited. In a letter he wrote to one Jubaianus, the bishop of Carthage explained that he makes no laws for others, but retains his own liberty. (Epp. lxx, lxxi, lxxii) Then, again, in a later letter to one Pompeius, to whom he sent his work, De Bono Patientiae, he is virulent in his attack on Pope’s Stephen’s orthodoxy. Pompeius had asked for a copy of Stephen’s decree. “As you read it,” Cyprian writes, “you will note his error more and more clearly: in approving the baptism of all the heresies, he has heaped into his own breast the sins of all of them; a fine tradition indeed! What blindness of mind, what depravity!” (See New Advent’s 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia on Saint Cyprian.) In the end, after the martyrdom of Saint Cyprian and under the pontificate of Pope Sixtus II, the Church in Carthage fell in line with the pope.
Point being: If the Bishop of Carthage was wrong on the bigger question, speaking and writing in ignorant opposition to the apostolic tradition (and, be it noted, following the opinion of the heretic Tertullian on the subject) and questioning the pope’s authority, are we to hold that he was correctly handing on traditional teaching on a subsidiary issue related to the original error? Reading the insulting language Cyprian employs against the pope in his letter to Pompeius one can understand why Saint Augustine, with great respect and prudence, would say over a century later, in his treatise De Baptismo, that Bishop Cyprian had atoned for his “excess” by his martyrdom.
Father Francois Laisney, in a letter written to me in 1999 on this issue, labored much to convince me that Saint Cyprian favored baptism of desire. Regarding those converted heretics who were received back into the Church by the western bishops and the head of the Church himself without being rebaptized, he proved his point. But these converts were in a different category than catechumens — after all, they were accepted as members of the Church by the pope, and Cyprian himself, at least in council, was not denying the pope the right to admit these converts without rebaptizing them. Remember, in the previously-cited letter to Jubaianus he was arguing that this decision should be left to each individual bishop. His contention, therefore, if one looks at the logic of the actual argument and not his excessive vitriol, was not that the “deposit of faith” was being compromised by Pope Stephen, but that, for certainty sake, when the validity of heretical baptisms was questionable (as it was in his mind) the matter fell to one of discipline. To quote Saint Cyprian: “God is powerful in His mercy to give forgiveness also to those who were admitted into the Church in simplicity [of heart] and who died in the Church and not to separate them from the gifts of the Church” (Letter to Jubaianus, n. 23, Patrologia Latina 3, 1125). I put the emphasis on “died in the Church” to prove my point. If Saint Cyprian definitely believed that the Faith itself was being compromised, and that to accept the validity of heretical baptisms was itself “heretical,” then he would not have said that the deceased converts, who were not rebaptized, “died in the Church.” If Fathers Rulleau and Laisney wish to believe that Saint Cyprian was transmitting an apostolic tradition concerning baptism of desire, fine; but they certainly should not insist that fellow Catholics are obligated to believe that. They should also take note that Saint Augustine did not cite Cyprian as an authority when he first proposed baptism of desire as his own personal opinion.
All the Fathers From the First Centuries Favored Baptism of Desire? Untrue
With just two fathers of the Church (seemingly so, in the case of Saint Ambrose) favoring baptism of desire for pious catechumens who died before baptism, Father Rulleau asserts that “all the Fathers” from the “first centuries” favored baptism of desire. Yet, in his own treatise, he cites several, like Cyril of Jerusalem, who “seem” opposed to baptism of desire. Father Francois Laisney will not even go that far. For him, as he expressed it in the letter he wrote to me in 1999, no matter how much a father insists on “no exceptions except unbaptized martyrs,” unless they explicitly reject baptism of desire, one cannot say they were opposed to it. And even if a father did explicitly oppose it, as did Saint Gregory Nazianzen, they, Father Laisney and others, will not accept the literalness of the rejection. I am surprised that, in his treatise, Father Rulleau does not quote from Saint Gregory Nazianzen who, as you read above, could not have been more specific in his rejection of baptism of desire. Saint Benedict Center has provided that quotation in numerous of its publications, but I can only assume Father Rulleau was unaware of it or he would have cited it. Here is what Rulleau writes in his study:
“Martyrdom can be spiritual, in the sense that salvation can be achieved by a purely interior conversion. This baptism of desire makes up for the want of sacramental baptism. Baptism is thus received “in voto.” The existence of this mode of salvation is a truth taught by the Magisterium of the Church and held from the first centuries by all the Fathers. No Catholic theologian has contested it. . . .”
Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur (What is gratuitously asserted, is gratuitously denied). Baptism of desire was not “held from the first centuries by all the Fathers,” nor is it the teaching of “the Magisterium of the Church.”
The Letters of Popes Innocent II and Innocent III
The second contention, regarding the Magisterium, is the subject for another article. Suffice it to say that neither of the two popes, Innocent II and Innocent III, whom Father Rulleau cites in favor of baptism of desire, were issuing a decree for the universal Church. They had written personal letters, invoking, yes, a doctrinal matter, but in response to two particular disciplinary questions. The one attributed to Innocent II in Denzinger’s Enchiridion, written to the bishop of Cremona, Italy, is attributed rather to Innocent III in a canon law book, The Corpus of Canon Law, published in 1881 in Freidberg. The question involved offering Masses for a deceased priest who, it was discovered afterwards, had no record of being baptized. The pope gave permission for it. The other letter, also attributed to Innocent III, is so theologically novel that I really doubt that Father Rulleau would himself subscribe to it. I find it incredible that a bishop would even ask the question that is proposed, which was whether or not a Jew who attempted to baptize himself when he was in danger of death should be “re-baptized” after his recovery to health?
How is it that a presumably educated shepherd of the Church — this is a bishop, after all — Bishop Berthold of Germany in this case, could ask such a question? And the pope’s answer, as we have it from the Enchiridion, is more than problematic; its uncritical gratuitousness could have led to other Jews doing the same when near death, or catechumens holding off baptism until near death and then doing a self-baptism. The letter attributed to Pope Innocent says that if the Jew died after his attempted self-baptism he would have “flown straight to heaven.” Is this the “teaching of the Magisterium” Father Rulleau is offering in his favor? I see no reason why either of these papal letters should have been included in Denzinger’s Enchiridion, which was originally intended to be, after all, a collection of supreme magisterial teaching (first published with only 128 documents in 1854); hence its full title, as given by its compiler, Father Heinrich Joseph Dominicus Denzinger: Enchiridion Symbolorum et Definitionum (Collection of symbols [i.e., creeds] and definitions).
Let us note, however, regarding Innocent III, that Saint Thomas Aquinas had to cite another error of his in the Summa wherein the pope was shown to have held that Christ consecrated by His divine power without words: “ ‘In good sooth it can be said that Christ accomplished this sacrament by His Divine power, and subsequently expressed the form under which those who came after were to consecrate.’ But in opposition to this view are the words of the Gospel in which it is said that Christ ‘blessed,’ and this blessing was effected by certain words. Accordingly those words of Innocent are to be considered as expressing an opinion, rather than determining the point’” (Summa, III, Q. 78, Art. 1, reply to objection 1).
The Book of Sentences and Saint Bernard
Citing the authorities of Saints Augustine and Ambrose, Baptism of desire is promoted by Bishop Peter Lombard in his great work, written near the end of the twelfth century, The Four Books of Sentences, which text Saint Thomas studied and commented upon a century later. (Book IV, Part II) The Sentences would continue to be the theology textbook for all Catholic universities until the Summa Theologica gradually replaced it in the seventeenth century. Until that time, for almost five centuries, it was a standard requirement for a theology degree to write a commentary of the famous Sentences. Peter Lombard had taught in Paris at the Cathedral University of Notre Dame, at about the same time the Sorbonne was being founded. Interesting in this connection is that Lombard, the great Master of the Sentences, studied under Peter Abelard, who rejected the idea of a baptism of desire, and Hugh of St. Victor, who opted in favor of it, before he began teaching in Paris. Both of these men were renowned intellectual giants of the twelfth century: the latter crowned his theological acumen with a holy life, while the former, a master dialectician, was plagued by a remorseful conscience for a good part of his life and, finally, was moved to spend his last days as a penitent in the monastery of Cluny.
