Back to Ecumenism
Back to Ecclesiology
Back to Theological Thoughts

Water and the Spirit

Contents

Introduction

This paper is based on a talk presented to a meeting of the Hirst Christian Fellowship. The context was a dialogue with Baptist members, who understood baptism to be a symbolic profession of faith rather than any kind of sacrament. In it, I attempt to show that the Scriptural account of baptism is in line with Catholic dogma and quite at variance with the more rationalist and "common sense" views that characterize the (ana)Baptist account. I should remark that typically in such circles a distinction is made between "Water Baptism" (which is the subject of this essay) and "Spirit Baptism" (which, while it is at least understood as a manifestation of divine power, serves not to justify its recipient but only to grace them with charismatic gifts).

For a Catholic, baptism is linked up with almost every other part of theology. To discuss it in isolation from the nature of sin and justification , the role and constitution of the Church , the Incarnation, the Trinity and the sacraments of Confirmation and Penance is necessarily to distort it. Nevertheless, a beginning must be made somewhere. Baptism is a sacrament, an outward sign of an inward grace. Thus it is not primarily a form for the profession or manifestation of faith, nor a declaration or ratification of something that has already happened. Baptism does not have an indirect effect, by eliciting a response of faith in the heart of the person baptized and this response then having some import. Rather, the sacrament of baptism by the grace of God directly causes what it signifies. Now, baptism - as we shall see - signifies the transition from "being in Adam" to "incorporation in Christ", cleansing from sin and a sharing in Christ's saving life, death and resurrection: so Baptism is instrumental in causing these effects.

Naturally, it is not the external physical ritual that directly causes these spiritual consequences, rather it is the presence of  Holy Spirit in and through the symbolic rite that is crucial and causal. However, God has pledged HimSelves to always honour and be active in the sacrament, for the spiritual benefit of its recipient, providing that (s)he does not harbour a hostile intention.

Baptism is the beginning of a Christian's new life: it incorporates them into Christ; forgives all past actual sins; and imparts Holy Spirit to his/her soul, thereby removing the stain of original sin and making the neophyte God's friend, a coheir with Jesus of His Kingdom. This is remarkable and may sound extravagant. It will, however, be found to be both scriptural and also the teaching of the earliest of the Fathers of the Church.


  The Witness of the Scriptures

The ministry of St John Baptist
The baptism administered by St John Baptist hasn't got much to do with Christian baptism. It was common in Jewish practice at the time to wash and baptize as a symbolic act of purification, and this is an adequate explanation of St John's baptismal ministry. John's baptism of Jesus is worthy of note, however.
The baptism of Jesus
Obviously, Jesus had no need for a baptism of repentance. The Baptist recognized this [Mat 3:14] and was reticent to baptize his divine cousin. Jesus' purpose was other than this. John's role was rather like that of Moses, taking the People of God to the brink of the Promised Kingdom of God [Mat 3:11-12], but not being the one to lead them into their inheritance [Deut 34:4]. It was Joshua who did this [Deut 34:9, Josh 1:2]. The Baptist prepared the Way for the Messiah, exhorting the Poor of God to turn in expectant faith to their Redeemer [Mat 3:2]. He constituted them as the people of pilgrimage by baptizm in the Jordan river [Josh 3:1]. It was necessary for the Messiah to be joined with His Church: those "called out" from the old desert reality, and so be readied to lead their entry into the Promised Land of Abundant Living. It was in order to identify Himself with His people that Jesus (which is the Hellenized form of the older name Joshua) was baptized: not to signify any repentance on His part.

Jesus' baptism was:

During Jesus' ministry, both He and his disciples baptized people. It is most plausible that this was a continuance of St John's practice rather than the Christian sacramental baptism "in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit" that we shall next  consider.
 
