Salvation for the severely disabled

There is one basic principle of salvation for human persons, in two parts:

A. Whoever dies in a state of grace will have eternal happiness in Heaven, perhaps after a temporary stay in Purgatory.
B. Whoever dies NOT in a state of grace will have eternal unhappiness in Hell, with greater or lesser punishments, as they deserve.

The state of grace is achieved solely by Baptism. But there are three types of Baptism; one is formal, and the other two are non-formal (or mystical).

1. water — the formal Sacrament of Baptism, using water and words
2. desire — a desire for Baptism, at least implicitly
3. blood — Baptism, even without desire, from the blood of Christ on the Cross, usually associated with great suffering or death.

Baptism is the only means for us to obtain the state of grace. Once in the state of grace, actual mortal sin is the only way that we can lose that state. Repentance from actual mortal sin requires either imperfect contrition and the Sacrament of Confession (or in some cases Anointing of the Sick), or perfect contrition and at least the implicit desire for Confession, in order to return to the state of grace.

Anyone who dies in the state of grace is saved; anyone who dies in the state of unrepentant actual mortal sin is lost.

Physical Disabilities

Certainly any born human person can be baptized in the formal Sacrament. No mental or physical disability whatsoever would prevent this. And any human person with physical disabilities, even if severe, still has the usual responsibility in their use of intellect and free will. So any knowingly chosen immoral act would be a sin, and the possibility of actual mortal sin is the same as for any other mentally competent adult. It may be the case, for certain persons, that severe disabilities so weigh on the heart and mind that there may be some reduced culpability, due to a reduction in fullness of knowledge, or in fullness of free choice. But the same rules for salvation apply as for a non-disabled person.

What is more interesting is the case of persons with severe physical disabilities who are not baptized Christians. Absent formal Baptism, any person will sufficient use of reason and free will can possibly obtain a Baptism of desire. But in addition, I speculate that an implicit Baptism of desire might be obtain by a person who is suffering from some severe disability (due to injury, illness, or a congenital disorder) by means of their response, in grace, to their own suffering.

For an implicit Baptism of desire (a mystical Baptism), the person must choose to cooperate with actual grace to a full extent, not for the sake of even an ordered love of self, but out of a selfless full true pure love of God or neighbor.

“An act of love is sufficient for the adult to obtain sanctifying grace and to supply the lack of baptism….” (Pope Pius XII, Address to Midwives)

But the circumstances that might occasion this act of love vary greatly. I should emphasize that no exterior act (other than that of formal Baptism) guarantees that the state of grace is given. The foundation of a baptism of desire, especially an implicit one, is the interior act of full cooperation with actual grace out of true selfless love of God or neighbor. For any true selfless love of neighbor is implicitly also a true love of God.

But concerning the severely physically disabled, my theological opinion is that, in addition to the many possible circumstances for the occasion of a baptism of desire, the acceptance of one’s own severe physical and emotional sufferings with patient endurance, with one virtue or another, can be the result of a very full interior cooperation with grace, which is implicitly a love of God. So even if the disabled person is not a believer in God, he can implicitly accept the will of God, to endure great suffering selflessly, and in this way he implicitly accepts and expresses a selfless love for God. The fact that he is suffering greatly, and yet he bears that suffering virtuously, shows that this implicit love of God is selfless and is truly a full cooperation with grace. The result is that the person is brought into the state of grace, and if he dies in that state, he has eternal life.

Mental Disabilities

I would divide mental disabilities broadly into two categories, those of mental illness, that substantially disrupt the use of reason, and those of mental inability, that present a substantially reduced ability to use reason.

For adults who are baptized, an objective mortal sin might not be an actual sin, if mental illness causes the act to be committed with less than full knowledge of its grave immorality, or with less than full and free consent of the will. Either or both of these factors can reduce culpability. This reduction in culpability could be to the extent of actual venial sin, or even to the extent that no actual sin is committed. Of course, if culpability is not substantially reduced, the objective mortal sin might well be an actual mortal sin. Not every mental illness or mental disorder is sufficiently severe to substantially reduce or completely take away moral culpability.

Anyone who is baptized, and severely mentally disabled so as to lack sufficient use of reason for culpability to the extent of actual mortal sin, can commit at worst only venial sins, and so cannot lose their salvation. For the use of reason is a matter of degree. But if the use of reason is limited by mental disability, so that the person sins only venially, then the baptized disabled person cannot lose his salvation.

But what would happen if a severely mentally-disabled person did not have the formal Sacrament of Baptism, and also lacked sufficient use of reason to obtain a Baptism of desire?

