A Canon Lawyer narrows the Baptism of Desire

On his blog “In the Light of the Law”, canon lawyer Dr. Ed Peters offers us A note on the “spiritual” reception of sacraments. In that article, Peters makes his usual mistake of dogmatizing his own limited understanding and personal theological conclusions. The article comments on the claims of Prof. Ines Angeli Murzaku that she received baptism, confirmation, communion, confession, and marriage, not as formal Sacraments, but spiritually only. The formal Sacraments were unavailable to her as she lived in Albania during the time of Communist oppression of religion.

In response to Murzaku, Peters makes some disturbing remarks, which contradict magisterial teaching as well as the common theological opinion on this subject.

Baptism of Desire

Peters narrows the baptism of desire to a severe extent:

“So-called “baptism of desire” is a term of art used to describe not baptism (fervently received or otherwise) but rather the assurance of salvation accorded those who, intending to be baptized, die before they can receive that desired sacrament. CCC 1259. The phrase “baptism of desire” is thus a this-world term for an other-world phenomenon. No one walking around today is considered “baptized by desire” or even “baptized”.”

Wow. That rant against the baptism of desire is proximate to heresy.

First, the common theological opinion, also found in various magisterial documents, is that there are three types of baptism. This assertion is found in the Summa Theologica, the Compendium of the CCC, the CCC, the Catechism of the USCCB, as well as in very many works of theology. Only baptism with water is the formal Sacrament, but the other types of baptism are correctly termed Baptism.

Second, this use of the term baptism is not merely a “term of art”. For “The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation.” (CCC 1279). So the persons who are saved without the formal Sacrament of Baptism, which makes them formal members of the Church, are certainly baptized and are implicit members of the Church. For outside the Church, there is no salvation. Thus, it is not possible to change the terminology, so that only the formal Sacrament is called baptism, and so that the other means to obtain the state of grace are said to be not really a type of baptism at all.

Third, the cited passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes specifically the explicit baptism of desire (CCC 1259). Peters omits mention of CCC 1260, which describes the implicit baptism of desire. The implied claim that all baptisms of desire are explicit is a grave theological error. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas recognizes that the baptism of desire can be implicit, and so did the early Church fathers (see Denz. 388 below).

Fourth, we should ask whether the teaching on implicit baptism of desire is dogma, non-infallible doctrine, or the common theological opinion. Well, it has been taught by the Magisterium:

Letter from the Holy Office (the CDF) to the Archbishop of Boston: “To gain eternal salvation, it is not always required that a person be incorporated in reality (reapse) as a member of the Church, but it is necessary that one belong to it at least in desire and longing (voto et desiderio). It is not always necessary that this desire be explicit as it is with catechumens. When one is invincibly ignorant, God also accepts an implicit desire, so called because it is contained in the good disposition of soul by which a person wants his or her will to be conformed to God’s will.”

The above letter refutes Feeneyism, which heresy denies that baptism can be received by desire or by blood at all. Peters does not propose Feeneyism, but by greatly narrowing the baptism of desire, he stands next to it.

Furthermore, the Magisterium infallibly teaches that some persons prior to Christ and prior to the Sacrament of Baptism were saved. This conclusion is stated in the dogma of the limbo of the Fathers, that some persons (the common opinion is many persons) died in the state of grace prior to Christ, and, after any punishment due in Purgatory, awaited His saving sacrifice in limbo. But they could not possibly be saved by the Sacrament of baptism (with water), as it did not exist yet. And, for the same reason, they could not have explicitly desired it. Thus, the implicit baptism of desire is established as a dogma, not merely a non-infallible doctrine or a common theological opinion.

And St. Thomas teaches that a catechumenate, who later does receive a baptism of water, often receives first a baptism of desire, so that he enters the state of grace during the time prior to formal baptism. For he fervently desires baptism, and so, by that desire, Christ forgives all his sins, original sin and personal sins, and grants to him the state of grace, even before formal baptism. So, yes, Dr. Peters, many persons are walking around in the state of grace due to a baptism of desire.

Fifth, both non-formal types of baptism — desire and blood — are not merely a bare assurance of future salvation after death. No one receives the state of grace after death. Even the catechumenate martyr, who receives a baptism of blood, is given the state of grace and the forgiveness of all sins necessarily while he is still alive, prior to the death that is the occasion of his baptism of blood. I say “occasion” because even the catechumenate martyrs do not earn the state of salvation. It was merited for them by Christ.

But in both cases, desire and blood, the person is in the state of sanctifying grace prior to death. Especially with the baptism of desire, the person receives the state of grace while they are still alive, just as the holy Patriarchs did. For Abraham did not receive love, faith, and hope only at the moment before death, but long before his death, when he put his faith in the Lord. And the same can be said of very many persons in this life, who receive the state of grace by an act of true selfless love, thereby substituting for the lack of formal baptism.

