Nihil Obstat: Edvardus Can. Mahoney, S.T.D., Censor Deputatus

Imprimatur: E. Morrogh Bernard, Vicarius Generalis

Westmonasterii: Die X IVNII MCMXLVII (1947)

There are two ways in which a Sacrament may be necessary for salvation. It may be necessary as a means, or it may be necessary as the fulfilment of a precept only. Now, in saying that baptism is necessary for salvation, we mean that it is necessary as a means of salvation; so that, without it, it is impossible to go to Heaven. That being so, it is obvious that baptism is also necessary as the fulfilment of a precept, as we are bound to do whatever is indispensably necessary for our salvation.

It is a fact that is easily demonstrated. Habitual grace, which is the root principle of eternal life, is an absolutely indispensable means of salvation. Now, every soul is originally deprived of this habitual Grace through the sin of our first parents; and, in the case of adults, it may be doubly deprived owing to the presence of grave actual sin. It is, then, indispensably necessary for salvation that the soul be spiritually regenerated or born again to this life of which it is deprived; and it is baptism, as we have seen in the previous section, that effects this regeneration.

At this point the reader should avoid any confusion of mind that may arise from his knowledge of the existence of the Sacrament of Penance. It must be perfectly clearly understood that if, after baptism, one has had the misfortune to fall into grave sin, it is the baptismal Character and nothing else that entitles one to avail of God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Penance. For this Character entitles us to the advantages that arise from being a member of the Church. Once we have received the baptismal Character, Satan can never again have the same power over us, and can only make us soil our feet, as it were. If Christ had not washed us we should have no part with him; but since he has washed us we need but to wash our feet, and be clean wholly again. In saying this we do not wish to detract in any way from the fact that mortal sin after baptism is both a destruction of our new life and the gravest infidelity to our baptismal obligations. Indeed, we find that in the early Church, ever since the neophytes had heard the ringing words of Paul, it was regarded as a catastrophe that anyone should sin after baptism; so much so that many of these early converts never went to Confession, for there was no need of it, and it is doubtful if many of them even reflected on the fact that they might make use of the admitted power of the Church to forgive post-baptismal sin.1 Our point is simply to stress the fact that it is fundamentally and originally to the great baptismal Character that we owe all spiritual graces and blessings.

Christ himself tells us that we must receive this spiritual regeneration through baptism, and that without it we cannot save our souls. He says to Nicodemus: “Unless a man be born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”2 When Nicodemus asks him: “How can a man be born when he is old ? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born again?” Christ explains his meaning, without in any way diminishing its force, declaring solemnly: “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.”

Naturally, what Christ had said so clearly the Fathers of the Church repeated, as occasion arose. Such occasions did arise through various heresies, which the Fathers were obliged to combat. There were the Cainites and the Quintillians in the second century, who held that faith alone was sufficient for salvation and that baptism was not necessary; there were the Manicheans, from the third century onwards, who regarded water as something evil in nature, and as such quite unsuited as a means of salvation; there were the Massalians, who regarded it as useless; and there were the Pelagians, against whom St Augustine wrote, who regarded it as unnecessary. These latter, not recognising the existence of original sin, inevitably regarded baptism as of no real necessity, but admitted its utility for the remission of actual sin and for facilitating one’s access to the Kingdom of Heaven.

These and all other errors on the necessity of baptism were resolutely condemned as soon as ever they showed themselves, as the Church always regarded baptism as of absolute necessity.

In the controversy between St Cyprian and Pope St Stephen on the question of rebaptising heretics (of which more in a later section)3, it is taken for granted by all parties that baptism itself is absolutely necessary for salvation.