The teaching of Jesus
The institution of baptism is prophesied by Ezekiel. He foretold a sprinkling of water for purification, the giving of a new heart and the imparting of God's Holy Spirit to enable His people to fulfil His Law [Ezk 36:24-27]. This prophecy may have been in the mind of Our Lord when He told Nichodemus of the "new birth" of "water and the Spirit" necessary before anyone could enter the Kingdom of God [Jn 3:5]. The only other direct word of Jesus concerning baptism is to be found at the end of St Matthew's Gospel. There "....baptizing .... in the Name of the Father, Son and Spirit ...." [Mat 28:18-20] is one of the three things enjoined upon the Apostles. The picture there presented of conversion, followed by baptism, followed by a life of faithfulness gathers together the beginnings and continuance of the Christian life.
Baptism in the Acts of the Apostles
In the Acts of the Apostles, we read how Peter told those Jews who accepted his preaching at Pentecost to "Repent and be baptized .... for the forgiveness of .... sins." [Acts 2:8]. What was in the heart of his audience? Surely sorrow for any association with the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus Messiah and a wish to avoid God's punishment! "Brethren, what shall we do?" was their cry. What they wanted was forgiveness and reconciliation with God: at-one-ment. Peter did not reply simply "believe in the Lord Jesus in your hearts and your sins will be forgiven", but "repent and be baptized ..... and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." Naturally, only those who accepted Peter's teaching and recognized Jesus as Messiah would wish to be baptized: however the explicit precondition for forgiveness was repentance, not faith and it was baptism that was offered "for the forgiveness of sins" .

We find exactly the same pattern in Ananias' words spoken to Saul in Damascus after he had been cured of his blindness: "....be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on His Name" [Acts 6:2-4]. This could be a figure of speech and mean that "as you call upon Jesus, your sins will be forgiven you as if they were dirt to be washed off and I will wash your body in water to symbolize this." However, apart from the untrustworthy prejudice of common sense I see no reason to reject the more obvious interpretation: that baptism itself washes away sins.

The teaching of St Paul
In St Peter's first letter we find the teaching "Baptism .... now saves you" not as an external cleansing "....but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience ...." In other words, Baptism is a formal plea to God for the record of past sins to be wiped out: the effect of which is to justify or save the person baptized by virtue of God's response to this effective appeal. To suggest that the qualification "not as an external cleansing" mitigates against a sacramental interpretation is silly. Any external cleansing that baptism may achieve is irrelevant: it is the spiritual or internal cleansing that matters, which is the point that St Peter is making. Similarly, to say that the use of the word "appeal" suggests that the initiative is with the baptized - who by professing his or her faith makes an appeal to God for forgiveness - is to do violence to the text. This says that Baptism (which is something done to not by the baptized) itself "saves" and is itself the appeal: not any profession of faith, nor any other act initiated by the recipient of baptism.

St Paul has a good deal to say about baptism. In his letter to the Church of Rome, we are told that baptism unites the Christian with Jesus in His death: the old self being crucified so that a justified (wo)man might rise from the dead to a new life, freed from slavery to sin by the gift of the indwelling Spirit [Rom 8:11]. In his letter to the Church in Galatia, the roles of faith and baptism are contrasted [Gal 3:26-29]. Baptism is referred to in the past tense as having had an effect: "....you were baptized into Christ ...." so "....you are all one in Christ Jesus .... heirs according to promise." Faith is talked of in the present tense, as now having an effect: "....in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith" . It is as if Baptism initiated a relationship with God, of which faith (as also hope and charity) is the life.

In St Paul's epistle to the Church of Ephesus, whilst speaking of marriage, Paul indulges in a characteristic aside. He speaks of Christ "cleansing" the Church by a "washing of water with the word...." that she might be "....holy and immaculate" [Eph 5:25-27]. It is plausible that the phrase "with the word" refers to the baptismal formula, the form of words given by Jesus to His Apostles. Here, at least, it is explicitly stated that a spiritual cleansing is brought about by a "washing of water", and it would do violence to the text to insist on a symbolic interpretation. Here also we have the important teaching that it is Jesus Himself who is active in baptism. It is not the human minister of the sacrament that remits sin: it is the action of Jesus within the human drama that is the primary cause of the change in status of the person being baptized.