Pope Pius XII: “Above all, the state of grace is absolutely necessary at the moment of death; without it, salvation and supernatural happiness — the beatific vision of God — are impossible. An act of love is sufficient for the adult to obtain sanctifying grace and to supply the lack of baptism.” (Address to Midwives)

Pope Saint John Paul II: “The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all.” (Redemptoris Missio 10)

So, when a non-Christian enters the state of grace by a baptism of desire, by an act of love, despite not explicitly believing in Christ, they are on the path of salvation. It is not “an other-world phenomenon”, as Peters claims. And there are, in fact, many persons walking around in the state of grace due to a baptism of desire. They are not formal members of the Church, since they lack formal baptism (with water). But they have an implicit and effective relationship with the Ark of Salvation. It is a mysterious relationship. It is mysterious for those who receive the grace, because they do not know the Church and sometimes even outwardly reject her.

In summary, the above-quoted paragraph from canon lawyer Ed Peters severely misrepresents the teaching of the Church on baptism. And then he goes on to assert other errors, also on the topic of receiving the Sacraments spiritually.

Other Sacraments

Peters makes the same type of error on the other Sacraments, assuming and asserting that they are not received, by a person who was not formally baptized, not even merely spiritually. This claim flies in the face of the dogmatic teaching of the Council of Trent:

“If anyone says that the Sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation, but are superfluous; and that, without them or the desire of them, men may obtain the grace of justification from God by faith alone — though all [of the Sacraments] are not necessary for each individual: let him be anathema.” (Trent, Sacraments in General, Canon IV)

Notice the expression “the desire of them”, meaning the desire of the Sacraments. Thus, baptism is not the only Sacrament which can be received by desire, that is to say, spiritually. Now the Magisterium, to my knowledge, has not clarified a number of questions on this topic, such as, to what extent Sacraments are available by desire to persons not formally baptized.

But, in the absence of such clarification, Peters opinion should not be stated, as it is stated, as if dogmatic. Peters says that, in the absence of a baptism of water, the other Sacraments cannot be validly received. Hmm. I’m not so sure of that. In general, the Sacrament of Baptism is the gateway to the other Sacraments. But there may be some exceptional cases, as follows:

Denzinger 388: Baptism of Desire (an unbaptized priest) [From the letter “Apostolicam Sedem” to the Bishop of Cremona, of uncertain time]

We assert without hesitation (on the authority of the holy Fathers Augustine and Ambrose) that the priest whom you indicated (in your letter) had died without the water of baptism, because he persevered in the faith of holy mother the Church and in the confession of the name of Christ, was freed from original sin and attained the joy of the heavenly fatherland. Read (brother) in the eighth book of Augustine’s “City of God” where among other things it is written, “Baptism is ministered invisibly to one whom not contempt of religion but death excludes.” Read again the book also of the blessed Ambrose concerning the death of Valentinian where he says the same thing. Therefore, to questions concerning the dead, you should hold the opinions of the learned Fathers’ and in your church you should join in prayers and you should have sacrifices offered to God for the priest mentioned.

The man in question was an ordained Catholic priest, and, after his death, it was discovered that he had never received formal Baptism (with water). Yet the Holy See still considered him to be a priest, and considered that he was freed from original sin by the baptism of desire. His ordination was valid, despite the lack of baptism with water.

My Christology professor, Joep van Beeck, used to tell two stories to illustrate this same point.

1. A man belonged to a small parish, and he devoutly received Holy Communion, daily, for over 40 years. Then, at some point, it was discovered that he had never received formal baptism. Some of the people from the parish appealed to the Bishop, asking that the man be baptized. But the Bishop refused, saying: “How am I to presume to baptize a man who for forty years has devoutly received the body and blood of Christ.” The man was never baptized with water, and yet he validly received holy Communion.

Could he also have received Communion or Confession, given appropriate circumstances, merely spiritually? Certainly, he could. His ability to receive those Sacraments sacramentally proves his ability to receive them merely by desire.

2. A priest served in a diocese for many years, and on the occasion of a celebration of the anniversary of his ordination, an elderly woman who was present at his birth told the story of his baptism. He had a difficult birth, and when he was delivered, he was blue and struggling. So the woman took a pitcher of milk and baptized him. Milk is not valid matter for baptism. The priest was never validly baptized. But again, the Bishop refused to baptize the priest, and he continued, as a validly ordained priest, to minister the Sacraments, and to receive Confession and Communion himself.

I will add a third story, from a friend of mine in college. This friend was a Jewish young man, raised in a Jewish family, and certainly never baptized with water. Once, when we were talking about religion, he told me, after the fact, that he was curious about Mass and the reception of Communion. So, without telling anyone, he had attended a Mass on campus and had received Communion. He did so devoutly, with faith and love in God, but without first having been baptized. In my opinion, his reception of Communion, though canonically illicit, was probably valid spiritually.

