R. Sungenis: In this short but detailed and comprehensive treatment of the Council of Trent’s teaching on the Baptism of Desire, John Salza shows that it is indeed a Catholic doctrine upheld by the Tradition and the Magisterium.
John Salza: First, regarding Trent, Warren knows that on a purely grammatically basis, the Latin aut could mean either “or” or “and”. He also knows that in the other instances in Trent’s teaching where “or” is used, the meaning is in fact “or” and not “and” (for example, Chapter 14 in regard to Confession, where the council says “...which is remitted together with the guilt either by the sacrament OR the desire of the sacrament...” or Canon 4 in regard to the sacraments where the council says...”without them or without the desire of them...”)
Since Warren can find no instances in Trent where he can definitively prove “or” really means “and”, he resorts to a novel contextual exegesis of Trent’s teaching on baptism where he argues there is a direct, one-to-one correspondence between Trent’s “laver of regeneration” + “desire” with John 3:5’s “water” + “Holy Ghost.” Warren claims that Trent’s “laver of regeneration” refers exclusively to John 3:5’s “water” at the exclusion of the Holy Ghost, and then says that, consequently, Trent’s “desire” (voto) must refer exclusively to John 3:5’s “Holy Ghost” (because, even though Trent is referring to man’s “desire,” the Holy Ghost is the one acting upon man’s will, which means it’s really not a direct correspondence). With this exegesis, Warren concludes that the “or” in Trent must be “and” and, as such, “desire” cannot stand alone without “water” baptism. Remember that no pope, council, saint or doctor of the Church ever advanced Warren’s argument, and there are many reasons for that.
First, one of the problems with Warren’s exegesis is that “laver of regeneration” includes both the “water” and “Spirit” of John 3:5. There is no “regeneration” without the “Holy Spirit.” When the Church uses the term “laver of regeneration,” it is referring to being born again through “water and Spirit” in the sacrament of baptism, not by water alone at the exclusion of the Holy Spirit. Hence, Warren’s conclusion is erroneous or, at best, lacking sufficient foundation to be proven.
Second, Warren fails to understand the Church’s teaching on necessity (he even accuses St Thomas of contradicting himself in his teaching on necessity, but that is because Warren doesn’t understand the different types of necessity taught by St Thomas and the Church). The three types of necessity are absolute necessity, necessity of means, and necessity of precept. The Church teaches that being “born again” is an absolute necessity for salvation (with which God cannot dispense), and that “water baptism” is a necessity of means (with which God can dispense).
We can even use John 3:5, the very verse Warren uses to advance his novel contextual exegesis, to demonstrate the same. In John 3:5, the “unless” acts directly upon “born again” and only indirectly on “water” and “Holy Ghost.” We see this in John 3:3 where Jesus says “unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” We also see Jesus referring to being born again without reference to “water” in the three verses in John 3:6,7,8 (as well as many other Scripture verses that deal with spiritual rebirth without mentioning water). In the Greek of John 3:5, the conditional ean for “unless”, or more literally “if ever”, refers directly to the aorist passive gennethe for “may be being generated” (absolute necessity), which is separated from hudatos (water) and pneumatos (Spirit) by the preposition ex (out) in reference to the necessity of means. A contextual exegesis of John 3:3-8 demonstrates that being “born again” is an absolute necessity, but the same cannot be applied to the means by which being “born again” is brought about, namely, “water,” for Jesus does not establish that connection and neither does Trent.
Third, Trent reveals the Church’s distinction between absolute necessity and necessity of means in its very teaching on Confession and the sacraments. For example, Trent teaches that sin may be forgiven either “by the sacrament [of Confession] OR the desire of the sacrament.” Here Trent is talking about one who has perfect contrition but is unable to sacramentally confess his sins. This means a spiritual “rebirth” (here, through love of God and sorrow/repentance for sins) is an absolute necessity for justification, and that the external reception of the sacrament is only a necessity of means. This also provides further evidence that the “or” in Trent’s teaching on baptism means “or” and not “and.”
