Baptism of desire (Latin: Baptismus flaminis) is a teaching of the Anglican Communion, Lutheran Church and Roman Catholic Church explaining that those who desire baptism, but are not baptized with water through the Christian Sacrament because of death, nevertheless receive the fruits of Baptism at the moment of death if their grace of conversion included "divine and catholic faith", an internal act of perfect charity, and perfect contrition by which their soul was cleansed of all sin. Hence, the Catechism of the Catholic Church observes, "For catechumens [those instructed in the Catholic faith who are preparing to be baptized into the Catholic Church] 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 Baptism of Blood is a similar idea, for unbaptized martyrs.
The Catholic Church teaches that "baptism is necessary for salvation." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, ss. 1257). 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 Justification even though the Church teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation.
Doctor of the Church, the Venerable Bede's 731 Ecclesiastical History of the English People states of Saint Alban, who substituted himself and was martyred as a new convert, that though he was not washed with the water of baptism, he was cleansed by the washing with his blood.
No one, whatever almsgiving he has practiced, even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has persevered within the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.
The Catholic 1582 Rheims New Testament, the first published tome of the Douay-Rheims Bible, specifically notes in its annotations to John 3:5 both the necessity of Baptism and the availability of Baptism of Desire and Baptism of Blood. The Catholic Church had been expelled from England at the time of the production of the Bible and many annotations were designed to assist lay Catholics to keep to their faith in the absence of clergy. The Council of Trent on the other hand reaffirm only Baptism of water on the Canons on the Sacrament of Baptism:
If anyone shall say that real and natural water is not necessary for baptism, and on that account those words of our Lord Jesus Christ: Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost" (John 3:5) are distorted into some sort of metaphor: let him be anathema.
Both the Augsburg Confession of Lutheranism and the Book of Common Prayer of Anglicanism affirm that "Baptism is normally necessary for salvation" in accordance with Sacred Scripture: Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:16, John 3:5, and Acts 2:38. Citing the teaching of the early Church Fathers, Lutherans and Anglicans acknowledge a baptism of desire "where opportunity does not present itself" and a baptism of blood (martyrdom) in "the circumstances of persecution".
The question of baptism of desire often does not arise among Baptists, because their underlying theology of baptism is different. For them, 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. Lutherans, 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."
Related theological views
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 he said suggests the presence of Christians in the Americas in the first millennium, a view not supported by the archeological profession. 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.
Speaking directly about Baptism of desire, Fr. Feeney wrote in his book Bread of Life:
But imagine priests in the Holy Roman Catholic Church, ordained by the successors to the Apostles — dedicated to the Name and purpose and Blood and robes of Jesus — sitting at Harvard College week after week and listening to religion being lectured about in invisible terms. And imagine their going back, then, to their people and talking about the "soul of the Church," of "salvation outside the Church through sincerity" — apart from the teachings and Sacraments of Jesus Christ; and calling this arrangement "Baptism of Desire" and expecting men to be members of the Catholic Church without even knowing they are members. What kind of teaching is that? That is Christmas without any manger; Good Friday without any God bleeding; Easter Sunday without any Flesh and Blood coming out of the tomb. That is the Christian Faith without any Pope, — the most visible religious leader in the world!
Father Feeney was excommunicated "on account of grave disobedience to Church Authority, being unmoved by repeated warnings"; however this excommunication was annulled in 1972 without significant recantation. The doctrines associated with Feeney's position, known as Feeneyism, were officially condemned by the Catholic Church.
Similarly, those who die as Christian martyrs in a persecution of Christians are also judged by Anabaptists, Lutherans, Roman Catholic and Anglicans to have acquired the benefits of baptism without actually undergoing the ritual; this is the "baptism of blood" (baptismum sanguinis) (ss. 1258). Because the Anglican Communion, Catholic Church and Lutheran Church practice infant baptism, these issues seldom arise except for adult converts to the Church 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). One theory is that these infant souls exist in a natural state of supreme happiness, called Limbo, although deprived eternally of the vision of God.
- "Sacramentum Baptismi". Catechismus Catholicae Ecclesiae (in Latin). Vatican: the Holy See. Archived from the original on 10 May 2011. Retrieved 9 April 2011.
- Denzinger 714
- "Denzinger 1615, 858 Can. 2". www.clerus.org. Retrieved 2019-10-20.
- Larson-Miller, Lizette; Knowles, Walter (26 June 2013). Drenched in Grace: Essays in Baptismal Ecclesiology Inspired by the Work and Ministry of Louis Weil. Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 55. ISBN 9781621897538.
- "The Sacraments Convey Grace". Anglican Catholic Church. Retrieved 28 January 2017.
The Church from very early days, for instance, enrolled among the martyrs those catechumens (people preparing for baptism) who were killed during persecutions. While the Fathers certainly view baptism as "generally necessary," the circumstances of persecution create an anamolous situation where the general rule cannot apply. The Fathers speak of such martyred catechumens as receiving the "baptism of blood," which certainly is adequate to wash away their sins. The necessity for baptism presupposes opportunity. Where opportunity does not present itself the Church accepts the "baptism of desire," the desire to be baptized, for the fact of baptism. Our Lord suggests as much: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.' (Mk 16:16, again.) Note that Christ does not say, `He that is not baptized shall be damned.' Nevertheless, it is never safe to suppose that a mental, subjective state of faith in Christ can replace the objectively effective sacrament established and commanded (Mt 28:19) by him. A positive refusal to seek baptism at the first opportunity argues that what seems to be faith is no such thing. Faith properly leads, not to a minimal, grudging participation in the sacramental life of the Church, but to the fullness of such participation, with all of its sacraments, acts of piety and worship, and opportunities for service and growth in faith, hope, and love.
- Fr. Leonard Feeney S.J., Bread of Life, 1952 (1st edition), page 33.
- "Bread of Life: Chapter 2". web.archive.org. 2010-07-15. Retrieved 2019-10-22.
- Hill, Kat (2015). Baptism, Brotherhood, and Belief in Reformation Germany: Anabaptism and Lutheranism, 1525-1585. Oxford University Press. p. 134. ISBN 9780198733546.