In St Paul's epistle to the Church of Colossi, baptism is presented as an inward circumcision, "made without hands...." by a total ".... putting off of the body of flesh...." through identification with the crucified Lord and leading, through faith, to resurrection and a new life [Col 2:11-12]. This is more significant than it first seems. Circumcision is the Jewish rite of incorporation into the People of God: into "Abraham and Moses of the promises". Baptism serves the comparable function of grafting a man who was in Adam into Christ. It is therefore obvious that original sin is remitted by baptism. Original sin is the state of affairs in which we find ourselves at the start of life. We are descendants of the First Humans who - rightly - disobeyed God's command not to taste the fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil and so gained independence from God at the price of loosing any automatic claim to the intimacy with Him that is called "a  state of grace". When someone is baptized, they are made anew and enter the race of the Second Adam: Jesus Messiah. They are united with and incorporated in Him. They leave the negative aspects of the legacy of our First Parents behind.

In St Paul's epistle to bishop Titus, we read of God having "....saved us .... by the washing of re-birth and renewal by the Holy Spirit" [Tit 3:5]. This text in isolation is ambiguous, it could mean either that there exists some "washing" which causes "re-birth and renewal" or that "re-birth and renewal" is like a washing. However, it is difficult to see how either "re-birth" or "renewal" is in any regard like "washing".


The Witness of the Fathers

It is a sound principle of Scriptural interpretation, that when an issue is in doubt the understanding of the earliest Christian commentators, teachers and theologians should be consulted. While it is possible that they too might find the question that concerns us perplexing, or even have misunderstood the issue at stake; it is also possible that, being close to the Apostolic source, they will have a clearer view of what was actually believed and taught in the beginning and so a more accurate account of the Deposit of Faith. So, here are a few relevant texts:
"Being baptized we are enlightened: being enlightened we are adopted as sons: being adopted as sons we are made perfect: being made complete we are made immortal .... This work has many names: gift of grace; enlightenment; perfection; washing. Washing, by which we are cleansed from the filth of our sins; gift of grace, by which the penalties of our sins are cancelled; enlightenment, through which that holy light which saves us is perceived, that is, by which our eyes are made keen to see the divine; perfection means the lack of nothing, for what is still lacking to him who has the knowledge of God? ...."
[Clement, Patriarch of Alexandria: "Paedagogus" I vi (26)  c 200 AD]

"If remission of sins is granted even to the worst of offenders, and to those who have previously committed many sins against God, when they have afterwards believed, and if no one is shut out from baptism and grace: how much less ought an infant to be shut out, who being newly born has committed no sin, except that being born of Adam's line according to the flesh he has at his first birth contracted the contagion of the ancient death? Indeed, the infant's approach to the reception of the remission of sins is the easier from the very fact that the sin remitted is another's, not his own." [Cyprian, Archbishop of Carthage: "Epistle LXIV" c 250 AD]

"It is utterly impossible for the soul to attain salvation unless it has believed while in the flesh; so truly does salvation hinge on the flesh. In fact, when the soul is admitted to God's company, it is the flesh that makes that admission possible.
The flesh indeed is washed that the soul may be cleansed;
the flesh is anointed that the soul many be consecrated;
the flesh is signed that the soul may too be fortified;
the flesh is shadowed by the imposition of hands that the soul also may be enlightened by the Spirit:
the flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ that the soul should be nourished by God."
[Tertullian "De Resurrectione Carnis" c 200 AD]

