Rachel Lu on baptism

Rachel Lu wrote an article for Crisis magazine (a Catholic publication). The article is titled: We Are Not All Children of God. Lu correctly states that we become adopted children of God by baptism. But as the article unfolds, it seems as if by “baptism” she means only the formal Sacrament.

Lu says: “Only after we are formally received into God’s family can we declare ourselves his children….. We really do need to make the distinction, however, because without it we lose sight of the tremendous importance of this sacrament.”

I asked her for a clarification on this point, via Twitter. I wrote: “Did you mean to say that only persons who are formally baptized (with water) are children of God, and no one else?” And she replied, simply: “Yes”.

But then, over the course of several more tweets, she clarified that she did not mean to exclude persons who receive a baptism of desire from adoption as children of God. So I have now emended this post and my previous post on the topic.

Originally I said her position, stated in her article, was a heresy in that it rejected the adoption as children of God by a baptism of desire. Now she has admitted that those receiving a baptism of desire are also children of God. But there was no mention of the baptism of desire in her article, and no one was said to receive said adoption except the formally baptized. So the article, as it stands, is still an assertion of material heresy, in that it omits any way to become a child of God other than formal baptism.

Her original article, despite her assertions via Twitter, errs gravely by not allowing for adoption as children of God by baptism of desire. I think it is also clear, from her initial response on Twitter, than Rachel Lu had no idea that a person could become an adopted child of God by any way other than formal baptism with water.

In my first reply to her article, I pointed out the grave error of this position: Are we all children of God?. The Council of Trent infallibly taught that, since the promulgation of the Gospel, we become children of God “by the laver of regeneration,” which is baptism with water, “or the desire thereof.” Laver means washing and regeneration refers to our spiritual rebirth by baptism.

Council of Trent: “By which words, a description of the Justification of the impious is indicated, — as being a translation, from that state wherein man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior. And this translation, since the promulgation of the Gospel, cannot be effected, without the laver of regeneration, or the desire thereof, as it is written; unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.” [Sixth Session, Decree on Justification, Chapter IV]

Does the above-quoted passage from Sacred Scripture, on being born again of water and the Spirit, imply that only the formal Sacrament of baptism with water saves? No, it does not. For the Magisterium is the authoritative interpreter of Scripture. And when the Magisterium teaches infallibly, as at the Council of Trent, that interpretation is a required belief. Whosoever says otherwise rejects the teaching of Christ in Scripture.

So the infallible teaching of the Magisterium is that everyone who has entered the state of grace by any form of baptism — not solely formal baptism with water, but also a baptism of desire — is an adopted child of God.

To say otherwise would wrongly imply that devout Jews and devout Muslims are not children of God. But in truth, all who are in the state of grace, including non-Christians, are children of God.

Saint Thomas Aquinas discusses the interesting case of a catechumenate preparing for baptism. A catechumenate can enter the state of grace by baptism of desire, prior to formal baptism:

“man receives the forgiveness of sins before Baptism in so far as he has Baptism of desire, explicitly or implicitly; and yet when he actually receives Baptism, he receives a fuller remission, as to the remission of the entire punishment. So also before Baptism, Cornelius [of Acts 10:1-2] and others like him receive grace and virtues through their faith in Christ and their desire for Baptism, implicit or explicit: but afterwards when baptized, they receive a yet greater fullness of grace and virtues.” [Summa Theologica III, 69, 4.]

The baptism of desire can be implicit or explicit. A person receives a baptism of desire explicitly, by consciously desiring the sacrament itself. A person receives a baptism of desire implicitly, by “an act of love” — as Pope Pius XII explains in Address to Midwives (21a) — “An act of love is sufficient for the adult to obtain sanctifying grace and to supply the lack of baptism.” More on baptism of desire and baptism of blood in my post here.

The Magisterium teaches that any form of baptism makes one an adopted child of God. This teaching is clear from the dogmas of the Council of Trent, and from the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium on the three forms of baptism: the formal Sacrament (baptism with water), baptism of desire (implicit or explicit), and baptism of blood.

So anyone who receives any type of baptism, at any time, thereby enters the state of grace and becomes an adopted child of God. And since we poor fallen sinners can only enter the state of grace by some form of baptism, every human person in the state of grace is a child of God — including Jews, Muslims, other believers, and non-believers such as agnostics or atheists (if/when they enter the state of grace).

Pope Francis made some relevant comments on adoption as children of God in a recent sermon:

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class. We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all. And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: We need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: We will meet one another there.”

Rachel Lu’s position on baptism, as understood from her article emended by her comments on Twitter, allows for adoption by a baptism of desire, but only very narrowly. She wrote (across several tweets):

“Baptism of desire is a funny gray area. Not saying it doesn’t exist, but it’s traditionally understood to be exceptional. Your assumption that it covers Muslims, Jews, probably a myriad of other people is… highly debatable. Baptism by water is clearly understood to be the main gate.”

