The Matter of “Baptism of Desire”, -- by Fr James Wathen
...In order to think of the subject of baptism of desire, the following truths are worthy of our reflection:
1. Why angels and men prefer Hell to Heaven is called the Mystery of Iniquity; how angels were and men are saved is called the Salvific Will of God.
2. God's having granted the grace of salvation to the saints from all eternity is called Divine Predestination.
3. The reason for the creation of the material universe is the repopulation of the heavenly court, after the fall of the angels.
4. Almighty God therefore creates men in order to save them.
5. God is absolute goodness and Love Itself; but His ways are inscrutable.
6. God wants the salvation of every man and the damnation of none.
7. God does everything in His power to save every man.
8. If any man is saved, it is because God saved him.
9, If any man is not saved, it is because he chose not to be saved.
10. God cannot bestow Heaven on a man who has no merits, who is not sanctified, even if, in the eyes of humans, he is "a good man."
11. A man cannot be saved outside the Catholic Church, because only the Church can sanctify him.
12. No man goes to Heaven unless he freely chooses it.
13. Even though a man must cooperate with God, he cannot save himself; his salvation is due to God, not himself, because anything in the supernatural order requires divine power.
14. No man goes to Hell unless he freely chooses it.
15. A man does not choose Hell instead of Heaven; he chooses his will instead of God's.
16. A man chooses to go to Hell in this life; he freely chooses to remain in Hell forever.
17. In Hell, no man blames anyone but himself for his damnation.
18. In Hell, they do not hate God, they resist Him; they hate themselves.
19. That in the Providence of God which a man does for his salvation is termed Divine Predestination. This means that God provides all the graces a man needs to be saved because He knew from eternity that the man would accept them.
20. It is the teaching of the Church that God gives to all men sufficient grace for salvation; to those who are saved, He gives efficacious grace.
21, The reason God does not give efficacious grace to those who will be lost is that they would not accept it; this is the same reason God does not give grace to those in Hell.
22. The reason the punishment of Hell is eternal is that neither the demons nor damned humans cease to resist God.
23, God grants the Faith to those who will accept it; those who He knows will not accept it He leaves in ignorance of it; this ignorance is not "invincible;" it is culpable.
24. It is impossible for us to know or to understand God's dealings with all others; we understand poorly God's dealing with ourselves.
25. Even though we can judge that our neighbors are failing to fulfill the requirements for salvation, once they have departed this life, it is impossible to know whether they have been saved or lost.
26. Hell is the necessity of divine justice, which is worthy of all praise.
27. In His passion and death, God revealed with forceful clarity how much He wishes to save every man. He gave expression to this consuming desire when He exclaimed: "I thirst" (Jn. 19:28). He ordained that His legs should not be broken, but that His Heart should be opened that the Church of salvation could be born.
28. The millions who will abide in Limbo forever teach us that no one has the right to the grace of salvation.
Among the many divisions which divide Traditionalist Catholics is that which deals with the Doctrine of Exclusive Salvation ("Outside the Church there is no salvation," Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus). I treated of this Doctrine at great length in my book, Who Shall Ascend?, Part I. Though the effort is far from perfect, I think it is worth reading. What follows is an effort to compress some of the ideas expressed there into a few paragraphs.
The controversy centers on what is required for salvation, particularly, the issue of Baptism. There is a liberal group and a "conservative" group. The liberal group maintains what the Baltimore Catechism teaches, that there are three forms of Baptism: Baptism of water, of blood, and of desire. Those of this persuasion maintain that it is possible for one to be saved without the Sacrament of Baptism (Baptism of water), that what are termed "baptism of blood," the martyrdom of an unbaptized believer, and "baptism of desire," a desire for Baptism. Obviously, the unbaptized martyr has the desire for Baptism (presuming there have been such).
"Baptism of desire" is variously defined. Some think that there has to be a belief in some or all the doctrines of the Catholic religion, implicit or explicit, and a specific desire and/or an intention or resolve to receive Catholic Baptism. Most Catholics nowadays, however, (who give any thought to the matter at all) think that an unbaptized person can and will be saved without any real desire or intention to receive the Sacrament, or enter the Church, provided he is willing to do whatever God requires him to do. The reason he does not do it is that he is ignorant of what God wants him to do. As to what God requires men to do for salvation, from something to nothing, that also is a matter that is open for endless discussion.
