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John the Baptist baptizing Jesus

The History and Mystery of Baptism of Desire

June 11, 2024

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“Go and make disciples of all nations,” commands Our Lord in the final verses of the Gospel of Matthew, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (28:19-20).

In the Great Commission, the Apostles are commanded both to teach and to baptize. Modern eyes are more readily drawn to the command to evangelize, but in fact baptism is mentioned first. Through baptism, they will “make disciples of all the nations.” In the waters of baptism, souls will be reborn. 

Today, baptism feels like a relatively anodyne subject since all Christians still practice it, and hard cases (in which it’s unclear whether a baptism should be performed) are relatively rare. Matrimony and the Eucharist stir more social and political controversy. Baptism, though, is the sacrament that defines Christian membership. It brings us face to face with the mystery of what it means to become part of Christ’s Body. And since baptism brings grace and nature together for the salvation of a human soul, it is really through the subject of baptism that we are forced to confront hard questions about who is saved, and how. The subject is treated deftly, compassionately, and with great erudition by Fr. Anthony R. Lusvardi, SJ, in his new book, Baptism of Desire and Christian Salvation.

Baptism of desire, as most Catholics know, has been put forward as a mechanism by which souls might be saved if, for some reason beyond their control, they are unable to be baptized. The paradigmatic case is the catechumen who unexpectedly dies before baptism actually takes place (perhaps killed in a traffic accident on the way to the church). Surely, God would not allow this kind of freak incident to consign a soul to hell? Perhaps in such a case, the fact that the catechumen clearly and explicitly desired God’s grace is sufficient to enable God to bestow it. This seems reasonable, but raises further questions. Why is traditional baptism even necessary if the desire for God’s grace is sufficient for salvation? 

Attention tended to focus more on preserving the universality rather than on stressing the remarkable salvific power of baptism.

Lusvardi considers how the Church’s understanding of baptism of desire has been shaped across different eras of Christian history, from the pre-patristic era through the twentieth century. What emerges from his study is a detailed picture of the Church’s efforts to understand baptism, its salvific significance, and the various forms in which it may occur. On one level, the ten-thousand-foot narrative is more or less what one might expect: In the early Church, it was widely believed that those who died without baptism were damned, while some contemporary theologians (most notably Karl Rahner) want to spread the net of God’s saving grace so widely that even baptism of desire seems almost superfluous. The trend is toward greater inclusion, and when one pursues that line of thought too zealously, the baptismal rite itself starts to look less and less consequential. It is not surprising to find, in parallel to the theological trends, that baptism for the early Christians was a long-anticipated ritual for which catechumens typically spent years preparing, while today, it may only take catechumens a few months. 

It would be a terrible mistake, however, to blur over the rich nuances of this unfolding story. After all these centuries, we are still struggling to get proper perspective on the issue of sacraments and salvation, but Lusvardi thinks it is possible to recover a sense of baptism’s momentous significance without being backed into rigorist extremes. He uses his exploration of the tradition to explore the various facets of the question, presenting his own considered view in the final pages.

In the Church’s first few centuries, baptism was widely understood to be defining of Christian membership and salvation. “The presupposition that made the proclamation of the Gospel meaningful to the ancient world,” writes Lusvardi, “was mankind’s universal need for a savior, the fact that we are born into a trajectory that ultimately leads to death. Baptism was the turning point at which believers broke free of this trajectory by participating in the death of Jesus and receiving his new life.” That core conviction about baptism’s vital significance mostly held through the patristic period, but the idea of baptism of desire did originate in that era, especially in the funeral oration of St. Ambrose of Milan for the murdered emperor Valentinian. Mere days after summoning the bishop with a request for baptism, Valentinian was murdered by a political rival. In his eulogy, Ambrose suggests that the emperor’s sincere and explicitly stated desire for baptism might have enabled God to grant the necessary graces. St. Augustine likewise considered the possibility that baptism might in certain circumstances be possible without water or blood, although, as Lusvardi notes, “An essential feature of the patristic version of the doctrine is that it does not suggest a pathway to salvation that could in any way be in competition with the sacrament.”

It was in the medieval world, however, that the doctrine of baptism of desire was robustly brought into the tradition, widely recognized as a real possibility and not just an exotic theory for murdered-emperor edge cases. This is interesting, as Lusvardi notes, because this was a world in which nearly all infants were baptized, often within days or even hours of birth. To the Scholastics, therefore, the doctrine was of interest primarily for theological reasons, not pastoral ones; baptism of desire prevented sacramental rites from acting as a constraint on God’s grace. The centrality of baptism to Christian life and culture was at this point so firmly established that the medievals no longer felt the pressing need to stress its absolutely defining relationship to Christ’s redeeming sacrifice. 