“Baptism *is* necessary to be a child of God; I did not declare that water baptism is the only possible kind. *When you asked about it* I specifically did not reject the possibility of baptism of desire. My column did not reject it either. And your interpretation of baptism of desire is *very* generous. That is highly questionable, far from settled doctrine.”

I asked her: “Do you agree that many non-Christians are children of God, despite lacking formal baptism? What about devout Jews and Muslims?”

Her reply was: “We don’t know. Safer to assume most are not.”

So now her tweets add an additional doctrinal error. The narrowing of the offer and availability of salvation in the case of non-Christians, by narrowing the availability of non-formal baptism (i.e. by desire or by blood). Baptized Christians are children of God. Good and true. But what about devout Jews and devout Muslims? She says “we” don’t know if they are children of God, that is, we don’t know if they have received a baptism of desire. Well, certainly, in any individual case we cannot know; the individual himself cannot be sure.

But how can any Christian claim that anyone who devoutly worships God does not receive a baptism of desire? The very definition of the term would require it. Here are some teachings from the Magisterium on this subject:

Pope Pius IX in the encyclical Quanto Conficiamur Moerore:

“There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. 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.”

A person can only be sent to eternal punishment in Hell by deliberate sin, and, as Pope Benedict XII taught in On the Beatific Vision of God (1336), that sin must be “actual mortal sin”. So non-Christians do not go to Hell for refusing, out of invincible ignorance, a formal Baptism into the Christian Faith.

Pope Pius IX Singulari Quadam:

“For, it must be held by faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church, no one can be saved; that this is the only ark of salvation; that he who shall not have entered therein will perish in the flood; but, on the other hand, it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, are not stained by any guilt in this matter in the eyes of God.”

Persons who receive an implicit baptism of desire are non-formal members of the Church; they can be saved by the same Ark of Salvation as all Christians can be saved.

The Catechism of Pope Saint Pius X:

The Creed, Ninth Article, The Church in Particular: 29
“Q. But if a man through no fault of his own is outside the Church, can he be saved? A. If he is outside the Church through no fault of his, that is, if he is in good faith, and if he has received Baptism, or at least has the implicit desire of Baptism; and if, moreover, he sincerely seeks the truth and does God’s will as best he can such a man is indeed separated from the body of the Church, but is united to the soul of the Church and consequently is on the way of salvation”

Baptism, Necessity of Baptism and Obligations of the Baptized: 17
“Q. Can the absence of Baptism be supplied in any other way? A. The absence of Baptism can be supplied by martyrdom, which is called Baptism of Blood, or by an act of perfect love of God, or of contrition, along with the desire, at least implicit, of Baptism, and this is called Baptism of Desire.”

Letter of the Holy Office to Archbishop Cushing of Boston, approved by Pope Pius XII, August 8, 1949: “The Supreme Pontiff, His Holiness, Pope Pius XII, has given full approval to this decision”.

“Therefore, that one may obtain eternal salvation, it is not always required that he be incorporated into the Church actually as a member, but it is necessary that at least he be united to her by desire and longing. However, this desire need not always be explicit, as it is in catechumens; but when a person is involved in invincible ignorance God accepts also an implicit desire, so called because it is included in that good disposition of soul whereby a person wishes his will to be conformed to the will of God. These things are clearly taught in that dogmatic letter which was issued by the Sovereign Pontiff, Pope Pius XII, on June 29, 1943, “On the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ” (AAS, Vol. 35, an. 1943, p. 193 ff.). For in this letter the Sovereign Pontiff clearly distinguishes between those who are actually incorporated into the Church as members, and those who are united to the Church only by desire.”

Pope Saint John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio:

“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.”

Rachel Lu’s narrow application of a baptism of desire is incompatible with the universality of salvation taught by Pope Saint John Paul II. If salvation is indeed “concretely available to all”, then the billions of non-Christians in the world must have non-formal baptism available to them broadly, not narrowly.

Pope Saint John Paul II, All Salvation Comes Through Christ, General Audience, May 31, 1995:

‘Since Christ brings about salvation through his Mystical Body, which is the Church, the way of salvation is connected essentially with the Church. The axiom extra ecclesiam nulla salus” — “outside the Church there is no salvation” — stated by St. Cyprian (Epist. 73, 21; PL 1123 AB), belongs to the Christian tradition. It was included in the Fourth Lateran Council (DS 802), in the Bull Unam Sanctam of Boniface VIII (DS 870) and the Council of Florence (Decretum pro Jacobitis, DS 1351). The axiom means that for those who are not ignorant of the fact that the Church has been established as necessary by God through Jesus Christ, there is an obligation to enter the Church and remain in her in order to attain salvation (cf. LG 14). For those, however, who have not received the Gospel proclamation, as I wrote in the Encyclical Redemptoris Missio, salvation is accessible in mysterious ways, inasmuch as divine grace is granted to them by virtue of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, without external membership in the Church, but nonetheless always in relation to her (cf. RM 10). 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. It is also mysterious in itself, because it is linked to the saving mystery of grace, which includes an essential reference to the Church the Savior founded.’

