Thought for the Evening: Baptism of Desire
Boniface over the Christmas break recommended a number of works criticizing the notion of baptism of desire. Having looked them over, I'm afraid I was even less impressed than I was expecting to be. I'd have very little problem with these Feeneyite arguments except that in their eagerness to argue that they are orthodox, which they are perfectly free to do, they regularly overshoot and end up attacking what is in fact that standard Thomistic view of the matter, apparently under the delusion that Thomism is a newfangled liberal Modernist theology that is adulterating Church doctrine with a tendency toward universalism. The ultimate reason for it, of course, is that the Feeneyites themselves share more assumptions with the liberals they oppose than they generally realize. One sign of it: they, like the liberal theologians, regularly slip into talking about baptism of desire as if it weren't baptism, despite the fact that its being baptism is the entire point. The reason for this is that they share the modern Protestant-originated notion that you can only participate in something if you perfectly possess it; this is something that (for instance) Calvinists sometimes assumed in arguing against the Catholic conception of sacramental baptism; liberals hyperextend the idea and Feeneyites turn it on its head. But no Neoplatonist or Aristotelian can accept the assumption, and most major Catholic theologians prior to the Reformation are Neoplatonists or Aristotelians. In any case what I want to do is lay out what seems, as far as I can say, to be the basic, standard Thomistic position on baptism of desire, particularly focusing on the points that have generally been agreed among Thomists.
The Church Father who most explicitly affirms a form of baptism of desire is St. Ambrose in his eulogy for Valentinian. The Emperor Valentinian II had been a catechumen; he had arranged to be baptized by Ambrose, but was killed before that could happen. In the eulogy Ambrose consoles those who are distressed by the fact that he had not received baptism before death by arguing that just as catechumen-martyrs cease to be catechumens when they die due to their blood and piety, so someone like Valentinian can cease to be a catechumen at death due to his pious desire to be baptized, because the pious resolve to be baptized is the aspect of baptism that is entirely in our power. It's worth pointing out, because it is regularly missed by liberal theologians, that Ambrose does not say that catechumens can be saved, whether they are martyrs or not; his argument requires that their death be a form of baptism. In any case, probably due to the influence of Ambrose, the idea entered into the Gloss tradition that there were three kinds of baptism, baptism of water, baptism of blood, and baptism of repentance (later called baptism of desire), and thus it became a part of one of the standard theological sources in the medieval period, which is how it comes to Aquinas.
St. Thomas explicitly affirms the Gloss position in ST 3.66.11. Baptism of water, of course, is the primary form of baptism, but he takes both baptism of blood and baptism of repentance to be affirmed in Scripture explicitly (in Rev. 7:14 and Is. 4:4, respectively), and, based on a claim attributed to Cyprian, puts forward as an obvious example St. Dismas, the Penitent Thief. The thief, despite the fact that we have no indication that he ever received the baptism of water, and despite the fact that he is not a martyr, receives salvation; Christ tells him that that very day he will be with Christ in paradise.
Aquinas is very clear about a number of things. No one -- no one -- is saved without baptism in some sense; but sacramental baptism is not always required (cf. ST 3.68.2). Baptism of blood and baptism of repentance are baptism. Baptism of water is baptism in the full and primary sense; it is the form of baptism that gives a sacramental seal. Baptism of blood and penitential baptism are not sacraments; they are effects of that of which baptism of water is the sacramental sign, and thus they are indirect extensions of the efficacy found directly in the baptism of water.
The standard view of Thomistic theologians follows Aquinas, extending him in certain respects. Drawing from Aquinas's theology of baptism overall, one can identify a few essential elements of baptism: baptismal intention (usually called 'desire' in this context), water, Christ's blood, and the Holy Spirit. All of these are operative in all of the three kinds of baptism, they are just not operative in exactly the same way. They are most perfectly found in baptism of water, which is a direct sign of both the Passion of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and, of course, involves water. Baptism of blood and baptism of desire also involve these, but not so perfectly encapsulated; martyrs are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit, and therefore benefit from the water and blood that flowed from Christ's side through that union, and those who receive baptism of desire are even more imperfectly united to Christ's sacrifice on the Cross through their having the correct intention. St. Dismas continues to be the primary Thomistic example, but reflecting further on the subject, it becomes quite common to take at least many of the Old Testament saints to have been saved by a kind of baptism of desire. No one, remember, is saved without baptism; and it's a standard view that the patriarchs and prophets are saved by their anticipation of Christ, so it's natural to connect the two.