In a letter to Master Hugh, who had asked for his opinion about the question of baptism of desire, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (+1153) also cited the two fathers, Ambrose and Augustine, as his authorities in favoring it. But he clearly spoke of it as a matter of opinion:
“We adduce only the opinions and words of the fathers and not our own; for we are not wiser than our fathers. . . . Believe me, it will be difficult to separate me from these two pillars, by which I refer to Augustine and Ambrose. I confess that with them I am either right or wrong in believing that people can be saved by faith alone and the desire to receive the sacrament, even if untimely death or some insuperable force keep them from fulfilling their pious desire.” (my italic)
In his Theologia Christiana Peter Abelard specifically rejected baptism of desire (2, Patrologia Latina 178, 1205), arguing that the speculation on the subject offered by Saint Ambrose in the Valentinian eulogy contradicted the fathers. Not this, but certain other of Abelard’s propositions were condemned in 1141 at the Council of Sens, which was presided over by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. And, although Master Lombard disagreed with Abelard on several of his propositions, he always held him in high esteem, and the former’s Four Books of Sentences were heavily influenced by the scriptural commentary of the latter, which lay heavily on the literal, historical, and grammatical sense. When one looks at this scenario, it appears likely that Hugh of St. Victor read Abelard’s specific rejection of baptism of desire in his Theologia Christiana, and, noting that his friend Peter Lombard was teaching in favor of it, he was prompted to write to Saint Bernard for his opinion.
Concerning Abelard and his denial of baptism of desire, I could not express any reason nearly as insightful and poignant as that of Dr. Robert Hickson: “[T]he keen mind of Abelard saw grave troubles and violations of the Law of Non-Contradiction, IF one were temerariously trying to find exceptional substitutes for the Sacrament of Baptism in the realm of ‘Intention’ or ‘Desire’ or in the dubious, if not presumptuous, ‘hope of PERFECT Contrition’ — not a very good or certain foundation for one’s attainment of Vita Aeterna.”
Another thing must be added in Abelard’s favor, who, following the teaching of Saint Anselm, he took issue with Saint Augustine’s opinion that the essence of inherited original sin is concupiscence of the flesh. Anselm taught that original sin is not concupiscence but the absence of original justice; however, oddly enough, he agreed with Augustine that unbaptized infants would share in the positive punishments of hell in the most minimal way. Abelard accepted Anselm’s teaching on original sin being the deprivation of sanctifying grace at conception, but he rejected the idea of positive punishment of sense for those who die in original sin only; in fact, he was one of the first to do so, as also did Saint Thomas Aquinas a century later.
The Catholic Encyclopedia: “After enjoying several centuries of undisputed supremacy, St. Augustine’s teaching on original sin was first successfully challenged by St. Anselm, who maintained that it was not concupiscence, but the privation of original justice, that constituted the essence of inherited sin. On the special question, however, of the punishment of original sin after death, St. Anselm was at one with St. Augustine in holding that unbaptized infants share in the positive sufferings of the damned; and Abelard was the first to rebel against the severity of the Augustinian tradition on this point” (Vol. 9, “Limbo,” p. 257).
Fifth Century Theological Manual: De Ecclesiasticis Dogmatibus
In addition to these influences on the early schoolmen in Paris, there was the question, current at the time, as to the authorship of a fifth century theological manual, which specifically denied baptism of desire. It was De Ecclesiasticis Dogmatibus. In chapter 74 we find the curious profession: “We believe that only the baptized are on the road of salvation. We believe that no catechumen has life everlasting, although he has died in good works, excepting martyrdom, in which all the sacred elements (sacraments) of Baptism are contained.” It was commonly believed, until the thirteenth century, that Saint Augustine was the author of this theological work. Saint Thomas (+1274) challenged the belief in his Commentary on the first chapter of Matthew (Catena Aurea). The Angelic Doctor denied Augustine’s authorship, attributing the work, rather, to a semi-Pelagian named Gennadius of Marseilles. But, on the other hand, when Peter Lombard was composing his Book of Sentences, he referred to the work as Augustine’s in several places. (Lib. II, dist. 35, cap. “Quocirca”; Lib. III, dist. 1, cap. “Diligenter”; Lib IV, dist. 12, cap. “Institutum.”)