The dogma “outside the Church, there is no salvation” cannot be used to deny an implicit baptism of desire. Some persons attain membership in the Church, implicitly (“without external membership”), even though they “outwardly reject her”. Their baptism must be implicit, since they reject the Church (out of invincible ignorance). Notice the broad applicability of a baptism of desire in the teachings of Pope Saint John Paul II. Even if you outwardly reject the Church or Christianity, you can still be saved.

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

This love need not be an explicit love of God; it can be a selfless love of neighbor. For all love of neighbor is implicitly a love of God and a desire to be united with God, which only occurs by baptism. Again, we see that the path of salvation by a baptism of desire is widely available.

[1 John]
{4:20} If anyone says that he loves God, but hates his brother, then he is a liar. For he who does not love his brother, whom he does see, in what way can he love God, whom he does not see?
{4:21} And this is the commandment that we have from God, that he who loves God must also love his brother.

If you love your neighbor, you implicitly love God. And if you love God and neighbor, then you are in the state of grace.

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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6 Responses to Rachel Lu on baptism

  1. Patrick says:

    I think many Catholics have difficulty finding that salvation exists for non-catholics because they believe that if we accept this doctrine somehow this dilutes our own faith as something that’s merely relative, optional and not the whole truth, etc. But this is not the case as cited by Saint JPII.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The easiest and surest path to heaven is to believe and live the Catholic Faith. The further one gets from the fullness of truth in Catholicism, the more difficult and dimly lit the path. So non-Christians and non-believers can be saved, but in no way does this diminish the advantages of the Catholic Faith.

  2. Rico says:

    From the Discourse on the Bread of Life in John 6:

    {6:54} And so, Jesus said to them: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you.
    {6:55} Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
    {6:56} For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.
    {6:57} Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
    {6:58} Just as the living Father has sent me and I live because of the Father, so also whoever eats me, the same shall live because of me.
    {6:59} This is the bread that descends from heaven. It is not like the manna that your fathers ate, for they died. Whoever eats this bread shall live forever.”

    If baptism by desire opens the gate wider for non-Catholics to be saved, the partaking of the Eucharist seems to narrow the opening at the gate. It is a fact that not every Catholic who partakes of it believes that it is indeed the flesh and blood of the Lord. Saint Paul himself told the Corinthians that many of them became ill and sick because they partook unworthily, not discerning the Lord’s body (1 Corinthians 11:30). In this sacrament, it seems that ignorance of its true significance is not an excuse to commit sacrilege.

    Thus, if baptized Catholics who commit sacrilege ignorantly (by partaking of the Eucharist when they should not) can be denied eternal life, how much more can the unbaptized, or those who are batized only with desire, but consciously refuse the Eucharist? How then can they have eternal life?

    • Ron Conte says:

      The Magisterium is the authoritative interpreter of Scripture. Certainly, any sacrilege is a grave sin which could cause the loss of salvation if it is, in the end, an unrepented actual mortal sin. But the Church has never taught that anyone who refuses the Eucharist is lost. The teaching is that only unrepented actual mortal sin condemns to Hell (CCC 1037). Those who are invincibly ignorant of the requirement to receive Communion as part of the path of salvation, do not commit an actual mortal sin by that refusal.

  3. Rico says:

    If the Church has not taught that refusal of the Eucharist by the invincibly ignorant can lead to hell, does this mean that the doctrine is open for speculation? To me (and I speak only for myself), there seems to be a gap between “eternal life” and “hell” for which I don’t have a theological name to call it. “Eternal life” means you have to be in full communion with Christ, and the Eucharist (to me) is a sacrament to reach that fullness. “Hell” means you have totally lost that communion by an unrepented mortal sin. Between “eternal life” and “hell” are souls who neither qualify for both. For example, unbaptized infants. For ages, church theologians have speculated on their fate, but finally the CDF has spoken and stated that there is salvation for them although the path “is not revealed”. The other souls who fall into this gap are those who have died without hearing the true gospel, ie, those innumerable pagans whose lands we’re not yet reached by Catholic missionaries before they died. In some ways, their case is like the unbaptized infants, except that they would have acquired some notion of good and evil because of age.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Your understanding of salvation theology is seriously disordered. It is not in agreement with sound Catholic theology, nor with magisterial teaching on the subject. See my book: Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone. You need to study salvation theology at length, and give up your preconceived notions on the subject.

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