Monday, May 3, 2010

Baptism of Desire: Or, Two Thousand Years of Not Knowing Everything

If you think the Catholic Church claims to know everything there is to know about God: Think again. Take a subject that's very important to me: unbaptized infants.

I'll get to why that's so important to me, later in this post.

Baptism: Yeah, It's a Kind of Big Deal

The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses baptism at some length. (1213-1274, for starters)

The part of baptism that we see is someone getting in contact with water. Sometimes that contact is full immersion. I've yet to see that done, by the way. Generally, around here, we go with a rather lighter touch: the baptizer dips fingers in the water and touches the infant's forehead. (Some of the babies like it, some don't.)
"This sacrament is also called 'the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit,' for it signifies and actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit without which no one 'can enter the kingdom of God.'7"
(Catechism (1215)
So, nobody can enter the Kingdom of God without being baptized: where does that leave unbaptized infants and folks who died before they could be baptized?

That's a good question.

Baptism of Blood, Baptism of Desire, and a Whole Lot of Questions

The answer, as far as we have it, is — people who are not baptized when they die may be able to enter the Kingdom of God through the baptism of blood or the baptism of desire.


Here's an excerpt from a document written in 2007. As usual with documents generated by the Catholic Church, it isn't exactly light reading:
"...Already in the early Christian community, it was accepted that martyrdom, the 'Baptism of blood', was a substitute for sacramental Baptism. Furthermore, there was the acknowledgement of the Baptism of desire. In this regard, the words of Thomas Aquinas are pertinent: 'The sacrament of Baptism may be wanting to someone in two ways. First, both in reality and in desire; as is the case with those who neither are baptised, nor wish to be baptised…Secondly, the sacrament of Baptism may be wanting to anyone in reality but not in desire…Such a man can obtain salvation without being actually baptised on account of his desire for Baptism'.[95] The Council of Trent acknowledges 'Baptism of desire' as a way whereby one can be justified without the actual reception of the sacrament of Baptism: 'After the promulgation of the Gospel, this transition [from sin to justice] cannot take place without the bath of regeneration or the desire for it for as it is written: "Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, one cannot enter the kingdom of God (Jn 3:5)" '.[96]..."
(International Theological Commission (April 19, 2007)1)
If you think that sounds complicated: just wait. A few acres of text before that excerpt, this came up:
"...[58] The proposals invoking some kind of Baptism of desire or Baptism of blood, however, involved certain difficulties. On the one hand, the adult's act of desire for Baptism can hardly be attributed to children. The little child is scarcely capable of supplying the fully free and responsible personal act which would constitute a substitution for sacramental Baptism; such a fully free and responsible act is rooted in a judgement of reason and cannot be properly achieved before the human person has reached a sufficient or appropriate use of reason (aetas discretionis: 'age of discretion')...."
(International Theological Commission (April 19, 2007)1)
So, an infant who does not receive the Sacrament of Baptism can still enter the Kingdom of God: right?

Like I said: maybe.

Then again, maybe not. Like that document said, the idea involves "certain difficulties."
"...In the Church's tradition, the affirmation that children who died unbaptised are deprived of the beatific vision has for a long time been 'common doctrine'. This common doctrine followed upon a certain way of reconciling the received principles of revelation, but it did not possess the certitude of a statement of faith, or the same certitude as other affirmations whose rejection would entail the denial of a divinely revealed dogma or of a teaching proclaimed by a definitive act of the magisterium. The study of the history of the Church's reflection on this subject shows that it is necessary to make distinctions. In this summary we distinguish first, statements of faith and what pertains to the faith; second, common doctrine; and third, theological opinion...."
(International Theological Commission (April 19, 2007)1)
That's a lot of verbiage. I chose this passage partly because it mentions the view that unbaptized infants "are deprived of the beatific vision," and touches on what sort of a view that is. I'll pull a clarification out:
"...This common doctrine followed upon a certain way of reconciling the received principles of revelation, but it did not possess the certitude of a statement of faith, or the same certitude as other affirmations whose rejection would entail the denial of a divinely revealed dogma or of a teaching proclaimed by a definitive act of the magisterium...."
(International Theological Commission (April 19, 2007)1) [emphasis mine]
(The Bible, Tradition and the Magisterium are very important in the Catholic Church, and I've written about that before.)

What About Unbaptized Infants?

There's hope, as the 2007 document says:
"...Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered above give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptised infants who die will be saved and enjoy the Beatific Vision. We emphasise that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge. There is much that simply has not been revealed to us (cf. Jn 16:12). We live by faith and hope in the God of mercy and love who has been revealed to us in Christ, and the Spirit moves us to pray in constant thankfulness and joy (cf. 1 Thess 5:18)...."
(International Theological Commission (April 19, 2007)1)
The Catechism may put it a little more clearly:
"As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: 'Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,'64 allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism."
(Catechism, 1261)
Hope, yes. Certainty: no.

Would I like to go to the website and get all the answers? Sure. But that's not gonna happen. I don't think I'm going too far when I say that the Catholic Church, even after almost two thousand years of discussion and study of the Bible and Tradition, still doesn't know everything!