Finally, before I bring to light an extremely important discovery regarding Saint Augustine’s view on this point, I raise the question again: If there were any fathers other than Augustine and Ambrose for Saint Bernard to cite as authorities for his opinion, would he not have mentioned them? As I said before, I was unable to discover any doctors who argued in favor of a baptism in desire during the seven hundred years from Saint Augustine to Saint Bernard. It is true, however, that fathers and doctors, both in the East and the West, who spoke or wrote on the issue of unbaptized martyrs, granted an exception for the necessity of receiving the sacrament, but none, as far as I could discover, allowed for any other exceptions.
Testimony of Three Theologians
Before supplying Saint Augustine’s retractions I will quote three modern theologians to demonstrate the lack of unanimity among the fathers who raised the question directly or indirectly concerning baptism of desire: Fathers William A. Jurgens, Bernard Otten, S.J., and Karl Rahner, S.J.
Father Jurgens: “If there were not a constant tradition in the Fathers that the Gospel message of ‘Unless a man be born again . . . etc.’ is to be taken absolutely, it would be easy to say that Our Savior simply did not see fit to mention the obvious exceptions of invincible ignorance and physical impossibility. But the tradition in fact is there, and it is likely enough to be so constant as to constitute revelation.” (Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 3, pp. 14-15, footnote 31, my italics)
Next, Rev. Bernard Otten, S.J., one-time professor of both Dogmatic Theology and the History of Dogma at the University of St. Louis, Missouri, in his Manual of the History of Dogma wrote: “Baptism of water, although ordinarily necessary for salvation, may be supplied by martyrdom, and under certain conditions also by the baptism of desire. The former was universally admitted, but the latter was apparently denied by Chrysostom and Cyril of Jerusalem.” (Vol. I, pg 351) Abbot Jerome Theisen, O.S.B., in his book, The Ultimate Church and the Promise of Salvation, affirms the same of Saint Gregory Nazianzen and adds Saint Basil as being opposed to the speculation.
And, lastly, Rahner:
“. . . we have to admit . . . that the testimony of the Fathers, with regard to the possibility of salvation for someone outside the Church, is very weak. Certainly even the ancient Church knew that the grace of God can be found also outside the Church and even before Faith. But the view that such divine grace can lead man to his final salvation without leading him first into the visible Church, is something, at any rate, which met with very little approval in the ancient Church. For, with reference to the optimistic views on the salvation of catechumens as found in many of the Fathers, it must be noted that such a candidate for baptism was regarded in some sense or other as already ‘Christianus,’ and also that certain Fathers, such as Gregory Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyssa deny altogether the justifying power of love or of the desire for baptism. Hence it will be impossible to speak of a consensus dogmaticus in the early Church regarding the possibility of salvation for the non-baptized, and especially for someone who is not even a catechumen. In fact, even St. Augustine, in his last (anti-pelagian) period, no longer maintained the possibility of a baptism by desire.” (Rahner, Karl, Theological Investigations, Volume II, Man in the Church, translated by Karl H. Kruger, pp.40, 41, 57)
Rahner might also have included others among the fathers who denied the possibility of salvation for the unbaptized catechumen who died before receiving the sacrament.
Historical Testimony: Saint Augustine’s Recantation of Baptism of Desire
The following extracts are taken from Fritz Hoffman’s work, Das Kirchenbegrifft des hl Augustinus. (Saint Augustine’s Concept of the Church, Fritz Hoffmann, 2. Part, 2. Chapter, The relation of the Mystical Body of Christ to the Visible Catholic Church) They were translated from German by Dr. Leonard Maluf, S.S.L, S.T.D., who once was a translator for L’Osservatore Romano and now translates for a Biblical journal called Dei Verbum. The German author uses these passages to demonstrate that, in his anti-Pelagian writings, Saint Augustine recanted his earlier opinion on the saving efficacy of baptism of desire. I will leave the Latin text in italics for those who wish to check Dr. Maluf’s English translation (in brackets) from the Latin citations of Dr. Hoffman.
