Christian Children Dying Without Baptism

One of the disputed questions Aquinas deals with is: whether a child who is born in the desert where no water is available, and dies without baptism, can be saved in virtue of its mother's faith:

It seems that a child born in the desert can be saved without baptism in virtue of its parents' faith.

1.For faith in the time of grace is no less efficacious than in the time of natural law. But in the time of natural law children were saved in virtue of their parents' faith, as Gregory says. Therefore they also are so saved now in the time of grace.

2. Further, Christ did not constrict the way of salvation for men, since he says in John 10:10: "I came that they may have life, and have it more abundantly." But before the coming of Christ some children were saved in virtue of their parents' faith. Therefore much more are some thus saved after the coming of Christ.

But against this is what the Lord says in John 3:5, "Unless one is born of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven."

I respond, it should be said that no one can be freed from the damnation that the human race incurred on account of the sin of its first parent except through Christ, who alone is found immune from that damnation, that is, by being incorporated into him as a member to its head. Now this can take place in three ways.
First, by receiving baptism, according to Gal 3:27, "all you who have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ." Secondly, by shedding one's blood for Christ, since by this someone is conformed to Christ's passion, from which baptism receives its efficacy; hence it is said about the martyrs in Rev 7:14, that "they have washed their robes etc… in the blood of the lamb." Thirdly, by faith and love, according to Prov 15:27, "by mercy and faith sins are cleansed," and Acts 15:9, "purifying their hearts by faith"; and by faith Christ dwells in our hearts, as is seen from Eph 3; hence also baptism itself is called the sacrament of faith.

Accordingly, there is said to be three kinds of baptism, namely of water, spirit, and blood; for the other two take the place of baptism of water, so long as there is the intention of receiving that baptism of water, so that it is a case of necessity, rather than religious contempt that excludes the sacrament.

Now it is manifest that there cannot be a motion of faith and love in children who do not yet have the use of reason, nor can there be the intention of receiving baptism; and therefore they cannot be saved except by the baptism of water, or by the baptism of blood if they are killed because of Christ, through which they not only are made Christians, but also martyrs, as Augustine says about the innocents.

Thus it is evident that the child who dies in the desert without baptism does not attain salvation.

To the first, therefore, it should be said according to some persons, in the time of natural law the parents motion of faith alone was not sufficient, but some external protestation of faith by some sensible sign was required. And on this view the only difference between what was then required and what is now required for salvation, is that now the sensible sign is determinate, while then it was indeterminate, and was up to the choice of the individual.

The opinion of others is that just the interior motion of faith in reference to the child's salvation sufficed for childrens' salvation. Yet the power of faith has not now been diminished, but the degree of salvation has been increased; for now those who are saved by Christ are immediately introduced into the kingdom of heaven, which before was not the case; hence it is not unfitting if something further is required for this, namely baptism, as is said in John 3:5.

To the second it should be said that Christ enlarged the way of salvation for men in that he opened to them the gates of eternal life, which before were closed by the sin of the first parent.

10 thoughts on “Christian Children Dying Without Baptism”

  1. This argument (and most similar arguments) seems more to be an argument about the sources of revelation than about the absolute nature of things. Although St. Thomas concludes, "Thus it is evident that the child who dies in the desert without baptism does not attain salvation," the manner of argument indicates that the meaning is rather that there is no means given in Scripture by which such a child could attain salvation. One could take John 3:5 in a Feeneyite manner, but St. Thomas doesn't do this because other passages in Scripture imply that some people are saved through means other than ordinary water baptism. But since revelation nowhere declares that its own list of exceptions is exhaustive, such an argument cannot conclude with certainty.

  2. OK, time to out with it publicly: I don't get "baptism by blood." That is, it only makes sense to me if the victim dies "for Christ" in the sense of intending to conform himself to Christ; without that intention, the conformity to Christ seems rather material. But Thomas means to include under "baptism by blood" even those who could not know or intend their conformity to Christ, such as the Holy Innocents.