Again, St Irenaeus says that Christ came to save all through himself that is, all who are born to God again by him, infants and little ones, children, youths and adults.4

Tertullian points out to us that while the words “Teach all nations, baptising them…” show us that baptism is necessary as a precept, the words “Unless a man be born again…” show its necessity as a means.5

St Ambrose tells us that without baptism faith will not secure salvation, as the remission of sin and special graces come only through baptism.6

St Augustine regards it as a principle that admits of no dispute that no unbaptised person is without sin, and baptism therefore is necessary for his salvation.7 This is true, he tells us, even of persons who practise virtues and walk in the way of a relative perfection. Even if one has given his possessions to the poor, is better instructed in the truths of faith than the majority of baptised persons, and is careful not to be vain on that account and not to despise baptism, but is not yet baptised then all his sins are still upon him, and unless he comes to saving baptism, where sins are loosed, in spite of all his excellence, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.8 Moreover, in his controversy with the Pelagians, St Augustine lets us see that he regards the baptism of infants as necessary, owing to the stain of original sin upon their souls.

At this point the reader may have a difficulty. It can be put in this way: Is it not true that Magdalen was a saint from that moment in which Christ forgave her because she loved much? And yet we are not aware that she was then baptised. Is it not true that the Holy Innocents did not receive the Sacrament of Baptism? Also, that some of the canonised saints were only catechumens, and so forth?

Now, it will promote tidiness and clarity of thought if we deal with this difficulty by proposing to ourselves these two questions, and by answering them: First, Has Christ instituted any other positive means of regeneration besides baptism, either by way of addition to or exception from the law of baptism? Secondly, Is it not possible that, from the very nature of things which precedes all positive law and is allowed for in positive law, it might happen that a person could receive justification without the actual reception of the Sacrament of Baptism ?

We answer the first of these questions in the negative. We cannot admit any other means of salvation positively instituted by Christ, for the very good reason that his positive law has provided one means and only one. If, therefore, any theories are advanced on the question of salvation which involve the recognition of some means of salvation positively instituted by Christ, other than baptism, such theories must immediately be rejected as at least erroneous.

Attempts of this kind have been made from time to time. The best known is that of the theologian Cajetan, who expressed the opinion that in the case of infants dying in the mother’s womb, the prayers of the parents could secure the justification and salvation of the children. He thought that a blessing of the child in the womb, given in the name of the Blessed Trinity, would secure this. This opinion was regarded with great disapproval by the theologians of the Council of Trent, and though it was not actually condemned, Pope Pius V ordered that it should be expunged from the works of Cajetan. A somewhat similar view was held by Gerson, Durand, Bianchi, and others. Even St Bonaventure seems to have nodded; for he says that an infant would be deprived of grace if unbaptised, unless God made it the object of some special privilege.9

The fundamental error of all such views is that they introduce, without warrant of any kind from Revelation, a second means of salvation positively instituted by Christ. They demand the recognition of what we might call a pseudo-Sacrament. If, for instance, such a rite as blessing an infant in its mother’s womb is sufficient for its justification, then we must admit a pseudo-Sacrament positively instituted by Christ, by way of addition to or exception from the law of baptism which he has made. To admit this is gratuitous, as it is not mentioned by Christ, and it is erroneous, as it is plainly against the universality of the words of Christ.

We must conclude then that infants dying in their mother’s womb do not enjoy the Beatific Vision in Heaven. At the same time they do not suffer from what is called the pain of sense. According to St Thomas, they enjoy a real happiness which consists, not indeed in that vision of God which grace alone makes possible, but in the natural love and knowledge of God.10

We answer our second question in the affirmative. It can happen that a person receives justification without actually receiving the Sacrament of Baptism. And it can happen in one of two ways: either, 1, by Martyrdom, or 2, by Charity. Let us take them separately, giving exact explanations of the words we use, and showing that each of them amounts to baptism.

By martyrdom we mean suffering death for the cause of Christ. We must first make this important proviso: to have the merit of martyrdom it is not necessary that one should be an adult, knowing the teaching of Christ and acting with deliberation. It is sufficient that one should simply suffer death for the cause of Christ. Now, the cause of Christ may mean something concerning the Person of Christ; as when the Holy Innocents were put to death by Herod, in the hope that Christ might be among the victims of the general slaughter. Or it may mean something concerning the religion and faith of Christ, as with the majority of the martyrs. Or, finally, it may mean something concerning a virtue which is specially enjoined by the law of Christ; as when St John the Baptist was beheaded for defending the virtue of chastity.