The Concept of the Church in St. Augustine, Fritz Hoffmann:
“[p. 464, c] Over against the efforts of the Pelagians, and their African following, to locate, and thus to secure, the salvation of human beings in their own free choice, Augustine’s efforts went ever more in the direction of grounding salvation and the certainty of salvation entirely in God and in the sacramental, saving mediation of the Church as given by God. Just as belonging to the corpus Adam and therewith to the massa damnata rests on the objective fact of human birth, so belonging to the Corpus Christi rests on the no-less objective reality of sacramental rebirth operante gratia spirituali, quae data est per secundum hominem, qui est Christus (Aug. ep. 187, 31) [under the influence of the spiritual grace which is given through the second man, who is Christ.] The ecclesiastical teacher was convinced of the all-powerful will of God for the salvation of man, of the supernatural and grace character of Christianity, and of the powerlessness of any ethical striving that remains in the sphere of the purely human.
“Nowhere could Augustine bring this conviction to stronger expression than in the way he attached Christian rebirth, justification, and grace ever more exclusively to the outward sacramental [p. 465] signs of salvation, thereby insuring against all human inadequacy. This represents the end-point of a development, which at an earlier time had already led from an over-stress on the subjective side of justification, to an equal ordering of sacrament and conversion; and finally to elevating sacrament over conversion. In order to exclude any possibility of self-redemption on the part of human beings, Augustine came out strongly for the indispensable necessity for salvation of the two primary sacraments, Baptism and Eucharist: Just as for the pre-Christian era, faith in the mediator was necessary, so for the Christian era the reception of the sacraments of faith is also necessary by a necessity of means (necessitate medii). Without this sacramental reception there is no liberation from original sin or from personal sins: Animas non liberat sive ab originalibus sive a propriis peccatis nisi in ecclesia Christi baptismus Christi (de Nat. et orig. an. 1, 13, 16; cf. ibid. 4, 11, 16) [It is only Christ’s baptism, in the Church of Christ, that frees from both original sin and from personal sins]. Whoever denies this necessity empties the cross of Christ, whose honor Augustine wishes to champion, of its value: Evacuatur autem (scil. crux Christi) si aliquo modo praeter illius sacramentum ad iustitiam vitamque aeternam pervenire posse dicatur (Aug. de nat. et grat. 7. 7). [Whoever thinks that one can arrive at justification and eternal life in any other way than through the sacrament of the cross of Christ empties it of value].
“ ‘Crucem Christi evacuare’ and ‘baptismum evacuare’ thus mean one and the same thing for the ecclesiastical teacher: Gratiam Christi simul oppugnant (scil. Manichaei et Pelagiani), baptismum eius simul evacuant carnem eius simul exhonorant (c. duas ep. Pel. 2, 2, 3) [They (the Manicheans and the Pelagians) at once assail the grace of Christ, empty his baptism of value, and dishonor his flesh.] Punic linguistic usage well expresses the absolute necessity of Baptism (immediately following which even underage children were regularly given the Eucharist): “In a happy turn of phrase, Punic Christians call Baptism simply ‘salvation’ and the sacrament of the Body of Christ ‘life.’ Where could this come from if not from an old, in my opinion, even apostolic tradition, according to which Christians hold fast to the belief that outside Baptism and the participation in the Lord’s table no human being can attain either to God’s kingdom or to salvation and eternal life” (Aug. de pecc. mer. et rem 1, 24, 34).