    1. Aquinas principally distinguishes the baptism of blood from the baptism by water in that the latter unites the person to Christ and his saving power through a sacramental sign that represents this saver power, while the former unites a person to Christ's saving power through a real conformity to him in his passion, by which he effected salvation.

      The fact of undergoing pain or death is material here, as you point out. There needs to be some further reason why this material likeness should be considered as a real conformity, why this suffering or dying should be considered in relation to Christ. Since it is principally reason and will that determine the meaning of material realities that in themselves are open to being considered from multiple points of view, the suffering and death can be considered either: (1) from the point of view of the person who dies; (2) from the point of the view of the person (if it is a person) who causes the death.

      The "normal", or ideal form of martyrdom requires a relation to Christ from both points of view: the person who dies has to die on account of his faith in or love for Christ, and he has to be killed on account of an at least implicit "odium Fidei". That both these requirements are present seems implied by Pope Benedict's 2006 letter on the Causes of the Saints, which also makes evident that the "odium Fidei" does not need to be explicit, and could take the external form of purely political or social demands.

      But if this is the normal, or ideal form of martyrdom, What is the minimum requirement? Is a person who willingly accepts death from cancer on account of his love for Christ a martyr? Is a person who is killed out of hatred for Christ, but who does not personally perceive or accept this death as a dying on account of Christ, a martyr?

      The tradition of the Church, deriving from the intuition of the Fathers, seems to be that in the person who is capable of making moral decisions, the personal attitude (dying for Christ) is indispensable; it only constitutes martyrdom in the full sense when the other element (being killed for Christ) is present, yet constitutes martyrdom in a participated sense even without this, but being killed for Christ without charity does not constitute saving martyrdom.

      But in the case of persons incapable of moral decisions, the intuition of the Fathers, which came to be expressed especially in the feast of the Holy Innocents, seems to say that God counts their death as a sharing in the death of his Son, and grants them grace and glory through that death, without any decision of theirs, but only in view of the intent of their persecutors.

      Since it is ultimately a matter of how God views such deaths, I don't think one can definitively reject, on any purely abstract or logical principles, a view that would say, for example, that God considers any person who is unjustly put to death as sufficiently conformed to Christ's death in this respect, or more radically, anyone who dies, as long as they have no contrary will, as in the case of infants. This suggestion is made by the ITC in The Hope of Salvation for Infants who Die Without Being Baptized, nn. 85-86.

      To be able to make particular judgments about what cases of infants' deaths one can reasonably expect to be considered by God as martyrdom and means of salvation, it would be necessary to spell out in greater detail the theological and revealed principles that implicitly underlie the Fathers' intuition regarding the Holy Innocents. (I call it an intuition because I can't recall any complete theological argument why the Holy Innocents' death is a martyrdom that constitutes a way of salvation for them; does anyone else? At any rate their view doesn't seem to so much be grounded upon a developed argument as upon a certain intuition)

      1. OK, so you are pointing out that the persecutor's intention, for example, could provide the necessary formality–or really anything God chooses to accept. I'll chew on that for a while.

        In the meantime, I do think there is a decent biblical argument for the Holy Innocents, although I am not aware that the Fathers ever saw or developed it. Basically, you can establish that Matthew's formula citations are contextually sensitive; then you can point out that the verse from Jeremiah cited in connection with the Innocents implies, when taken in context, that they will return to life; this view is further strengthened when parallels with the infant Christ in the same story are taken into account.

        The whole thing is laid out in my dissertation, but I can't imagine anyone wanted to read the thing!

  3. A separate comment here because I don't want to confuse threads:

    Given the position in this article, the child in Thomas's scenario could be saved if his mother converted to Satanism and sacrificed him as a blasphemy against Christ, because then the child would under Baptism by blood. But if the child's mother remains Christian and prays for him, then he will be lost.

    So help me here: why am I bothered by this outcome? What has changed since the 13th century such that a man of great charity was not bothered by this position but I am?

    1. A couple of ideas that occur to me: (1) You have relatively a greater appreciation of the personal element involved in the salvation of others, in comparison with the sacramental element (or quasi-sacramental in the case of baptism by blood) as something taken in its own right.