Having made clear what we mean by the cause of Christ, we may say that two conditions are necessary for true martyrdom. The first is that the person guilty of inflicting death persecutes Christ in one or other of the three ways mentioned above. The motive for which the persecutor acts is not of the slightest importance as far as martyrdom is concerned, provided that it is because of their Christianity that the victims are made to suffer. Thus we are told by Tacitus that Nero’s first persecution of the Christians was simply in order to make the public believe that the Christians, and not he, were guilty of the burning of Rome.11 His motive was the purely personal one of averting suspicion from himself, yet his victims were none the less martyrs, as it was because they were Christians that they were made to suffer.

The second condition is that the person who is killed dies by allowing himself to be killed. If one were killed simply through being overcome by superior force, in spite of the stoutest resistance that one was capable of, it could scarcely be called martyrdom, as it would not conform to the type of Christ, who as a lamb was led to the slaughter.12 The Church has never shown any disposition to canonise all those who lost their lives in the Crusades. Crusaders may be said to have suffered for the cause of Christ, but the element of being meekly led to slaughter was decidedly to seek.

Perhaps one ought to mention a question that is discussed a good deal today. Could we say that those who lost their lives during the Great War, and who discharged their exalted duty from motives that referred to Christ, are entitled to the name of martyr? It is hard to see how they can be entitled to that name. For one thing, they did not suffer for the cause of Christ, as they were put to death, not for being Christians, but because they belonged to this or that nation. Again, they did not submit to death, but were overcome by force. If we admit to the merit of martyrdom all those who bear their death from Christian motives, then it is hard to see how any good Christian can be excluded. For any good man might suffer his last illness and accept his death from Christian motives. It is true that the word martyrdom can be used in a certain broad sense of all those whose motives Christianise their death; but they cannot be called martyrs in the strict sense of the word. Certainly, we may believe that anyone who accepts death that comes to him in the discharge of duty, from some Christian motive, may immediately be admitted to Heaven. It would be very rash to disbelieve it, since Christ has said that greater love than this no man hath, that a man should lay down his life for his friend.13 One might, therefore, regard death in such circumstances as a proof of baptism of Charity or Desire of which more anon.

Is it necessary, for true martyrdom, that the motive which prompts one to give one’s life should be perfect charity or love of God? It is not. It is sufficient that one should accept death for any motive of Holy Faith, such as the fear of Hell, the hope of Heaven, and so on.

Having determined with precision what we mean by martyrdom, we must show that it is equivalent to baptism. This is put beyond doubt by the words of Christ: “He that shall lose his life for me shall find it.”14 It is also shown by the constant teaching of the Church. We find, for instance, that the cult of the Holy Innocents is of the greatest antiquity. Their feast is to be found in the Leonine Sacramentary, which is one of the oldest liturgical books we possess, and it is also found in the Gelasian Sacramentary, which is the most important of the early liturgical books of the Latin rite.

Besides, the Fathers of the Church affirm this truth in the most unmistakable way. St Cyril of Jerusalem says: “If a person has not been baptised he cannot be saved, always excepting martyrs, who receive the kingdom without water. Our Saviour, who redeemed the world through the Cross, sent forth blood and water from his pierced side; so that in time of peace men might be saved by water, and in time of persecution by their own blood.”15 St Augustine says that those who die for confessing Christ without being baptised have their sins forgiven by their death, just as much as if they had been washed in the sacred font of baptism. And if Christ said that unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost he cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, he also said: “He that shall lose his life for me shall find it.”16 St Augustine tells us, too, that he who prays for the martyrs commits an outrage against them.17 St Cyprian asks us: “Can the power of baptism be greater or stronger than the confession a man makes by confessing Christ before men, and being baptised in his own blood?”18

Martyrdom, then, is baptism. How does it compare with the Sacrament of Baptism? It is less and greater. It is less, because it is the Sacrament alone that confers the Character. It is greater, because it not only justifies the soul, but it removes — as the Sacrament does not — the possibility of the soul ever being stained again by sin, and places it in the white stole of radiant sanctity in the presence of God. The martyrs are those who have come through a great tribulation, and have washed their stoles and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.19

We have said that Charity, or Desire, as it is just as frequently called, is another form of baptism. And here, again, let us define what we mean by the word, and then show how it is equivalent to baptism.