“To one who held such a strict view, even the doctrine of baptism of desire must have already seemed scandalous. [p. 466] Augustine did not hesitate to withdraw from his earlier opinion on this topic [see pp. 381 ff. of Hoffman’s book]. Even on the subject of the good thief, whom he had earlier thought of as the classic example of baptism of desire, he would now prefer to assume that the man was perhaps baptized after all, or that his death could be viewed as a kind of martyrdom. (Aug. Retr. 2, 18 [Knöll 2, 44, 3]; de nat. et orig. an 1, 9, 11; 3, 9, 12) So, too, he now considers even a good catechumen who dies before Baptism as lost, whereas a bad man, who (naturally not without inner conversion) is baptized just before death, is saved: Quare iste adductus est a gubernatione Dei, ut baptizaretur; ille autem cum bene catechumenus vixerit, subita ruina mortuus est et ad baptismum non pervenit? Ille autem cum scelerate vixerit, cum luxuriosus, cum moechus, cum scenicus, cum venator aegrotavit, baptizatus est, discessit,… Peccatum in eo deletum est? Quaere merita! Non invenies nisi poenam. Quaere gratiam: O altitudo divitiarum! (de nat. et orig. an p. 27, 6) [Why is it that the latter (the evil man) was led by divine providence to be baptized, while the former died by sudden catastrophe, although he lived well as a catechumen, without arriving at baptism? (Why is it that) the evil man although he had lived the life of a villain, although he displayed the weaknesses of the wanton, of an adulterer, of a stage artist, of a hunter, was nevertheless baptized before he died, … and his sins were wiped out? If you are looking for what people properly deserve, you will find only punishment. If you are looking for grace: O the depths of the riches of God...!]
“[Augustine] [pages 466-467] would even go so far as to say that since the time of Christ there has not been one predestined person who has not received baptism before his death: Absit enim, ut praedestinatus ad vitam sine sacramento mediatoris finire permittatur hanc vitam (Aug. c. Julianum. 5, 4, 14) [Perish the thought that a person predestined to eternal life could be allowed to end this life without the sacrament of the mediator]; to wish to assume that people whom God has predestined, could be whisked off by death before being baptized amounts to setting a power over God which prevents him from carrying out what he had intended. An eos et ipse praedestinat baptizari et ipse quod praedestinavit non sinit fieri? (Aug. de nat. et orig. an. 2, 9, 13). [Is it possible that (God) himself predestines people to be baptized and then he himself does not allow to happen what he has predestined?] But in another sense too, the heightened sacramentalism shows itself with Augustine in this period: While earlier the forgiveness of sins appears simply as the effect of Baptism, against the Pelagian narrowing of the baptismal effect to the remission of sins, he now also stresses the communication of new, positive vital forces which he had previously attributed to the moral efforts of human beings supported by grace, without bringing them into direct causal [p. 468] relationship with the sacrament. It is now Baptism itself that gives the disciple the necessary grace for the victorious struggle against passion, according to de Gen. ad litt. 10, 14, 25.”
Skipping now to the bottom of page 472, Hoffman concludes: “It has thus been shown that the Pelagian controversy, which caused the ecclesiastical teacher to look for as objective a basis for salvation as possible, drove Augustine toward a sacramentalism that was foreign to his way of thinking in his youth, and even well into his time as bishop, and that was capable of strengthening him still further in his belief in the necessity of the visible Church for salvation.”
As I stated at the start, this article is focused on the issue of baptism of desire in its origins. Concerning baptism of blood, Saint Augustine continued to believe, as did Saint Cyprian, that an unbaptized martyr went straight to heaven. While not every father of the Church identified with this belief, there is none that I am aware of who wrote anything contrary to it. Baptism of desire, on the other hand, owes its formal genesis to Saint Augustine, as is clear from the passage already quoted from his Fourth Book against the Donatists: “In considering which again and again, I find [that] also the Faith and conversion of heart, if it happens that lack of time prevents the celebration of the sacrament of baptism,” can make up for the lack of baptism. The fact that he recanted this opinion would remove the foundation stone of the argument from the authority of the fathers concerning baptism of desire.
