The following post is excerpted and adapted from my book:
Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone
Now when, in Roman Catholic salvation theology, we refer to “unbaptized children” or “unbaptized infants”, we mean those who have not received baptism with water, i.e. the formal Sacrament of Baptism. But it would be the heresy of Feeneyism to say that formal baptism with water is the only type of baptism. The Church teaches that one may enter the state of sanctifying grace by a baptism of desire or by a baptism of blood. These non-formal baptisms are not the Sacrament, but they confer the state of grace, which is absolutely necessary for salvation. And so we must consider whether unbaptized little children can obtain a baptism of desire or of blood.
At the end of the previous chapter, I concluded that those youngest children who do not yet have use of reason and free will, or who have only a very limited use of reason and free will, cannot obtain a baptism of desire. For no one can desire what he does not know. And a baptism of desire requires a full cooperation with grace, including a relatively full use of reason and free will.
As Pope Pius XII has succinctly stated: “An act of love is sufficient for the adult to obtain sanctifying grace and to supply the lack of baptism. But to the as yet unborn and to the newborn, this way is not open.” [Address to Midwives, n. 21a]
However, an older unbaptized child might possibly obtain a baptism of desire. As the ability to use reason and to exercise free will increases with childhood development, the child may soon realize that there are goods in this world that are worthy of a full choice of will and intellect, such as love, truth, mercy, forgiveness, and more. It is not clear at how early an age this type of implicit baptism of desire might occur, or how often it occurs. But we must admit that the possibility increases as the child ages.
I recall a story told by a priest in a sermon at Mass many years ago. There was a boy who was very ill, and he had a rare blood type. Donors were scarce, and so the doctors had to ask the family if his younger sister could donate some blood. The parents carefully explained the situation to the girl, and when they thought that she had understood, they asked if she would be willing to give some of her blood to her brother. She agreed. The procedure to donate some blood was completed, and then they asked the girl if she had any questions. She had only one question: “When do I die?” She thought, by agreeing to give her blood to her brother, that he would live and she would die. And yet she consented.
Children can be surprisingly loving and caring at a young age. So while we cannot attribute a baptism of desire to a prenatal or an infant, we should not be so quick to discount the possibility as the child grows and develops a better understanding. A baptism of desire is not beyond the realm of possibility for some children.
Prenatals and Salvation
But now let’s consider the case of the unborn child, i.e. the prenatal. A baptism of desire is not possible, due to a wholly insufficient use of reason and free will. And baptism with water cannot be performed, since the water of baptism must flow across the skin. The Church has always baptized infants. The Church has never even attempted to baptize prenatals in the womb. The only possible baptism for prenatals is a baptism of blood.
First, consider the teaching of Pope Pius IX:
“Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.” [Quanto Conficiamur Moerore, n. 7.]
The prenatal who dies in the womb is certainly not guilty of any deliberate sin. Therefore, this papal encyclical teaches that prenatals who die in the womb do not suffer eternal punishment.
Second, consider that two Ecumenical Councils have infallibly taught that those persons who die in a state of “original sin only” are punished in Hell forever. [Second Council of Lyons, Denzinger, n. 464; Florence, Sixth Session, 6 July 1439.] Their punishments are less than the other souls in Hell, but the Church still calls them punishments, and these punishments continue forever. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that:
“The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1035.]
The souls who die in a state of “original sin alone” are sent to the limbo of Hell, where they have the punishment of eternal separation from God, but not the active sufferings given to other souls in Hell. So the souls in the limbo of Hell are punished eternally with the chief punishment of Hell: the deprivation of Heaven.
These two teachings together imply that prenatals who die in the womb cannot die without some form of baptism. For then they would die in a state of original sin only and be punished in Hell. But the Magisterium teaches that no one is punished in Hell unless they are guilty of deliberate sin (specifically, actual mortal sin). The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches this same point:
“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.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1037.]
With no possibility for a baptism of desire or a baptism of water, if no baptism of blood were granted by God, then the prenatal who dies in the womb would have no possibility of salvation. The providence of God, in permitting deaths in the womb, would have condemned those innocent souls to Hell by a type of predestination. But the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that this is not the case. No one is predestined to Hell.
Prenatals who die in the womb have not committed any deliberate sin, much less a mortal sin. So they cannot be sent to Hell, not even to the limbo of Hell, where those souls are punished who died in a state of original sin alone. What is the deliberate sin committed by the souls who die in original sin only? It is the actual mortal sin of omission of never having found sanctifying grace in this life despite ample opportunity. But prenatals had no opportunity to obtain sanctifying grace by desire, nor by formal Baptism with water. And so God does not permit them to die without the state of grace.
Therefore, God grants, to all prenatals who die in the womb, a baptism of blood by Christ before death. There is no other possibility.
For there is no limbo as a third final destination (as I concluded in the chapter on limbo). The only two final destinations are Heaven and Hell. The Magisterium teaches that God does not send anyone to Hell unless they are guilty of deliberate sin, specifically actual mortal sin. Prenatals are not guilty of any deliberate sin. And the Magisterium teaches that God has decided to offer salvation to all souls in a way that makes that salvation concretely available to all. [Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, n. 10.] So all prenatals who die in the womb must be given sanctifying grace prior to death by a baptism of blood.
The temporary place called Purgatory has a limbo (a fringe). Hell has a limbo (a fringe) for those who are given the least punishment. But a prenatal who dies in the womb does not deserve Hell. There is no other final resting place for them but Heaven. I suggest that they might be sent to the limbo of Purgatory first, to receive the development that they were denied in this life. There they learn about Christ and accept Him by the work of sanctifying grace in their souls and by cooperation with actual graces. Then they enter eternal life in Heaven.