Opposed to this position (or these positions) are those who contend that, after faith, the very essential act which God requires for salvation is entrance into the Catholic Church through the reception of the Sacrament of Baptism. This is their understanding of the formula, "Outside the Church, there is no salvation," and of Our Lord's words to Nicodemus: "Amen, Amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom" (Jn. 3:5).
It cannot be denied that the two positions are poles apart. The liberal position boils down to this: God will not deny Heaven to any man who does "the best that he knows how." This means that countless millions of men from every generation and place and race and religion, even atheists, can and will be saved. It includes practically everybody.
Those of the liberal view vehemently deny that their position "boils down" to the foregoing, but, the truth of the matter is, unless one adopts the strict interpretation of Our Lord's words, allowing no exceptions whatsoever, such is the bent of human beings that they will always widen loopholes to allow themselves and others (especially their relatives) the utmost latitude, and they will regard the "strict position" as intolerable and abhorrent.
The purpose of this writing is to deal seriously with the idea of "baptism of desire," which, in the mind of many "conservative-minded" Catholics, means that non-Catholics will be saved who, for want of a priest:
1. Make a perfect act of contrition at the time of their death; and/or:
2. Make an act of faith, wherein they profess belief in the Catholic religion and express to almighty God, implicitly or explicitly, the desire for Baptism.
In support of this position, those who adhere to it refer to the many catechisms which contain it, and to numerous saints who held it, and, the most forceful argument of all: to the fact that the consensus of theologians, living and dead, was that this view should be accepted as proxima fidei, which means that it is "nearly a doctrine."
The problem with this position is that:
1. Several de fide definitions of the Church condemn it.
2. Two canons of the Council of Trent contradict and censure it.
3. There is no foundation in the Scriptures for the idea of "baptism of desire."
4. None of those who promote the idea, which they want to call the "doctrine of baptism of desire," explain how it can have the same effect in the soul as the Sacrament has, that is, how it can dispose one for Heaven.
5. There is no solid evidence that anyone has been saved by "baptism of desire."
6. If one can baptize oneself by "desire," why can one not baptize oneself with water?
When all is said and done, the undeniable fact is that "baptism of desire," which has been spoken of and written about favorably for many centuries, is a product of human creation. It was created "for sentimental reasons" and nothing else. It is an escape from, and a circumvention of, the hard teaching of Christ. His teaching is that, in order to be saved:
1. A person must truly and firmly believe the teaching of the Catholic Church, which is the teaching of His Gospel;
2. He must enter the Church by receiving Baptism, and
3. Having entered the Church, he must keep the Commandments of God and the Precepts of the Church;
4. and attain a certain degree of the love of God, and persevere in this state till the end of his life.
The tradition which created and has maintained the fiction of "baptism of desire" arose from the realization of how few human beings would therefore be saved, a tiny percentage of mankind according to the de fide definitions of the Church. Divine Truth said: Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it!"
Isaias counted the saved thus: And the fruit thereof that shall be left upon it, shall be as one cluster of grapes, and as the shaking of the olive tree, two or three berries in the top of a bough, or four or five upon the top of the tree, saith the Lord the God of Israel.
If the generative idea of "baptism of desire" is the alarm at the recognition of the fewness of the saved, the major premise which supports it is "invincible ignorance." Where "desire" takes the place of the water of Baptism, "invincible ignorance" takes the place of faith, and "good will" or "sincerity" takes the place of supernatural charity – the love of the Triune God in Christ. The thesis goes like this: God is infinitely good and merciful. He desires the salvation of every man. He will, therefore, save everyone He can. Therefore, in all cases where men do not know what they must do for salvation, it is within His power to waive the requirements which He Himself laid down in the Gospel. It is within His power to supply whatever is wanting, so long as the man is sincerely ignorant and perfectly willing to do whatever is required for salvation. His problem is invincible: through no fault of his own, he simply does not know what God wants him to do.
Another form of the thesis is: God is infinitely good and merciful. He desires the salvation of every man. In the case where a man (like a catechumen) accepts the Faith, dies before he can receive Baptism, He waives the need thereof. Exponents of this thesis love to quote the Scripture which says: "Behold the hand of the Lord is not shortened that it cannot save, neither is his ear heavy that it cannot hear" (Isaias 59:1).
The problem with this thesis is that it is human reasoning, not supernatural mystery, which is why there is nothing in the Scriptures which bespeaks or validates it. It contradicts directly and completely the words of Christ, Who is the Savior of the world. Nor is there anything in the Scriptures or Sacred Tradition which explains how God can waive His own requisites for salvation. His requirements are not merely a list of items which have no significance, not purely arbitrary hurdles, which have somehow to be surmounted or put aside.