If Warren concedes that one can be forgiven of sin outside of the usual means of the sacrament of Confession, which he surely does (auricular confession to a priest), then he should also concede that one can be born again outside of the usual means of the sacrament of baptism (water). In both cases, man is spared from mortal/original sin by the absolute necessity of a spiritual rebirth (interior change of heart, love of God, desire for the sacrament, repentance, etc.) and not the necessity of means (exterior reception of the sacrament). In short, perfect contrition (in the case of mortal sin/confession) and desire (in the case of original sin/baptism) can join one to the Mystical Body of Christ and bestow the effects of Christ’s Passion.
Fourth, speaking of another sacrament, Holy Communion, Jesus teaches that “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you” (John 6:54). As with John 3:5, Jesus in John 6:54 is revealing the necessity of means to achieving His life of grace. As with John 3, Jesus in John 6 requires faith in Him and a spiritual rebirth to receive His grace (e.g., v.64 it is the Spirit that quickeneth) as the absolute necessity, with His flesh and blood being only a necessity of means. If Warren were consistent in his exegesis, he would view receiving the Eucharist as an absolute necessity just like he views water baptism as an absolute necessity, for Jesus said “unless” we do both of them (be born of water and eat His flesh), we have no life in us. However, eating Christ’s flesh (the external reception of the sacrament) is only a necessity of means, just like receiving water baptism (the external reception of the sacrament) is only a necessity of means. Note also the similar Greek construction between John 6:51 and John 3:5, namely, the conditional ean “if ever” refers to the aorist active phage “may be eating.” But, again, if eating the Eucharist is only a necessity of means (Warren agrees), then the same can be said for water baptism, based on an exegesis of the Greek.
Fifth, Warren does not address the many other references to baptism of desire in Church teaching, which would have helped him correct his erroneous exegesis of Trent. For example, St Cyprian (bishop of the 3rd century) explicitly refers to baptism of desire that those catechumens who die before receiving baptism “are certainly not deprived of the sacrament of baptism” (Epistle No. 74,1). St. Ambrose (3rd century) also explicitly taught baptism of desire, specifically, that Valentinian, the catechumen who died before receiving baptism, received the effects of the sacrament through his desire: “Did he, then, not have the grace which he desired? Did he not have what he eagerly sought? Certainly, because he sought it he received it” (RJ, No. 1328). St. Augustine also teaches baptism of desire, for example, referring to Cornelius as being filled with the Holy Ghost before his baptism (De Baptismo, IV, 21,28). St. Augustine also taught baptism of desire in City of God. Many other saints also taught baptism of desire, including Gregory Nazianzen, Bernard, Albert the Great, Bonaventure, and, of course, the Universal Doctor of the Church, St Thomas Aquinas.
More importantly, Pope Innocent III explicitly taught baptism of desire. Only a few years before affirming the dogma “No Salvation Outside the Church” at Lateran Council IV, Pope Innocent wrote that a certain one “who had died without the water of baptism, because he persevered in the faith of holy mother Church and in the confession of the name of Christ, was freed from original sin and attained the joy of heavenly fatherhood” (Apostolic sedem, letter to the bishop of Cremona, Dz 388). Pope Innocent, on another occasion, also taught baptism of desire in the case of a Jew who, when at the point of death and surrounded only by Jews, immersed himself in water and baptized himself. Even though this baptism was invalid, Pope Innocent said, “If, however, such a one had died immediately, he would have rushed to his heavenly home without delay because of the faith of the sacrament, though not because of the sacrament of the Faith” (Debitum pastoralis offici, letter to the bishop of Metz, August 28, 1206, Dz 413). In other words, the Jew received the effect of the sacrament by the absolute necessity of spiritual rebirth and desire for the sacrament, even though he did not receive the necessity of means. Moreover, by referring to Sts Augustine and Ambrose and the “learned Fathers,” Pope Innocent also affirmed baptism of desire as a constant teaching of the Church.