We may say quite briefly that charity is an act of the love of God because he is infinitely good in himself, or an act of perfect contrition that is, contrition arising from the motive of the love of God. In an adult sinner charity will always imply the presence of contrition; for no sinner could love God unless he was sorry for his sin.

Now, an act of charity always and necessarily contains a desire for the Sacrament of Baptism, hence the expression Baptism of Desire. The reason why it must contain this desire is that an act of the love of God must contain a desire of conforming to his will in every way. Therefore, since it is God’s will that we should receive the Sacrament of Baptism, this act must contain the desire for baptism. But this desire may either be implicit or explicit, and each alternative requires our careful consideration.

The desire is explicit, for example, in a catechumen who is instructed in all the essential truths of faith, who is actually preparing to be baptised, and is well disposed in every way. If, however, a catechumen were well instructed, and yet his baptism had to be postponed because he was unwilling to give up something grievously sinful in his life, we could not say that he had baptism of desire, as it is evident that he has not charity.

It is implicit in anyone who makes an act of the love of God, and, through invincible ignorance, does not know of the necessity of sacramental baptism. This might happen in a country like England to people who are not baptised. They might easily know sufficient of the truths of faith to make an act of the love of God, and yet be in ignorance of the true necessity of baptism, which they would not, therefore, explicitly desire.

Might it not also happen to heathens who had never heard of Christ? It might, if we suppose that these heathens have in some way obtained the necessary minimum knowledge of Revelation, and are capable of a salutary faith and hope in God. For it is very important to understand that when we speak of charity, we do not mean just any kind of love of God above all else, such as the natural love of a creature for its Creator. Charity is essentially a love of friendship (Our Blessed Lord does not call us servants, but friends), which implies an intimate communication with God, such as is only possible in a supernatural order. The existence of this supernatural order can only be known through Revelation. Charity, therefore, cannot exist without at least the knowledge of the principal truth of Revelation, which St Paul describes for us in his Epistle to the Hebrews, when he says: “He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and is a rewarder of them that seek him.” How heathens have in some way received or can in some way receive this minimum knowledge of revealed truth it would be outside the scope of this essay to enquire.20

That charity infallibly justifies man, obtaining remission of all sin and infusion of grace, is evident from the words of Christ: “He that loveth me shall be loved of my Father; and I will love him and will manifest myself to him”21 Again: “If any one love me he will keep my word. And my Father will love him: and we will come to him and will make our abode with him”22 And again, when the lawyer answered Christ’s question, saying “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind” our Blessed Lord rejoined: “This do, and thou shalt live.”23 No portion of the Sacred Scriptures makes it clearer to us that this charity is the love of friendship than the writings of St John, who tells us once directly, and in numerous passages equivalently, that charity is of God, and every one that loveth is born of God.24

In these passages of the Sacred Scriptures there is not, as is evident, the least suggestion that there should be any explicit knowledge of the need of the Sacrament of Baptism. In patristic times we find abundant proof of the sufficiency of charity where the desire of baptism is explicit. We may quote, as an example, the famous funeral oration of St Ambrose over the Emperor Valentinian, who died as a catechumen. He says that he had heard people expressing regret that the Emperor was not baptised. He points out that the Emperor had the intention of being baptised, and had asked him, St Ambrose, to baptise him. Will he not then receive the grace which he desired and obtain what he asked for? Did he not court unpopularity on the very day before his death, by putting Christ before men on the question of the pagan temples? If he had the spirit of Christ, did he not receive the Grace of Christ? If the martyrs are cleansed in their blood, then so is he in his good-will and piety.25