And that's okay.

Hope, Trusting God, and Curiosity

I like answers: I like questions, too. Which is a good thing, since after more than a half-century, I still have more questions than answers. Definite, unequivocal, rock-solid-certain answers, that is. I've got a lot of answers that'll do for the moment: and which I figure are true — probably.

The Catholic Church is very clear, for anyone who bothers to look, about what is "a teaching proclaimed by a definitive act of the magisterium," and what what we figure is true — probably.

I'm willing to hope, trust God to handle what I don't understand, and work at conforming my will to His with things that I've got some sort of grip on.

As for things I don't understand: I keep working at learning and understanding more. God gave us curiosity — so I figure He expects us to use it.

What's the Big Deal With Unbaptized Infants?

The question of what happens to people who die without being baptized is quite important to me. Two of my six children died without getting baptized.

It's not that my wife and I didn't want to baptize them. Each time we were — a little preoccupied. I've written about the situation for Letters to Priests:

Just Routine, Nothing Special

Quite a lot has happened, since Father James Statz came to the Our Lady of the Angels parish here in Sauk Centre, Minnesota.

Some of it hasn't been routine, like when the Christmas tree — over a dozen feet tall — fell over behind him. Or when he returned to duty after a stroke should have killed him — but didn't. Or when he talked with me and my wife after we lost another child.
Miscarriage #1: Joy
We'd lost one child, several years ago, very early in the pregnancy. The best guess we have is that something went very, very wrong with some basic function in Joy's body. The human body is a wonderfully complex thing: Which means there's a great many things that can go wrong. This isn't a perfect world.

My wife and I sealed the mess, for testing: but saw to it that Joy was buried, informally and briefly, in hallowed ground. I wasn't sure if that was quite what we're supposed to do, but I figured that 'it's easier to get forgiveness, than permission.' Testing showed no problems, aside from the miscarriage. As the years passed, two more children joined the two we'd been blessed with before Joy.
Miscarriage #2: Elizabeth
There was no reason to assume that our sixth pregnancy wouldn't end in a normal delivery. This baby was doing fine. We, and our four surviving children, were looking forward to seeing the newest member of the family.

When the contractions started, they weren't quite what we expected, but as I recall they were inside the 'normal' range. When it was "time," my wife and I headed for the hospital.

As nearly as I can tell, Elizabeth died as we were approaching the Interstate exit nearest the hospital. My wife told me that the baby was very active: and then completely still. At the hospital, the nurses could detect no heartbeat. And the delivery was not going well. At all.

Later that night I followed the ambulance carrying my wife to another hospital, about 45 miles away. And was with her when Elizabeth was delivered: beautifully formed; and quite dead. My wife and I took turns holding Elizabeth, as warmth left her body. Later, we learned that the center of the placenta had given way. The medical folks say if the failure had happened near the edge, my wife would have bled to death.

We have photos of Elizabeth, and of an ultrasound: but I haven't looked at those for quite a long time. There's no need. I remember what she looked like, the weight of her body in my arms: and I'm not likely to forget. Besides: God willing, I'll meet her, and Joy, in a few decades.
'Why be miserable?'
Talking over Elizabeth's death with my wife, and how we feel about it, she summed up the situation with something like "why be miserable?" She's a very practical woman. And, I think, she's right.

If I seem 'upbeat' about losing 1/3 of our children: It helps that Elizabeth died eight years ago. I've gone through the 'stages of grief,' more or less. Don't let anybody kid you: it's not an easy process. Knowing what was behind a nervous tic and auditory hallucinations helped me get through those years: but I'd just as soon not repeat the experience.

There will always be an 'Elizabeth size' hole in my heart — matching the one for Joy. But I've gotten used to the situation: just as people get used to their children living thousands of miles away. Besides, being dead doesn't make them less a part of the family. I still wish Elizabeth and Joy a 'good night,' every night, as I do for all our children.
'It's not fair.' So?
Being born with deformed hips gave me opportunities to think about — and meditate on — whether or not expecting life to be "fair" by American standards is reasonable.

I'm convinced that God is just, and that He is merciful: and that I wouldn't understand why things happen, even if He explained His Will to me. So I'm not going to demand an explanation. I've read the book of Job
Hey! This letter is about Father Statz!
After my wife and I got back to Sauk Centre, Father Statz spoke with us. Nothing earth-shattering, no dramatic revelations. Just words of sympathy and assurance. He also explained the idea of "baptism of desire." (It's nothing new: Thomas Aquinas and the Council of Trent mentioned it.) And, of course, Father Statz was there when we buried Elizabeth.

Some of the breaks in Father Statz's routine have been good news, like the new Marian garden between the church and the rectory.

Mostly, though, Father Statz has been 'just going through the routines:' celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, anointing the sick, that sort of thing.

He's just an ordinary priest, standing in for Jesus in a small central Minnesota town.

Which, when you think about it, is a pretty big deal.
(Draft of a letter submitted to Letters to Priests)
Not-entirely-unrelated posts:

1 "The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Paptised*," International Theological Commission (April 19, 2007)

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Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.