The Father William Most Collection
Unbaptized Infants: How Might They Be Saved? (A Speculation)
[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]
"My baby died without being baptized! Is there any hope or chance?"
The new Catechism of the Catholic Church, in § 1261, after carefully explaining that those who without fault do not find the Church, can still be saved, quoted the words of Christ (Mk 10:14) "Let the little children come to me, and do not prevent them," added: "[this] permits us to have hope that there is a way to salvation for infants who die without Baptism."
Yes, the Catechism is right, there is real hope, first in the words of Jesus, "Let the little children come to me." But there is still more.
Many theological attempts have been made in our time to find such a way. Let us offer something a bit new here: First, as St. Thomas said (III. 68. 2. c): "His [God's] hands are not tied by [or: to] the Sacraments".
Theologians commonly hold that God provided for the salvation of those who died before Christ in some way. Girls of course were not circumcised, cf. III. 70. 4. c: "By circumcision there was given to boys the power to come to glory." It was enough to belong to the people of God. So the girls who belonged to the people of God were provided for by the mere fact of that membership in the people of God.
But now that Christ has come, are we worse off? The very thought is practically blasphemy. So if just membership in the people of God sufficed before Christ than it must be all the more true now that He has come. In fact, St. Paul is really enthusiastic. In Romans 5. 15-21 several times over, in varying words, he insists that the redemption is more abundant than the fall.
But now we seem to find a remarkable teaching in the words of St. Paul in 1 Cor 7:14. He is speaking of the cases that often arose in the Corinth of his day: a couple had married while both were still pagans. But then one of them becomes
Christian. What should be done? St. Paul says that if the pagan party is willing to live peacefully, then the marriage should stand. But if not, then the marriage is dissolved.
St. Paul adds the remarkable statement that if the marriage stands, then: the pagan party is made holy by that union.
"Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy " So they are holy precisely by belonging to a family with even one party Christian.
That word holy is of capital importance. Ordinarily it would mean the person has high moral perfection. Of course that is not true of the pagan spouse. But the key is this: St. Paul so often uses Greek words in the sense of the Hebrew words he has in mind. Now the Hebrew word here is obviosly qadosh, which means "coming under the covenant". So the pagan spouse does become a member of the people of God. And so do the children become part of the people of God - just as they would have been before Christ. His coming cannot make them worse off: the redemption is superabundant as St. Paul insists so many times. So these babies if they die do not only escape eternal punishment - they reach the very visin of God!
In passing, we note that Paul does not at this point mention Baptism as the reason for their status - he speaks of the mere fact that they belong to a family with one Christian parent.
An objection may be raised from the words of the Council of Lyons saying those who die in original sin go to hell. The Latin word used is infernum, which means the realm of the dead, and need not mean the hell of the damned. As to the word poena, often translated as punishment, in Latin it need not mean the positive infliction of suffering, but could stand for only the loss or privation of some good. If unbaptized infants were merely deprived of the vision of God, that would be a poena, but would not have to involve any suffering. So there is no problem about finding in the words of St. Paul that these infants even reach the vision of God.
Also, Vatican II gave a sound principle about the language of older decrees In the Decree on Ecumenism #7 it taught: "... if anything... even in the way of expressing doctrine - which is to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith - has been expressed less accurately, at an opportune time it should be rightly and duly restored." Paul VI agreed, and in Mysterium fidei Sept 3, 1965, 23-24. AAS 57. 758, said we must still not say the old language was false, only that it could be improved. Surely that is the case with the language of such texts as the Council of Lyons.
All the above does not mean that parents could be careless in delaying Baptism. We have the command of Christ, and must not abuse His goodness. Also when baby begins to make little decisions --still far from the use of reason that makes mortal sin possible--it can act against God's will in the perversity we so readily see even in little ones. . It is often said in jest, and not entirely without truth: "Original sin is the one doctrine for which we have experimental proof" in the perversity shown even in little ones. Baptism gives the sacramental grace of carrying out the obligations given by the sacrament. Babies should be given every advantage.
What we have just said clearly applies to children with at least one Christian parent. What of a child from both pagan parents? We distinguish. Some persons without realizing it do come under the covenant, provided they live their lives in accord with Vatican II LG 16 which says that those who through no fault of their own do not find the Church, but yet with the interior help of grace keep the moral law known to them by the Spirit writing the law on their hearts (Rom 2. 15) can be saved. And we could add: St. Paul in Rom 8. 9 says that one who has and follows the Spirit of Christ -- even not knowing what he is following, - belongs to Christ--which means he is a member of Christ, and so a member of the Church. A child of such a parent can qualify under the things we saw above.
What of a child who does not have even this? God's hands are not bound by the Sacraments (and in OT times He gave grace freely without sacraments) and so we can add the following reasoning:- God shows great concern for the objective moral order (cf. the appendix on sedaqah in my commentary on St. Paul). There is good reason to think He has also great concern for the objective physical order. Thus in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Abraham explains (Lk 16:24): "Remember that you in your lifetime received good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish." There was no mention of sins on the part of the rich man or virtue in the poor man, just the reversal of the objective physical order. Similarly in the series of four woes in the Great Discourse (Luke 6:24-16), there is a reversal for those who were rich, for those who were full, for those who could laugh, for those who were well spoken of. There is, again, no mention of moral virtue, just of reversal of the objective physical order. Also, in the account of the Last Judgement (Mt 25:31-46) the excuse of those on the left that they did not know they did not help the Judge is not accepted.
So could it be then that God decides: These infants according to my plan should have had many goods things in life. They were deprived of all - and in the case of abortion, were cut to pieces savagely - so now there should be a reversal.
Most certainly no infants go to hell, as we learn from the teaching of Pius IX in the Encyclical Quanto conficiamur moerore: "God in His supreme clemency and goodness by no means allows anyone to suffer eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of personal sin." Babies lack that personal sin, and therefore....