Fate of Unbaptized Deceased Infants?

Many today are of the opinion that deceased infants who never received baptism can be saved. Hence, they have a hope that this is possible.

The issue is complex.

One important text that presents a difficulty for such a hope is the Council of Florence, an ecumenical council.

It declares, “Concerning children, because of the danger of death, which can often happen, when there cannot be for them another remedy except through the sacrament of baptism, by which they are saved from the dominion of the devil and adopted as sons of God, [the Church] admonishes parents…” not to delay until the 40th day.

(And how many people delay for several months these days.)

Note that the text delares: cum ipsis non possit alio remedio subeniri, nisi per sacramentum baptismi. There cannot be for them another remedy than baptism.

Can this text be squared with the hope for their salvation in Christ?

I do think this is a very sobering text.

We also have the declaration of the Church that “The souls of those who depart in actual mortal sin or in original sin only, descend immediately into hell but to undergo punishments of different kinds” (Florence, Old Denzinger # 693). This “different kinds of punishment” is understood to mean that such infants, not having personally sinned, are punished with the absence of vision. They are, many propose in a kind of Limbo. They enjoy natural rest, but have no awareness of their supernatural loss.

The category “Only original sin” means infants: Those who never acted freely but died without baptism. Now, this category is empty if every infant who died without baptism is saved. But it is rather unfitting for a Church teaching to be simply empty.

Hence, it is theologically safer to say that no such infants are in heaven. Perhaps there is warrant in some cases to hope and pray for their salvation. For instance, a devout Catholic couple who has lost a child. They intended to Baptize the child. Perhaps Almighty God in his mercy will save this child.

This much is certain. That there is no promise made to these infants. Thus, the weakest statement we can make is: Church has no knowledge that they can be saved. A stronger reading of Florence is that the Church has declared that she knows that there is no remedy.

How far we are today, with our presumptions, from such sobriety. Delay not their baptism. Thank God for his mercy, do not presume on it.

6 thoughts on “Fate of Unbaptized Deceased Infants?

  1. The Church teaches that the baptism of desire is a legitimate baptism for an adult who is in the process of becoming Catholic but dies before recieving the sacrament in its normal form. Therefor the text “There cannot be for them another remedy than baptism.” could still be true even for someone who dies but does not recieve the sacrament of baptism in its normal form but does receive it in some extraordinary form like the baptism of desire. So the question becomes since babies don’t have the use of reason yet, they obviously can not recieve the baptism of desire but that does not mean that God does not have some other type of baptism that He can bestow on them which is why the current teaching is to have hope and leave it to the mercy of God on how He will save an unbaptized baby. I am not implying all unbaptized babies are saved. Parents have the serious duty of batpizing their child as soon as possible since that is the normal form of the sacrament and provides the greatest spritual benefit to that child if it were to die meaning its chances of getting to heaven are much higher than a child that is not baptized.

    1. You make good points. And yet. The ancient texts point to baptism as the sole means of an infant being saved. That seems to be the natural reading of the texts. The only baptism of which they speak is sacramental baptism with water. We couldn’t call some other means of conveying grace sacramental baptism. I am not certain that baptism of blood or desire can even be called sacramental. I’ll leave that to the liturgists and canonists. So, the proposal you suggest would be some extra-sacramental act. It is certainly possible to God’s absolute power. And perhaps the recent hope finds is justification here.

      I tend to see a tension between Pius XII (allocutions to midwives) and the ancient teachings and the current ‘hope’. Yours is the most balanced effort I have seen to square the two.

      So you might agree with me on this: The current proponents of wild hope risk losing the very function of baptism. If every baby is born ‘immaculate’ (as a holy woman unfortunately said last century), if every baby automatically has the “supernatural existential” as the Rahnerians suggest, then baptism becomes the mere “pronouncement of innocence and adoption” and not its execution. That is disastrous. Yet, our modern theology exactly has us with a total loss as to the unique and saving purpose for the sacraments.

      If we tie the ‘hope’ to specific acts of faith by the faithful (such as loving parents who desire to baptize), then we can overcome that problem. That’s why I find your reading to be balanced. I’m not opposed to it. I tend to see a tension with the past that is greater than you see.

      And that is why I lean to Limbo for these cases.

      1. I am in agreement that we are all born with original sin that needs to be wiped away before we can enter heaven and that the normal means is baptism by water.

        In regards to having a hope that God will somehow provide some extraordinary “baptism” to some unbaptized babies, I would actually base that hope primarily on God himself. My hope is that at the moment of death, God would give the baby the use of reason so it could be given the choice for making an act of faith and if it chooses God then God would “baptize” it in a similar way as to how he “baptizes” adults who desired baptism but did not get the opportunity to recieve normal baptism before they died. I would add that this choice for choosing God also happens with baptized babies as well which implies that a baptized baby could refuse God and go to hell although the spiritual benefits of the baptism would provide greater graces in making the right choice than an unbaptized baby. So my hope is that God allows everyone to make a choice and the graces he provides in making the right choice can be influenced by the prayers of those still living.

      2. Well, 1. It is possible he does this for some. 2. The Church’s faith most certainly indicates that a baptized person who dies before committing a free act goes to heaven; and the Church’s unanimous tradition on this is that that means all those infants who die after baptism. They are saved without works. Thus, I would not recommend your thesis that sacramentally baptized are given an option upon their deathbed. Although perhaps in a few cases it happens. The Church’s tradition is really against that idea. 3. If you do mean “everyone” then the category “Those who die in original sin only” truly is empty. I contend that such a reading makes the Magisterial teaching irrelevant and that this would be unfitting. *Last, we are using ‘baptism’ equivocally. That understood, I accept your use of the term and agree that there would be greater graces with the Sacrament itself. Of course, it could happen that an angel baptizes a baby before his death. (This solution I just suggested, however, is ad hoc; yours is a more stable solution; I would tend to think it is not the case, at least not for most.)

  2. I will take your word that the “unanimous tradition” is that all sacramentally baptized who have not yet reached the age of reason go to heaven. If this position is accurate, then how would you argue against a mother who decides to murder her child after the child has been baptized so that the child is guaranteed to go to heaven? Assume the mother is Catholic and is fully aware that she is committing a grave mortal sin but is willing to risk the loss of her soul so as to guarantee that her child will be heaven. I know my hypothetical scenario is far-fetched, but I am curious what you would tell a mother who is so intent on saving the soul of her child so as to risk losing her own soul.

    1. A general principle is to stick to general principles to clarify difficult matters, rather than to start with difficult matters and try to distill the (hence very few) general principles that can be saved.

      That said, I’d say this woman despises God’s providence, for she trusts not in God. She despises his law, for she thinks she can violate it. And if she thinks she can violate it then her love of her child is worldly. Hence, she already thinks some salvation alien to true salvation and wills that for her child. Perhaps like the mother of James and John: may these sit in power with you? Next, she shoots low: For her child might become a great martyr. Last, if she hates herself, she cannot love her child.

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