The standard Thomistic view becomes fully completed with Cajetan, who notes that if you take the standard Thomistic view of baptism of desire, then the standard arguments for infant baptism apparently also apply. Infant baptism, like adult baptism, requires baptismal intention; but the baptismal intention for infants is not proper but vicarious -- the parents and the Church have the intention for the infant. This would mean, though, that in cases where parents intend to baptize their infant, but the infant dies before baptism of water, the baptismal intention is there, and thus that such infants receive a kind of baptism of desire. This is what has usually come to be called baptism of vicarious desire; it is the idea that infants who die before baptism of water and (probably) those who are miscarried, whose parents nonetheless had the pious intent to baptize them, receive the grace of baptism in their death. Other infants, of course, go to limbo. Cajetan does note that there are a number of uncertainties here. As we move from water to blood to desire to vicarious desire, the kinds of questions that are raised are increasingly complex, so it's entirely possible that the Church might at some point make some correction to this position. However, Cajetan is exactly right that something like a baptism of vicarious desire is made highly probable by other Thomistic claims about baptism, and if the Church ever did issue a correction, it would likely require a massive revision of the entire Thomistic theology of the sacrament of baptism.
In any case, precisely because it is very probable given other Thomistic positions, it became a standard part of the Thomistic view of baptism. Because of the collapse of Thomism by the nineteenth century, systematic discussion of the topic was left in some disarray, and reviving systematic discussion of it has not been a major priority of the Thomistic revival since, probably because the number of Catholics who take a more restrictive view of baptism than the Thomistic one is at this point very, very small, so it's just not where Thomists are going to focus their limited resources. I would suggest -- fully admitting that there is room for variation and disagreement among Thomists due to the standing disarray of systematic discussion of the topic -- that the Thomistic picture is something like this:
Baptism of Water: baptism in its full and complete form, giving a sacramental character
-- with proper intention: adult sacramental baptism
-- with vicarious intention: infant sacramental baptism
Baptism of Blood: imperfectly reflects baptism of water as union with Christ's Passion
-- with proper intention: catechumens who are martyred for the faith, very likely Old Testament saints who were martyrs
-- with vicarious intention: probably the Holy Innocents, who may be the unique case (that the Holy Innocents are martyrs and saints is undeniable given the traditions of the Church, but vicarious intention in martyrdom is an extremely difficult theological topic, filled with uncertainties)
Baptism of Desire: imperfectly reflects baptism of water as penitential union with Christ through the Holy Spirit
-- with proper intention: St. Dismas, catechumens with intention to be baptized who die before they can be baptized, Old Testament saints who were not martyrs
-- with vicarious intention: infants who die before intended baptism, including (very probably) miscarried infants whose parents genuinely intended to baptize them
There is absolutely no reason why one should regard the Thomistic account as absolutely definitive; Thomists themselves have never regarded every part of the account as such. It might very well at some point need to be corrected, and even without that, there are certainly other views of baptism you could take. But any suggestion that the Thomistic account is unorthodox, short of the Church actually, formally correcting some aspect of it, is nonsense, and any suggestion that it involves any kind of implicit universalism is nonsense to the point of being gibberish. Despite the fact that you could have other interpretations, it's quite clearly based on the evidence of Scripture and the traditions of the Church. It's a perfectly legitimate position for Catholics to take, and, barring correction from the Church, I will defend to the end their right to take it. If others want to argue for a different position, there is certainly room for it; but it entirely stands or falls on the quality of the arguments, and the cogency of the assumptions on which they are based, and nothing else.
Various Links of Interest
* Alasdair MacIntyre, Marxism and Religion -- an old one (from 1968), but very interesting.
* Susan Fowler, So You Want to Learn Physics, gives some suggestions of books to use for learning physics.
* John Irons translates Schiller's "Nänie".
* Thomas Pink, Suarez on Authority as Coercive Teacher
* MrD on Stopping the Outrage Cycle
* Franck Latty on Christine de Pizan and international law
* David H. Montgomery on what you would get if you merged North and South Dakota into a single state: Meet Megakota.
* Brian Kemple, The Continuity of Being: C.S. Peirce’s Philosophy of Synechism
* It is looking worrisomely like the Archdiocese of New York might shutdown St. Michael's Chapel over a financial dispute. Given that the little chapel is one of the historical treasures of the modern Russian Catholic Church, that would be a very grave loss.
* Derke Lowe notes that one of the longstanding mysteries of medicine, how exactly quinine works against malaria, may now be more or less solved: Quinine's Target.
* On the other side of scientific progress, Ed Yong notes that the nature of lichen may be more complicated than had long been thought.
* Eve Browning discusses Xenophon. Always good to see him get more attention; he is massively underappreciated.
* Sara L. Uckelman on the question of who Gaunilo was.
Jane Austen, Persuasion
Plotinus, The Enneads
Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics
Xiong Shili, New Treatise on the Uniqueness of Consciousness
James Blish & Norman L. Knight, A Torrent of Faces