Baptism of desire
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Baptism of desire (Latin: Baptismus flaminis) is a teaching of the Roman Catholic Church explaining that those who desire baptism, but are not baptized with water through the Christian ritual because of death, nevertheless receive the fruits of Baptism if their grace of conversion included an internal act of perfect love and contrition by which their soul was cleansed of all sin. Hence, the Catechism of the Catholic Church observes, "For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament" (CCC 1259).
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that "baptism is necessary for salvation." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, ss. 1257).1 It moreover teaches that baptism confers the forgiveness of sins by virtue of the enactment of the sacrament itself: "(b)y Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin." (ss. 1263). For Catholics, baptism is a unique, unrepeatable act; no one who has been baptized validly can receive the full pardon conferred by the sacrament a second time. (ss. 1272) Given these doctrines, it is a matter of serious concern for the Catholic Church if a believing Christian does not receive a valid baptism.
The doctrine of baptism of desire seeks to address some of the implications of these teachings. It holds that those who, as adults, come to faith in Christ and become catechumens but who die before receiving baptism nevertheless are admitted to salvation even though the Church teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation.
Similarly, those who die as martyrs in a persecution of Christians are also judged by Roman Catholicism to have acquired the benefits of baptism without actually undergoing the ritual; this is the "baptism of blood" (baptismum sanguinis) (ss. 1258). Because the Catholic Church practices infant baptism, these issues seldom arise except for adult converts to Catholicism who were not baptized as children. The Catholic Church officially professes uncertainty about the fate in the afterlife of infants who die before baptism, observing that "the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God" (ss. 1261).
Among Eastern Orthodox Christians, the basic doctrine of baptism of desire is accepted, although it is not so rigorously defined.
The question of baptism of desire often does not arise within Protestant denominations, because their underlying theology of baptism is different. For many Protestants, baptism is an ordinance undertaken in obedience to the teaching of Jesus and to follow the example he set. The rite of baptism, however, in their view does not confer forgiveness of sins by its performance, nor is it thought to be necessary to salvation, which comes from faith alone and is not contingent upon any ritual or form of words. They point to passages such as Acts 10:44-48, in which various Gentiles who heard Peter preaching were converted and received the Holy Spirit prior to baptism; if baptism were necessary for salvation, these people would not have believed and received the Holy Spirit, it is argued. Orthodox and Roman Catholics would respond that in verses 47-48, baptism was in fact necessary, even though they had received the Holy Spirit, as Peter said, "'Can any man forbid water, that these would not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?' And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord."
Karl Rahner taught a very inclusive view called anonymous Christian, which holds that there may be an unlimited number of people who secretly long for Christ in spite of their non-Christian background. This view, which has influenced the official Church doctrine, is theologically close to Christian universalism, the teaching that all may be saved by divine grace.
On the other hand, Leonard Feeney was a U.S. Jesuit priest who defended the strict interpretation of the Roman Catholic doctrine, extra Ecclesiam nulla salus ("outside The Church there is no salvation"), arguing that baptism of blood and baptism of desire are unavailing and that therefore no non-Catholics will be saved. Feeney held to a strict reading of John 3:5, that being "born again" of water baptism is necessary for salvation. Also, Feeney's position was that the love and providence of God would not permit a soul to die in such a state. He held with Catholic tradition that the Apostles literally followed Christ's commands to preach to all nations, and he pointed to archaeological evidence that suggests the presence of Christians in the Americas in the first millennium. He argued, and gave examples from his own ministry to support it, that any non believer who was sincerely interested in Catholicism would be provided with a priest when the moment of death came.