Conception in Justice and Rebirth in the Body of Christ
Lastly, in another letter, to a Bishop Simplicianus, that he wrote against the Pelagians, the great African Doctor compared the desire of a catechumen to a certain conception, awaiting birth in the sacrament: “But the grace of faith in some is such that it is insufficient for obtaining the kingdom of heaven, as in the catechumens and in Cornelius himself before he was incorporated into the Church by receiving the sacraments; in others, the grace of faith is such as to make them the body of Christ and the holy temple of God. As the Apostle says: ‘know you not, that you are the holy temple of God’ (1 Cor. 3:16); and also the Lord Himself: ‘Unless a man be born of water and the Holy Ghost, he will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ Therefore, the beginnings of faith have a certain similarity to conceptions, for in order to attain life eternal, it is not enough to be conceived, but one must be born. And none of these is without the grace of the mercy of God, because when works are good, they follow that grace, as was said, they do not precede it.”
A Word About Trent
I did not raise the issue of the teaching of the Council of Trent, although the Council is usually brought up by writers who oppose Saint Benedict Center’s position. Because it is so often cited to this purpose, I insert a brief excursus here, even though it is not directly relevant to my thesis. That august synod, in its Decree on Justification, defined that the state of justification can only be conferred by the sacrament of baptism in re or in voto — in actual reception or in vowed intent to receive. (Session VI, c. IV) The state of justification is the state of sanctifying grace. The Council did not define that a catechumen, unbaptized but justified, could be saved if he died in that state. This question, as a hypothetical possibility, was not raised at the Council. Some have argued that our position on baptism of desire is, nevertheless, condemned by Trent in the same Session, chapter sixteen, where the Council teaches that nothing further is needed for the justified to enter heaven than to maintain the state of grace. However, it is with regard to the baptized that the Council taught that the maintaining of the state of sanctifying grace after baptism, or after regaining it in confession, is all that is absolutely necessary for salvation.
First, I will quote from Session six, chapter IX, which precedes and introduces the material treated in the following chapters:
“For even as no pious person ought to doubt of the mercy of God, of the merit of Christ, and of the virtue and efficacy of the sacraments, even so each one, when he regards himself, and his own weakness and indisposition, may have fear and apprehension touching his own grace; seeing that no one can know with a certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God.” (my italics)
The Council fathers are teaching here that the pious should never doubt the mercy of God, or the virtue and efficacy of the sacraments. Clearly, in this chapter, and in chapters XIV, XV, and XVI of the same Session, it is the members of the Church who are being addressed, i.e., the baptized. At the moment of baptism, the initiate knows with absolute certitude, if he has approached the sacrament with faith and at least attrition for his sins, that all of his sins are washed away and the temporal punishment due them. Afterwards, however, as he works out his faith in daily trials, he ought to be confident that he has the grace of God and not doubt it, if he has not sinned mortally. And, if he falls into sin, and confesses with sorrow and firm purpose of amendment, he ought to be confident in God’s forgiveness and mercy. Yet this confidence, the Council affirms, holy and right as it is, falls short of the certitude that comes in believing the revealed truths, which are the object of the theological virtue of Faith.
Catechumens, on the other hand, no matter how pious, cannot have this confidence that they are in God’s grace. True, they should firmly believe and hope in God’s mercy and providence, but they would be presumptuous to assume that, prior to baptism, their sins are forgiven.