Although some early writes, notably Tertullian (who later fell into heresy), were opposed to infant baptism, it must be acknowledged that the practice rapidly became the norm once the bulk of people were Christians. This is not surprising if it was thought that baptism was a sacrament with some definite God endowed effectiveness. If it were thought to be a symbolic profession of faith, it is difficult to see how the practice would ever have got started, after all an infant cannot have any faith to profess and it is clearly not possible for one person to express faith on behalf of another!
".... listen to David when he says, "I was conceived", so it runs, "in iniquity and in sin my mother hath borne me", proving that every soul which is born in the flesh is tainted with the stain of iniquity and sin. This is the reason for that saying which we have already quoted above, "No man is clean from sin, not even if his life be one day long". To these, as a further point, may be added an enquiry into the reason for which, while the church's baptism is given for the remission of sin, it is the custom of the church that baptism be administered even to infants. Certainly, if there were nothing in infants that required remission and called for lenient treatment, the grace of baptism would seem unnecessary." [Origen: Homilies on Leviticus, in "Selections from the Commentaries and Homilies of Origen", p 211 translator: R.B. Tollinton]
Objections to infant baptism were mainly based on the idea, strange as it might seem, that forgiveness of sins committed after baptism was either not possible or difficult to come by! Somehow, the existence of baptism had caused people to lose sight of the Scriptural principle that God was always ready to forgive a sinner - no matter how wicked - if only (s)he repented and made what restitution was possible. This mistaken belief led people to conclude that it was best to postpone baptism for as long as possible: certainly until after marriage and possibly until the death bed! The problem wasn't that it was meaningless or futile to baptize a child. On the contrary, it was thought to be imprudent to waste the once in a life-time chance to have sins forgiven "for free" on one who hadn't yet committed any. After all, they were liable to commit sins many times after baptism, when they would be unforgivable and so lead to inevitable damnation!
"The Lord indeed says: 'Forbid them not to come to me.' Let them come, then, when they are growing up. Let them come if they are learning, if they are being taught whither they are coming, let them become Christians when they are able to know Christ. Why does the age of innocence hasten to the remission of sins? .... For no less reason, the unwed should be deferred; for temptation is waiting for them alike in the case of virgins because of their maturity, as in the case of the widowed because they are without partners. Let them wait until they marry, or until they are strengthened for continence. Those who understand the importance of baptism will rather fear its attainment than its delay; unimpaired faith is certain of salvation "
[Tertullian "De Baptismo" c 200 AD]
St Augustine was not baptized as an infant by his sainted mother, Monica, yet he partly based his explication of original sin on the practice of infant baptism. He argued that if the newly born are not in some sense separated from God - suffer from original sin - what was the point of baptizing them? While a modern proponent of this argument might prefer to couch it in positive terms: "if an infant is automatically a Member of the Church: the Body of Christ, a Friend of God and a Temple of the indwelling Spirit - what is the point of baptizing them?" the point is exactly the same. In the case of an infant, baptism can have no subjective effect: the subject is incompetent to contribute anything other then his/her mere presence and existence.


The Witness of the Contemporary Church

Infant baptism, with its implication of sacramental efficacy, is the practice of the overwhelming majority of Christians. The Catholic Church, both Western and Eastern, together with the various independent Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions; the Coptic, Abyssinian, Armenian, and antique Persian and Indian jurisdictions, whatever their doctrinal stances regarding the Incarnation, are all united in this practice. The vast majority of Protestants concur: Anglicans, Methodists and Lutherans all baptize infants. The practice is, for example, commended in the 27th "Article of Religion" of the English "Book of Common Prayer".

Confirmation

It is not sensible to talk of baptism without mentioning Confirmation. This is a difficult topic, because contemporary understanding of the Tradition is confused. The following can be said:

The practice of Confirmation



The Theology of confirmation


Answers to Objections

How does this doctrine not conflict with St Paul's teaching that justification is by faith and not by works?
Baptism is the beginning of the Christian's new life: the life of faith. It is conducted in the context of the Church: the Community of Faith. From one point of view it is the incorporation of the person baptized into the Church. The spiritual life it initiates will die if it is not nurtured within the womb of that fellowship. The new life of charity is exercised in works of faith: prayer, penance and alms deeds.

Baptism in isolation from faith is meaningless; however, an active faith is not the cause of the baptismal transformation. To baptize an adult who believed nothing would be a mockery. In this case, not to believe is indistinguishable from disbelieving in an active way. This is not true for someone who has not reached the age of reason.

In the case of infant baptism, faith is involved in two ways.