The liberal view conceives the prerequisites for salvation as a kind of ticket of admission into Heaven. If almighty God determines in a particular case that the ticket is not required, since Heaven is His, it is within His right and power simply to dispense with the need of a ticket. The result of this divine openhandedness (and contradictoriness) is, obviously, that the number of those conceivably admitted into Heaven without a ticket exceeds the number of those who have one so greatly as to make having a ticket pointless. (Some people from Mexico are going through the process of naturalization, while their fellow countrymen are swarming over the Rio Grande.) To abandon the simile, the result is to make all those who have had the Faith, and struggled with the greatest difficulty to practice it, history's biggest fools, supreme among these being the great saints and martyrs who suffered incalculable labors, trials, privations, and most painful tortures, with the absurd notion that God required these things of them for salvation.
In the prosaic image given above, the only relevant difference between those who have a ticket and those who do not is the ticket itself, as in the case of those entering an arena or a theater. In reality, the fulfillment of the requisites for salvation determines the nature of the person who is either to be admitted into Heaven and him who will not be. The person who has fulfilled the conditions laid down by Christ in the Scriptures is one who has been so transformed that he is worthy of Heaven and belongs there; whereas any person who has not fulfilled these requirements is not worthy of it and can make no claim to belong there, and the only way that he may become worthy is by their fulfillment. God Himself is no more able to waive the requirements for salvation than He can lie. To dispense with the requirements in the case of one person would not only be an act of deception, it would be a contradiction in terms.
This is why the Church, at the Council of Trent, says that the Sacrament of Baptism is necessary with "the necessity of means." Hereby the Church is saying that the Sacrament is as necessary as the soul is necessary for a living man. We say that infants and those who never reach the use of reason cannot go to Heaven without Baptism, even though nothing else but Baptism is required of them for salvation, because they are capable of nothing else. This means that the one and only thing required of such individuals is entrance into the Church.
The reason we say all this is that it is not a ticket which is essential for Heaven; it is a spiritual transformation, a quasi-divinization, and divine adoption.... The spiritual act whereby a man bestows "baptism of desire" upon himself can have one effect only: an act of contrition or an act of faith accompanied by the willingness to do whatever God requires of him for salvation can bring about the forgiveness of his sins, both original and actual; nothing more. This is called the state of justification. It means that the individual is "out of debt" toward almighty God. He is, so to speak, "out of the red and in the black," but he has no credits; no liabilities, no assets; fit for Limbo, but not for Heaven. More accurately, he is still nothing more than a natural man, instead of a fallen man. For salvation, one must be a "supernatural man," "another Christ," a partaker of the divine nature of Christ, the God-Man. He must be conformed to Christ, he must be able to claim the infinite merits of Christ as his own; he must be a sanctified man, endowed with the virtues of Christ, a man who "deserves" the ineffable reward of Heaven, the everlasting vision of God.
It is impossible for a sinful man to bestow these properties and rights upon himself. Those who believe that there is such a thing as "baptism of desire" do not realize how great a thing the granting of salvation is, or even the grace of the Sacrament of Baptism.
The Doctrine of Exclusive Salvation cannot be understood, because, like all of the sacred doctrines, it is a mystery. The mystery here is how it is just and loving on the part of God to establish such a dispensation whereby such a small number of human beings will be saved, even though anyone can be saved who wants to be.
The reason that, in this regard, we cannot speak of "invincible ignorance" is that God has all power to speak to every human being as directly as he speaks to himself, by the Holy Ghost. If God wants to tell him anything, He can do it by an internal voice; that He does speak to His beloved children in this way, everyone who has the Faith can testify. (He speaks to us all the time!) We must conclude that if anyone does not "get the message," it can only be because he chooses not to listen to it, or believe it.
The idea that an individual died before he was able to receive the Sacrament of Baptism is equally curious, because it is God who determines how long each of us shall live to the second. And it is God Who in His most benevolent Providence grants Baptism to everyone who receives it. Is He a monster (for Whom nothing is impossible or difficult) who instructs certain individuals in the absolute necessity of Baptism, grants them the grace of wishing it, then cuts off their life so that they can never receive it? And then casts them into Hell forever for not having received it? No, on the very contrary. He is an all-loving God, Who most certainly provides to the responsive all that is needful to them. If they are truly desirous of Baptism, if need be, He will provide it, even by a miracle. (It is a miracle to us, but not to Him.) This is what the Scripture means when it says, "The hand of the Lord is not shortened" (Isaias 59:1).