First, we should not be so quick to dismiss the abilities of the intellect and free will, even in the face of a substantial mental disability, to attain to a Baptism of desire by the work of God’s all-powerful grace. The mentally disabled, even those so severely afflicted that they need the care of others continually, generally still have significant use of reason, like the reason of a young child. The attainment to the use of reason is a matter of degree. Children prior to the age of reason, and the mentally disabled whose ability to reason is like that of a young child, can still understand concepts such as love, selfishness, good, evil, etc. — often to a substantial extent. And they can still cooperate with grace in acts of love, perhaps even sufficiently to obtain a Baptism of desire.

Second, supposing an unbaptized person has such a limited ability to use reason that he cannot attain a Baptism of desire, I believe that such a person is given by God a baptism of blood, perhaps even long before death. The basis for this baptism of blood is not necessarily the death of the person, but his or her substantial suffering — not the suffering of pain, but the suffering of the deprivation of the full use of free will and intellect. To suffer such a severe disability is a type of martyrdom that unites the disabled person to Christ suffering on the Cross. The suffering and death of Christ on the Cross is the source of all Baptism. As a result, all such disabled persons, with or without a formal Baptism, are certainly saved by the grace of Christ.

I am certain that every prenatal, infant, and young child, who dies at that young age, and every severely mentally disabled person, whose ability to reason is like that of a young child, will be brought by the merciful grace of God into the state of grace before death, and into eternal life in Heaven. Whoever says otherwise blasphemes God by implying that He would unjustly send the innocent to Hell.

On the salvation of little children, Christ taught:

{18:16} But Jesus, calling them together, said: “Allow the children to come to me, and do not be an obstacle to them. For of such is the kingdom of God.
{18:17} Amen, I say to you, whoever will not accept the kingdom of God like a child, will not enter into it.”

Therefore, the claim that unbaptized little children are sent to Hell or to Limbo is incompatible with the teaching of Christ in the Gospel. The kingdom of Heaven is filled with all the children who ever died at that young age.

On the salvation of the disabled, Christ taught:

{14:12} Then he also said to the one who had invited him: “When you prepare a lunch or dinner, do not choose to call your friends, or your brothers, or your relatives, or your wealthy neighbors, lest perhaps they might then invite you in return and repayment would made to you.
{14:13} But when you prepare a feast, call the poor, the disabled, the lame, and the blind.
{14:14} And you will be blessed because they do not have a way to repay you. So then, your recompense will be in the resurrection of the just.”

Therefore, in the feast of the kingdom of Heaven, the little children and the disabled will rejoice with Christ.

But as for those wicked Pharisees, those blind guides, who try to deny Heaven to little children and to the disabled, under any theological excuse or explanation whatsoever, Christ taught:

{23:13} So then: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! For you close the kingdom of heaven before men. For you yourselves do not enter, and those who are entering, you would not permit to enter.

{23:15} Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! For you travel around by sea and by land, in order to make one convert. And when he has been converted, you make him twice the son of Hell that you are yourselves.
{23:16} Woe to you, blind guides….

The claim that prenatals who die in the womb necessarily go to Hell, even to the limbo of Hell, is essentially the error of Calvinism, for it implies predestination to Hell. The prenatal cannot exercise intellect and free will in order to obtain a Baptism of desire. And no one can be validly baptized with the formal Sacrament (water and words) while still in the womb. So IF it were the case that a Baptism of blood is not available to these littlest of souls who die in the womb, then they went to Hell by predestination. For nothing could be done by anyone, whether the Church or their parents or themselves, that would be able to bring them to salvation. IF so, then God predestined them to Hell.

But the Catechism of the Catholic Church definitively teaches that “God predestines no one to go to hell;” (CCC, n. 1037). Therefore, prenatals who die in the womb must receive a Baptism of blood, just as the Holy Innocents received. To say otherwise is to imply that millions of persons who have never committed any personal sins are nevertheless predestined to Hell for eternity.

Furthermore, the Catechism teaches that only those persons who commit an actual mortal sin, and who die unrepentant from that sin, are sent to Hell: “God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end.” (CCC, n. 1037).

How can this teaching, that mortal sin is required for condemnation to Hell, be reconciled with past teachings of the Church that persons who die in a state of ‘original sin only’ are sent by God to the limbo of Hell? Here is my theological position: The limbo of Hell exists as a place of eternal but lesser punishment for adults who die in a state of original sin alone. These adults died in that state because they committed the actual mortal sin of omission of never having found sanctifying grace in their lives, despite ample opportunity. So no one ever goes to Hell, except due to unrepentant actual mortal sin. And there are no little children and no severely mentally disabled persons in Hell at all.

Therefore, we can also phrase the basic principle of salvation this way:

Whoever dies in a state of unrepentant actual mortal sin will have eternal unhappiness in Hell, with greater or lesser punishments, as they deserve. Everyone else goes to Heaven, because everyone else dies in a state of grace.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Biblical scholar

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