Consider the miracles of Our Lord. Although faith is constantly implicated, one can hardly say that it was the faith of those whose faith made them well that actually caused their healing. Was it the faith of the servant of the High Priest which caused his ear to be restored after it had been cut off by St Peter [Lk 22:51]? No! Rather in all cases of miraculous healing, it was the gracious action of Jesus, the power of God, that effected the cure.

When St Paul contrasts faith with works he is contrasting faith in and love of the person of Jesus with a kind of cold-hearted and calculating obedience to the Jewish Law which saw this as a means of obligating God towards one. Works of faith, whether of religious ritual character, or - more importantly - of charity and simple humanity and friendship have a crucial part to play in the sustenance of the Christian's relationship with God. "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you" [Jn 6: 53], "Faith without works is dead" [Js 2:26], "all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love his brother" [1Jn 3:10]. Baptism is the work of faith instituted explicitly by Jesus that initiates the process of justification by forgiving sins; imparting the Holy Spirit; and incorporating into His Mystical Body: the Church.

The doctrine you propose is foreign in character to Christianity, which is a  Spiritual Religion.
There is quite a bit in the New Testament concerned with sacramental acts: mud placed on eyes to cure blindness; laying on of hands for various purposes; and anointing with oil. While I concede that Christianity is a spiritual religion, not bound to externals at all, I do not concede that human beings are of that sort of nature! We are embodied and physical by constitution. All that we effect is physical, though in the case of the writing of a tome of theoretical physics, the import of what is done may be highly intellectual and abstract! We express and celebrate those things that are most important to us in physical ways: using flowers, chocolates, parties, caresses or whatever. Such is appropriate to our life, our style of being. It would be inhumane for God not to cater for our embodiment - which after all is His good pleasure, will and design for us - in the Gospel that He graced us with. As we have already read:
"It is utterly impossible for the soul to attain salvation unless it has believed while in the flesh; so truly does salvation hinge on the flesh. In fact, when the soul is admitted to God's company, it is the flesh that makes that admission possible. The flesh indeed is washed that the soul may be cleansed; the flesh is anointed that the soul many be consecrated; the flesh is signed that the soul may too be fortified; the flesh is shadowed by the imposition of hands that the soul also may be enlightened by the Spirit: the flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ that the soul should be nourished by God." [Tertullian "De Resurrectione Carnis" c 200 AD]
So it is that God condescends to work for and with us: in and through sensible things, so that we can be encouraged and affirmed in our faith.

The incarnation sets the precedent for this. God, who is spirit par excellence, came to participate in our life and reality by taking upon Himself the form of man. He plunged, as Fire from Heaven, into our physicality: redeeming and ennobling it. This incarnation is prolonged through history in the visible Church, His Mystical Body, and the Seven Sacraments - especially the Holy Eucharist.


You say baptism forgives sins, and yet all that is needed is repentance. Explain yourself!
As I have already indicated, the Sacramental System is a divine condescension or concession to human physicality. It is a help, not a burden to entrap or constrain us. Neither is it any kind of limit on God's generosity. God is always willing to forgive the repentant sinner.
"We are horrified, I confess, that anyone is found of such great impiety, that he despaires of the love of God, as if He were not able at any time whatever to hasten to the aid of the one who runs to him for help and to free from his burden a man endangered by the weight of sins, from which he longs to be liberated ..... Since God, most ready to succor, inviting to repentance, thus promised: 'In whatever day', He says 'the sinner shall be converted, his sins shall not be imuted to him' [cf Ezech 33:16]."  [Pope St Celestine I, "Cuperemus quidem", 428 AD, Denz 111]
God is not bound by the sacraments of Baptism, Penance and Extreme Unction: in the sense that He either refuses or is unable to act except via these means. On the other hand, God is bound to these sacraments: in the sense that He will always honour them and be operative within them. These sacraments were instituted by Jesus (either personally or via Holy Spirit's guidance of the Apostles) to make it easier for us to believe and accept that God has forgiven us. They are windows of opportunity, means of grace, not hurdles to leap over.