Could we say that the Fathers recognised charity as equivalent to baptism where the desire for baptism was only implicit? They did not develop this point for us, with the exception of St Augustine, who may be said to have defended the sufficiency of charity without any explicit reference to baptism. In discussing the question of the salvation of the Penitent Thief, he is not altogether satisfied with St Cyprian’s contention that he died a martyr, but seems more disposed to attribute his salvation to his faith and the conversion of his heart. It is true that St Augustine afterwards expresses uncertainty about the whole question of the Penitent Thief; but, quite independently of this question, he recognises faith and the conversion of the heart as a means of justification;26 basing his argument on the text of St Paul: “For with the heart, we believe unto justice; but with the mouth, confession is made unto salvation.”27

The development of this point after St Augustine was but slow, yet always inclining towards the acceptance of charity with the implicit desire as sufficient. Today it is the opinion of all theologians. It is, of course, always understood that charity with the explicit desire exists only if there is the intention of receiving the Sacrament when possible; and that charity with the implicit desire exists only when the ignorance of the Sacrament and of its necessity is invincible and therefore inculpable.

How does charity compare with the Sacrament of Baptism? It is something less. For, though it is sufficient for justification, it does not give the Character which comes from the Sacrament, and it does not necessarily remit all debt of temporal punishment. We say it does not necessarily remit all debt of temporal punishment; but we do not deny that an act of charity might be so perfect as to secure this end as well.

To sum up: apart from martyrdom, the Sacrament of Baptism, either in reality or in desire, is necessary for salvation. Martyrdom and charity, or baptism of desire, we recognise as equivalent to baptism as regards their essential effects. Any other way of receiving justification, such as that invoked by Cajetan, we reject. Let us suppose that the State were to make some law to the effect that to obtain certain rights and privileges the taking of a certain oath were necessary. It is conceivable that these rights and privileges might be granted to people who did not take this oath because, for some excusable reason, it was not in their power to do so, but who had otherwise given indisputable and even extraordinary proof of their loyalty. On the other hand, it is not conceivable that they would receive these rights and privileges simply because they had employed some rite of their own, other than the oath which the State had sanctioned. In the same way using the example for what it is worth we recognise that Almighty God accepts the giving of one’s love and the giving of one’s life on the part of those for whom the actual reception of the Sacrament itself is not possible. But we can never admit that he would recognise some positive rite as an alternative to the law of sacramental baptism which he has sanctioned.


  1. Cf. Essay xxvii, The Sacrament of Penance, pp. 965, 967 [return]
  2. John 3:3 sq. [return]
  3. See pp. 785 ff. [return]
  4. Cont. haer. , i 22, n. 4 [return]
  5. De bapt. , 12 [return]
  6. De myst. , iv 20 [return]
  7. Cont. litt. Petil. , 1. ii, n. 232 [return]
  8. In Ioa. , tr. iv. 13 [return]
  9. In IV Sent. , I iv, dist. iv [return]
  10. In IV Sent. , I ii, dist. xxx, Q. II, art. 2, ad 5 [return]
  11. Tacitus, Annal. , 1. 15, n. 44 [return]
  12. Isaiah 53:7 [return]
  13. John 15:13 [return]
  14. Matthew 10:39 [return]
  15. Catech. 3, n. 10 [return]
  16. L. 13 de civ. Dei , c. 7 [return]
  17. Serm. 17 de verbis apost. [return]
  18. Ep. ad lubaian. , n. 21 [return]
  19. Apoc. 7:14 [return]
  20. See Essay xvii, Actual Grace, pp. 608-610 [return]
  21. John 14:21 [return]
  22. John 14:23 [return]
  23. Luke 10:27,28 [return]
  24. I John 4:7 [return]
  25. De ob. Valen, cons. , n. 51 [return]
  26. L. 4 de bapt. , c. 22 [return]
  27. Rom. x 10 [return]