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All of that changed in the early modern era, with the expansion of missionary outreach beyond Western Europe, and then with the Protestant Reformation. Lusvardi discusses the Council of Trent and Jansenist controversy in some detail, noting that at this point, the doctrine of baptism of desire was firmly ensconced in Church teaching in such a way that tended to focus on finding some minimum bar that needed to be cleared in order to “qualify” for baptism of desire. This is readily understandable because people naturally tend to be quite interested in the question of whether particular unbaptized persons (especially friends or loved ones) might possibly be saved. To Lusvardi’s eyes, however, the conversations of this period raise a major worry: the significance and content of the baptismal rite itself, so critical to the early Church, was beginning to recede from view. Christendom had created a world in which nearly everyone had been baptized; on a social level, being a Christian was entirely unremarkable. In the early modern period those norms were breaking down, but attention tended to focus more on preserving the universality rather than on stressing the remarkable salvific power of baptism.

That deficiency, in Lusvardi’s view, overshadows the 19th and 20th century discussion of ecclesiology in unfortunate ways. Examining the debates about modernism, the Feeneyite controversy, and then the documents of Vatican II, he shows how the conversation about salvation was increasingly inverted; instead of marveling at baptism’s salvific power, theologians came to see it more as a constraint to be sidestepped or overcome. As becomes clear in the final chapter, Lusvardi does believe that baptism of desire is both possible and a valuable part of the Catholic tradition. It offers the most helpful paradigm available for thinking about the eternal fates of those who appear to die outside the faith. In many ways, though, it is helpful precisely because it leaves open wide avenues of uncertainty, not giving more comfort than a Catholic worldview reasonably allows. With very few exceptions, we don’t know what happens to a given soul after death. We don’t know with certainty the ultimate fate of any unbaptized person. Lusvardi does not command his readers to imagine unbaptized loved ones in hell, but he does issue urgent reminders that invincible ignorance is not the thing that saves us. Jesus saves us. In the normal case, he does this through the cleansing waters of baptism.

Lusvardi develops his own account of baptism of desire, and places himself in a minority by holding that even infants can in fact have an implicit desire for baptism. He argues that the Church’s long-standing practice of baptizing infants gives his theory a certain plausibility despite the weight of tradition; the Church has long seen infants as fit for baptism, and this may have further implications that should be more fully explored. We don’t understand a baby’s experience of the world all that clearly, but the idea that the child could implicitly desire the sacrament has some plausibility especially if we see that desire as flowing from the wishes of the child’s parents and broader community, which always guide and shape an individual’s own desires in ways that are somewhat mysterious to us. 

It’s an intriguing view. Babies are very complex and interesting, in ways that have not always been appreciated historically, and for a mother it sometimes feels like supposedly amazing revelations in cognitive science are just catching up to what caretakers more easily perceive: there’s a lot going on behind the cherubic face of an infant. If baptism of desire is possible for infants, that might give us more hope for the souls of infants lost to miscarriage or immediately at birth. 

Before concluding this review, I should acknowledge in the interests of disclosure that Lusvardi is a personal friend, in a way that is even somewhat relevant to the topic, since he was my sponsor and godfather at my own adult baptism nineteen years ago. The book is extremely worthwhile for anyone with an interest in the topic (and who is not interested in salvation?), but it did have an added layer of significance for me, as I reflected back on years’ worth of friendly conversations, but especially on the moment when I stood waiting at the church door, feeling humbled and overawed, the book’s author standing nearby. 

Infant baptism is a very great good, most obviously as a means to saving our children’s souls and drawing them into God’s family. Even beyond that, though, I have sometimes reflected at my own children’s baptisms on a beautiful way in which infant baptism does seem fitting. A baby naturally inspires a certain awe in us, as a person and life that holds untold potential, waiting to be unfolded. That same feeling may naturally (and rightly) overflow into our perception of baptism, a supernatural event that enables God to work his transcendent designs in that same soul. As I watch my children grow, I think about the way in which that early formation has given them opportunities for growth in virtue that I never had, in some cases forming sensibilities that I still do not have, or not fully. Any Catholic parent would want that for his or her children.

Nevertheless, converts do have our own special gift. We remember the transition from a pre-baptismal life to a Christian life. We can reflect much more concretely on the ways in which baptism was the turning point, the moment of redemption, the simple and easily performed ritual that nevertheless meant everything. For me personally, it is slightly astonishing to recall that I was conflicted, even a bit tortured, by indecision and self-doubt almost up to the hour of my baptism, after which I have never again questioned that it was the right choice. I saw no mystical visions and heard no heavenly choirs, but somehow it all changed that day; for a convert that can be a lived and experienced reality, not just an abstract theological truth. But it’s true for everyone, not just for adult converts. Lusvardi wants us to understand this, as the early Christians very much did.

We do need to remember, especially now, with Christendom behind us. We need to reflect on the tremendous work that God has wrought within our souls, the fruits of which are hopefully still ripening. Most important of all, we need to go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We have not yet reached the end of ages, so Our Lord’s command still stands, and we can be sure that he will be with us.