It is true that baptism, penance and extreme unction are now the necessary means for the forgiveness of original and mortal sin. In this sense they are an additional condition over and above "repentance and restitution", but this is of no practical consequence. Anyone who does repent of whatever sin they are conscious of, by that act of repentance necessarily (though perhaps only implicitly) has a intention (or desire) to take part in the relevant sacramental act, and the Church has quite clearly recognized that such a desire is quite good enough for salvation. Just as faith is an adequate anticipation of sanctification, desire - even implicit desire - for the sacrament is an adequate anticipation of its performance. God is never one to make things difficult!

Tertullian was obviously somewhat confused about this issue. We have already read him saying "Those who understand the importance of baptism will rather fear its attainment than its delay;" (because baptism is both necessary for salvation and unrepeatable) and yet immediately adding: "unimpaired faith is certain of salvation", as though baptism was superfluous! Equally St Monica's postponement of her son's baptism indicates a conflict between a conviction that baptism was absolutely crucial and yet somehow not necessary! As it became clearer, in particular via papal teaching, that all repented post baptismal sins were forgivable without exception, and as the Church's penitential discipline became less draconian, this tension resolved itself. The following is a proper view of the matter:

What can it possibly mean for an infant to be baptized?
Subjectively, not a lot! Objectively exactly the same as any one else! Sin - in this case only original sin - is remitted; Holy Spirit somehow takes the child to Herself as a Temple to "dwell in"; and the child is adopted as a coheir with Jesus of the Kingdom. Baptism is not about feelings and aspirations, but about objective reality: salvation; forgiveness; reconciliation with God and incorporation into Christ. All this is as open to an infant as to the greatest sinner. As we have already read:
"If remission of sins is granted even to the worst of offenders, and to those who have previously committed many sins against God, when they have afterwards believed, and if no one is shut out from baptism and grace: how much less ought an infant to be shut out, who being newly born has committed no sin, except that being born of Adam's line according to the flesh he has at his first birth contracted the contagion of the ancient death? Indeed, the infant's approach to the reception of the remission of sins is the easier from the very fact that the sin remitted is another's, not his own." [ Cyprian, Archbishop of Carthage: "Epistle LXIV" c 250 AD]
A further question arises: "what is the fate of children and foetuses who die unbaptized?" The only wise answer is that the Tradition is unclear. Sacred Scripture is entirely silent on the question. The Fathers do not consider it, but only - as we have seen - the converse question: "Should infants be baptised, and if so why?" Strangely, as soon as the question is considered, it seems to be treated in a cursory way, on the lines of "Anyone who is not a Catholic is certainly damned; if a person has not been baptised they are not a Catholic, hence they are damned". Various Councils give unequivocal teaching: unbaptised infants  are certainly damned:
".... if anyone says that .... in the Kingdom of Heaven there will be some middle place or some place anywhere where the blessed infants live who departed from this life without baptism ..... let him be anathema. For .... what Catholic will doubt that he will be a partner of the Devil who has not deserved to be a coheir of Christ? For he who lacks the right part will without doubt run into the left."
[A disputed canon of the local Council of Meleum, 416 AD,  given as a footnote to Denz 102]

"The souls of those who die in mortal sin, or with original sin only, however, immediately descend to hell, yet to be punished with different punishments".
[The Second Oecumenical Council of Lyons, 1274 AD:
"The Profession of Faith required of the Emperor Michael Palaeologus" ]

".... we define, with the approval of this holy universal council of Florence ..... the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains. [Pope Eugenious IV at the Oecumenical Council of Florence, 1439 AD]

While these texts are compatible with the teaching of Cyprian, Tertullian and Origen that has already been quoted, they go far beyond it and a simplistic interpretation of these texts cannot be justified on the basis of patristic teaching.

On the contrary, the principal that: because an infant has committed no actual sin, it cannot deserve any punishment, properly speaking, must be maintained, even though it seems to be contradicted both by the teaching of the Council of Trent and the excellent Catechism written in its name.