Since Warren also acknowledges that St Thomas explicitly taught bapism of desire, and was never reproached for same (since it was always received as a constant teaching of the Church, based on the words of Scripture, the teachings of Fathers and Doctors, and Pope Innocent III), I will not repeat St Thomas’ teaching here. However, an apologist always reveals a chink in his armor when he criticizes St. Thomas and then demonstrates that he really doesn’t know what Thomas teaches (e.g., Warren’s understanding of “necessity”). Warren also claims that St. Pius X “elevated the teachings of St. Thomas in the seminaries to a height previously unknown thus detracting from those of the Doctor of Grace” (so St. Pius X “detracted” from Augustine’s teachings! And how could he when Augustine also taught baptism of desire!) Actually, St Pius X, one of the greatest popes in the history of the Church, elevated St. Thomas’ teaching not only in the seminaries but for the Church proper, by including the teaching of baptism of desire in his Catechism and canon law (see below). But Warren thinks he knows better than St. Pius X, not to mention the great saints and doctors who preceded him in teaching baptism of desire. Using Warren’s own words, “A very respectful way to blow off Pope St. Pius X!” But this comes from a man who actually also said, “There are five causes of justification taught by Trent and NONE of them have to do with the Holy Ghost.” NONE of the causes of justification have to do with the Holy Ghost?! Well, then, who justifies the sinner? Such an erroneous statement reveals the flaw of Warren’s entire hermeneutic on this matter.
It is also interesting to note that Pope Eugene IV and the Council of Florence affirmed the distinction between absolute necessity v. necessity of means in regard to baptism by quoting from St. Fulgentius’ book On Faith, to Peter where St. Fulgentius explicitly teaches baptism of blood. Moreover, the council also refers to baptism of desire in Cantate Domino by quoting verbatim St. Thomas’s teaching that “As for children, because of the danger of death, which can happen often, since no other remedy is available for them besides the sacrament of baptism...one ought not to delay the sacred baptism...” In the very next sentence, St Thomas says, “On the other hand, adults have a remedy in the mere desire for baptism...” (Summa, III, Q68, Art 3). In other words, the Council of Florence acknowledges the “other remedy” for adults which is baptism of desire. These teachings, coupled with the teachings of Trent, so strongly favor baptism of desire that St. Alphonsus Liguori, a doctor of the Church, said that “it is de fide that there are some men saved by baptism of desire.”
As if the foregoing were not enough to prove baptism of desire and the error of Warren’s exegesis, the Catechism of Trent says in regard to adult baptism, “should any unforeseen accident make it impossible for adults to be washed in the salutary waters [JS: necessity of means], their intention and determination to receive Baptism and their repentance for past sins [JS: absolute necessity], will avail them to grace and righteousness” (p.179). Obviously, the Catechism of Trent, which is the official interpretation of the council of Trent’s teachings, affirms my position that the “or” means “or” and explicitly rejects Warren’s position that the “or” means “and.”
The Catechism of St. Pius X also teaches baptism of desire: “Question: Can the absence of Baptism be supplied in any other way? Answer: 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” (Instauratio Press, p.71). St. Pius X also had baptism of desire defined in canon law which was promulgated by Pope Benedict XV. Canon 737.1 says “Baptism, the door and foundation of the Sacraments, in fact or at least in desire necessary unto salvation for all is not validly conferred except through the ablution of true and natural water with the prescribed form of words.” Moreover, while canon 1239.1 prohibits those who died without baptism from receiving ecclesiastical burial, canon 1239.2 states: “The catechumens who with no fault of their own die without baptism, should be treated as the baptized” (emphasis added).
In summary, Warren confuses the necessity of means with absolute necessity and hence makes the means (water) the end (grace). Warren also confuses the interior (spiritual) union with the Mystical Body with the exterior (material) means of the sacrament to achieve that end. Warren probably thinks that baptism of desire somehow compromises the Church’s teaching “No Salvation outside the Church.” But it clearly does not, as those who are joined to the Mystical Body are obviously members of the Church. Baptism of desire is not some modernist heresy like, for example, the salvation of those who are ignorant of Christ and His Church. Those who are baptized by desire are not invincibly ignorant, but have been brought out of their ignorance by “divine light and grace” as taught by Blessed Pius IX. I hope this helps you see that God can bypass the means He has established to achieve the end that He wills (for the Church has never declared that all the elect receive water baptism). This teaching comes from some of the great popes, saints and doctors of the Church.