      (2) In this case there seems to be too much causality of the evil in the "bringing good out of evil"; in the case of martyrdom when a person dies for love of Christ, the evil is clearly only the occasion for the good; in this case the evil seems almost to be a cause. I'm not, sure, though, whether this is due to a different general way of thinking about how God brings good out of evil.

  4. I must say that I myself am not really satisfied with Aquinas's responses to the objections, particularly the second.

    The second objection argues that Christ did not come to shut off salvation from people, but to open it up, and quotes one text from many that could be quoted. In response Aquinas says that Christ opened it up objectively, but does not address the principal difficulty of the objection, that there would be individuals whom Christ's coming would directly cut off from salvation. That Christ's coming prompts a decision for or against him that need not have been so explicit before, and in this sense can be an occasion of damnation is one thing; but for Christ's coming to alter the economy of salvation so that a person is not saved who would have been saved if Christ had not yet come, without there being any difference in that person, is quite another.

    If the change from the time when the faith of parents could save their children to the time when it the faith of parents could not save their children without baptism took place at some given moment over the whole world, then, since there were and are persons who never heard of Christ, Christ's coming excludes from salvation their infants who die, though they would have had a possibility if they had lived before Christ's coming.

    If the change from the time when the faith of parents could save their children to the time when it the faith of parents could not save their children without baptism is the moment when the parents themselves have heard the preaching of the faith, then again, their hearing the preaching of the faith could exclude their children from salvation (because they are still catechumens, or because they do not have a chance to baptize their infants), even if the parents do not reject the faith, which is also problematic.

    The ground Aquinas advances, and probably the only basic reason that can be advanced, why the faith of the parents (or the faith together with some external protestation of faith) cannot save their child now, though it could before the coming of Christ, is the teaching on the necessity of baptism. But if this necessity allows for the baptism of desire, through faith, and if vicarious faith can be saving for infants (as before Christ), it is not clear how one comes to the conclusion that the possibility of salvific vicarious faith is excluded in the Christian era by the necessity of baptism.

    Cajetan in his commentary on the Summa, argues with an argument much like that of the first objection, that if baptism is impossible, children can be saved by the faith of their parents, though the parents should in that case "protect their child with the invocation of the Trinity, and thus offer it to God as it dies 'in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.' " Probably he had not read this article of the disputed questions… though Aquinas actually implies the same thing in the following article of the Summa (q. 68, a. 3)!

  5. I'm not sure I see STA's main argument. The whole point at issue is whether the parent's faith can save, but his response is "and it is manifest that the child cannot perform an act of faith". Very well. But the whole question is about the efficacy of the faith of another! His opponent has no reason to contest the point that the child cannot make an act of faith for himself.

    1. Michael's suggestion, if I understood it correctly, is that his main argument is something along the lines of: "we haven't received from scripture [or the tradition] that salvation is possible for the children of christian parents through the faith of the parents, therefore we should hold that it is not." And it is only in the reply to the objections that he goes on to argue "nor does it logically follow from the possibilities of salvation that we have received from scripture [and tradition]." One could maybe analyze out in detail the following premises and arguments:

      (1) revelation indicates the absolute necessity of incorporation into Christ for salvation;
      (1) revelation indicates that baptism is necessary for salvation;
      (3) revelation indicates that a person may be incorporated into Christ through being baptized, through being killed for Christ, or through believing in Christ; on account of the second principle, tradition expresses these ways of incorporation as modes of baptism;
      (4) (A premise that is only implicit, rather than stated explicitly–and thus difficult to formulate exactly as STA was thinking or presupposing) The data of revelation on the necessity of baptism should be understand in a qualified sense only where revelation itself or the tradition indicates that they should be.
      (5) Therefore, the necessity of baptism should only be qualified by the possibility of baptism of blood or desire in the manner expressed by tradition.

  6. That makes more sense, though if that is the line that STA is following one might wonder if there is more than one way to understand the silence of Scripture. In this particular case, the silence seems more reasonable to read as the sort of silence that the law always (or frequently) has to extraordinary cases, and/ or cases of emergency. But I suppose this is a common critique.

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