"If any one denies, that, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is conferred in baptism, the guilt of original sin is remitted; or even asserts that the whole of that which has the true and proper nature of sin is not taken away; but says that it is only rased, or not imputed; let him be anathema."
[The Oecumenical Council of Trent, Session Five "On Original Sin"]

"Wherefore, the pastor should not omit to remind the faithful that the guilt and punishment of original sin were not confined to Adam, but justly descended from him, as from their source and cause, to all posterity."
[The Catechism of the Oecumenical Council of Trent]

These texts associate the linked words "guilt" and "punishment" directly to original sin. However, the question of what can or might be meant by these words must be considered before any simple conclusions are reached. In the definition quoted, I suggest that the "guilt of original sin" may be taken to mean "the full reality and totality of original sin in itself, together with all its juridical consequences". I take the phrase "guilt and punishment" in the Catechism to mean exactly the same thing. The Tridentine definition was not seeking to determine the nature of original sin: for that had already been covered in previous anathemae, which clearly and carefully delineate original sin as the loss of original justice and - figuratively - the "death of the soul". Rather, it looks toward the condemnation of Luther's pernicious doctrine that  follows in Session Six of the Council.

Moreover, an infant cannot possibly have positively rejected God, either explicitly or implicitly.

However, neither can a dying unbaptized infant have explicitly or implicitly come to have desired baptism in its brief life. A foetus may not even have developed a mind with which to desire anything whatsoever! Hence just prior to its death, an unbaptized infant cannot be a member of the Church and so cannot possibly be accounted a friend of God. Later theologians perceived that this was an unreasonible position, and addressed the dilema they saw by inventing a third outcome, the "Limbo of the Innocents". [Ott II.25] This was considered to be formally a part of Hell (in order to escape directly contradicting Lyons II and Florence), but a relatively pleasant part. In it, the souls of those "bound by original sin" but free of personal sin were supposed to have an entirely bearable existence: to be contrasted with the joyful existence that flows from the Beatific Vision. Personally, I think this theory is little more than a naïve rationalisation. Ott is obviously unhappy with the idea of "Limbo of the Innocents", but says that there is no basis to decide the matter one way or another. I disagree with him. I suggest that the following considerations together form a basis for developing the doctrine of "Baptism of Desire".
  1. Many foetuses spontaneously miscarry.
  2. The Church celebrates the feast of the "Holy Innocents".
  3. The Church enthusiastically baptizes infants whose parents or guardians ask for it.
  4. Jesus descended "into Hell" to deliver the souls of the Just who died before the Redemption.
Pope John Paul II has recently constituted a theological commission to look into this very question.

It is also possible that when someone dies without attaining the use of reason, God may, exceptionally, re-incarnate their soul. This view is recommended by the consideration that there must be some point to mortal life before death. If this purpose (whatever it is) is not achieved by some individual (as would be ascertained at their particular judgement) then it would be fitting for them to be given some additional means of achieving it.

Now, it is clearly the official teaching of the Church that reincarnation is not the norm! When someone dies, they go first to judgement and then Heaven (perhaps via purgatory) or Hell. On the other hand, there is no index entry in either Ott or Denzinger for "reincarnation"; and, as far as I know, no direct condemnation of the theory. The only basis for rejecting it is, as far as I am aware, is the implicit positive teaching of the Second Oecumenical Council of Lyons and the explicit definition of the Oecumenical Council of Florence that has already been quoted.

Reincarnation can be reconciled with the definition of Florence (if not the positive teaching of Lyons II), on the basis that if someone is reincarnated, clearly they do not depart this life, but rather return to it. I accept that this was not the intended meaning of Pope Eugenious or the Synod assembled with him. However, I believe that in interpreting definitions it is necessary to consider what in fact was written and spoken: not what the writer(s) or speaker(s) might have intended or meant by what they wrote or spoke. I have successfully applied this interprative principle elsewhere. This argument may seem far-fetched; but I suggest it is less odd than the notion of a "Limbo of Innocents".


 Back to top