For there are three ways to receive Communion.

Trent: “[1] Some receive it merely sacramentally, that is, sinners. [2] Others receive it only spiritually, clearly those who, by desire, are consuming that heavenly bread set before them with a lively faith, which works through love, understanding its fruit and usefulness. [3] But then the third receive it at once sacramentally and spiritually.”

Some baptized Catholics receive Communion without proper devotion or belief in the real presence. It is a mere external reception, which does not benefit them spiritually. Others receive spiritually, but not sacramentally, in a spiritual Communion, especially when the sacramental reception is unfortunately unavailable. Then the third type receive Communion sacramentally and spiritually. Thus, the spiritual reception of Communion is recommended, regardless of whether one receive sacramentally or not.

Dr. Peters states: “Again, without sacramental baptism no other sacraments are even possible.” Such a claim is refuted by the above examples, especially Denzinger 388 concerning a validly ordained priest who was never formally baptized. And if formal Sacraments can be received in the absence of formal Baptism, then the spiritual reception of Sacraments are also possible apart from formal baptism.

What happens to a person who enters the state of grace by a baptism of desire, as certainly occurred before the time of Christ, before any formal Sacraments were available? If they commit an actual mortal sin, they can return to the state of grace by contrition out of love for God (perfect contrition). And this forgiveness is a type of implicit reception of Confession; it is Confession by desire.

“From this, it is to be taught that the repentance of a Christian, after his fall, is very different from [that] at baptism. For contained therein is not only a cessation from, and a detestation of sins, or a contrite and humble heart, but truly also the sacramental Confession of them — at least in desire…. the eternal punishment — which is remitted together with the guilt, either by the Sacrament or by the desire of the Sacrament….” (Trent, On Justification, Chapter XIV)

And this Confession by desire is similar to the baptism of desire. Both can be implicit. So Peters is very wrong in his claims about the limits of the Sacraments and about the reception of the graces of the Sacraments, to some extent, by an implicit desire.

A don’t mean to give Dr. Peters a hard time. But he frequently makes the same type of mistakes common among conservative Catholic authors: over-simplifying the teachings of the Faith, dogmatizing mere opinion, and treating anyone who disagrees with condescension.

I will say that Dr. Peters does good work for the Church in many ways. Most of his posts are useful and accurate. He certainly does good work in his writings and teachings. And I don’t think Pope Francis means to condemns or severely criticize all canon lawyers when he talks about the modern-day doctors of the law and rebukes them for some of their errors.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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7 Responses to A Canon Lawyer narrows the Baptism of Desire

  1. Matt Z. says:

    I’m confused why a Bishop knowing that a priest didn’t have a valid baptism didn’t just go ahead and baptize him validly. I understand Baptism by desire but why not just do it validly?

    • Ron Conte says:

      The priest was clearly already in the state of grace, and had all of the gifts of baptism. If he were baptized again, that would suggest that his previous reception of Ordination was invalid. In that case, the baptism of desire was sufficient.

  2. Guest says:

    I cannot explain how this is possible, but after reading the Bible for the first time I desired to be baptized. Now I was not able to for a few years. Neither did I know Catholic dogmas yet. My understanding was based on my own reading and for a while I was a Protestant without a church. Nevertheless I mystically felt someone sprinkle the waters of baptism on me. It wasn’t physical but spiritual. I don’t talk much about it. Years later, when I joined the Church I was baptized physically for the first time.

  3. Francisco says:

    Thank you for this valuable information Ron. This include references to the early Church fathers and the Council of Trent. This refutes those who think that baptism of desire or blood is a “post Vatican II thing”.

    By the way, stories similar to your Jewish friend are not uncommon. Some devout non-Catholic people do likewise sometimes and I think this gives them the graces necessary for conversion (for this is not the ideal way of doing), become formal members of the Church and receive the Body and Blood of Christ canonically licit.

  4. Dora says:

    Not sure what you will make of this, but in 1970, my parents joined a group of families hosted by a “former priest” who had married a “former nun.” He conducted weekly Masses on the coffee tables in their various living rooms, using common household items. This seemed to be nourishing for them, but the path essentially led me away from the Church. I was confirmed at age 11, so there was no need to go anymore in my pre-teens or my teens. Group attendees behaved reverently as if this was all entirely legitimate, and they had rationales worked out, but I sometimes doubted whether I was receiving the actual Body of Christ.
    I do imagine that Protestants make spiritual confessions frequently. I know I did, if that is what you call them. As an adult, I no longer identified as Catholic and chose a hospital chaplain to marry me (no priest, no church). I have wondered if I legitimately baptized my two children in my home (using water). “Do-it-yourself” was just a continuation and imitation of what I had learned growing up.

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