And again, in Session Six, chapter XVI, where the Council was addressing the grace received in baptism, or regained after confession, the teaching is more to the point:
“Before men, therefore, who have been justified in this manner [through baptism or confession] — whether they have preserved uninterruptedly the grace received, or whether they have recovered it when lost — are to be set the words of the Apostle: Abound in every good work, knowing that your labour is not in vain in the Lord; for God is not unjust, that he should forget your work, and the love which you have shown in his name; and, do not lose your confidence, which hath a great reward. And, for this cause, life eternal is to be proposed to those working well unto the end, and hoping in God, both as a grace mercifully promised to the sons of God through Jesus Christ, and as a reward which is according to the promise of God Himself, to be faithfully rendered to their good works and merits. For this is that crown of justice which the Apostle declared was, after his fight and course, laid up for him, to be rendered to him by the just judge, and not only to him, but also to all that love his coming. For, whereas Jesus Christ Himself continually infuses his virtue into the said justified, as the head into the members, and the vine into the branches, and this virtue always precedes and accompanies and follows their good works, which without it could not in any wise be pleasing and meritorious before God, we must believe that nothing further is wanting to the justified, to prevent their being accounted to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life, and to have truly merited eternal life, to be obtained also in its (due) time, if so be, however, that they depart in grace: seeing that Christ, our Saviour, saith: ‘If any one shall drink of the water that I will give him, he shall not thirst for ever; but it shall become in him a fountain of water springing up unto life everlasting.’ ” (my italics)
Saint Augustine taught, as is clear from this article’s epigram, that the providence of God would see to it that a justified catechumen would be baptized before death. God alone, in any event, knows which of those, with a votum for baptism and perfect contrition, He has justified. The Church can only assume, as the arm of Christ, the Principal Agent in baptism, that all are in need of receiving the sacrament in order to not only have all sin forgiven and abolished, but to be a member of the Church, the Body of Christ. Anticipating the rejoinder that no one is lost who dies in the state of grace, let me just affirm that I agree. Not only that I agree, but that I submit to this truth as I would a dogma of Faith. The Church, however, allows the faithful the freedom to believe that the providence of God will see to it that every person dying in the state of grace will also be baptized. This preserves the literal sense of Christ’s teaching in John 3:5: “Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” and His apostolic mandate to preach and baptize all nations in Mark 16: 15-16.
Summary of Points
I will end with this summation:
1. I have not found any father of the Church who taught that there was an apostolic tradition favoring a saving efficacy of a baptism of desire. If anyone can supply me with quotes indicating otherwise, I will correct my assertion.
2. Saint Ambrose’s eulogy for the slain Emperor Valentinian is easily capable of interpretations other than baptism of desire.
3. There is no speculation concerning baptism of desire in Saint Ambrose’s definitive writing on the sacraments, as in De Mysteriis.
4. Saint Gregory Nazianzen, eastern doctor of the Church, explicitly rejected the idea of a baptism in desire.
5. Saint Augustine was the only father of the Church, whom I could discover, to speculate specifically about the saving efficacy of baptism of desire. I invite correction if I am wrong.
6. Saint Augustine recanted his earlier position on this subject in his later anti-Pelagian writings.
7. From the time of Saint Augustine’s anti-Donatist writings in the 390s, until the twelfth century, I was unable to find any doctor of the Church who wrote in favor of a baptism of desire. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153) was the first. Again, I would be happy to receive correction.
8. Saint Bernard used the authorities of Saints Augustine and Ambrose to support his position. Had he had more information on their more mature or more definitive positions on the absolute necessity of the sacrament of baptism, then, I believe that this great saint would not have cited either of “these two pillars” as an authority favoring baptism of desire. Furthermore, had he considered the opinion as part of apostolic tradition would he have qualified his support by saying “with them I am either right or wrong”?
9. Father Laisney also made the point in his 1999 letter that baptism of blood is the most perfect form of baptism of desire. Therefore, if Saint Benedict Center admits unanimity among those fathers and doctors who have spoken about baptism of blood, then, implicitly, SBC is admitting that there is, for unbaptized martyrs, a perfect baptism of desire. This is certainly a valid point. However, again, I do not think it takes into proper consideration the dogma of the particular providence of God and the “fulfillment of all justice” in sacramental baptism. For this reason did Saint Paul instruct the Philippians to always be confident: “God who has begun a good work in you, will perfect it unto the day of Christ Jesus” (1:6). In my 1999 open letter to Father Laisney, I devoted five pages out of eighty-nine to just this issue; however, it will have to be left alone for a future article. Suffice it for now to end with a postulate offered by Father Sylvester J. Hunter, S.J., in his Outlines of Dogmatic Theology:
We have seen that in certain cases the existence of this unanimous consent can be inferred even where few writers have treated of the matter, and we must carefully distinguish between the witness of the Fathers to the tradition that they have received, and their judgment as critics, on points as to which, they have received no tradition. In the former case their unanimous consent is decisive; in the latter it is possible for more recent criticism to have discovered reasons for adopting a different view. (page 223)