Question: What is "Baptism of Desire"? A traditional priest told me that it is just an invention of the Modernists to prepare Catholics for the religious indifferentism of Vatican II.
Answer: "Baptism of Desire" is a legitimate concept in traditional Catholic theology, as long as the concept is properly understood. The priest in question was most likely speaking about the ways in which this proper understanding has been distorted by the Modernists into a sort of salvation for all who think happy thoughts (and, perhaps, even for those who don't).
By "Baptism of Desire," Catholics understand that a person who has received the divinely given virtue of faith, and who decides to receive the Sacrament of Baptism in the normal manner in the timeframe prescribed for converts by the Church, but who is cut short by death, will not suffer the pains of eternal damnation. St. Thomas Aquinas calls this the "Baptism of the Holy Ghost":
a man receives the effects of Baptism by the power of the Holy Ghost ... forasmuch as his heart is moved by the Holy Ghost to believe in and love God and to repent of his sins: wherefore this is also called the Baptism of Repentance.1
The possibility of Baptism of desire is mentioned three times by the Council of Trent. It occurs first in the Decree "On Justification," rendered at the sixth session (13 January 1547):
Chapter IV: In which words is given a brief description of the justification of the sinner, as being a translation from that state in which 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. This translation, however cannot, since the promulgation of the Gospel, be effected except through the laver of regeneration or its desire, as it is written "Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost...."
Again, in the seventh session, (3 March 1547) in the canons "On the Sacraments in General":
Canon 4. If anyone says that the Sacraments of the New Law are not necessary for salvation but are superfluous, and that without them or without the desire of them men obtain from God through faith alone the grace of justification, though all are not necessary for each one, let him be anathema.
And, also in the Catechism of the Council of Trent (Pars II, Caput II, No. 36):
... it is nevertheless not customary for the Church to confer the Sacrament of Baptism on men immediately, but rather at fixed times appointed for this. For the delay is not a danger as is said it would be over a child, for those with the use of reason, the resolution and plan of receiving Baptism and the full repentance for the bad acts of life endows them with grace and justice if suddenly some misfortune impedes so that they are not able to be washed with the saving water. On the contrary, this delay appears to bring forth some usefulness ....
Normally ecumenical councils are called when some heresy is flourishing, in order to define true Catholic doctrine. At Trent, the emphasis was on refuting the errors of the Protestants who seemed to be saying that salvation came through faith alone. Thus, Trent defined the necessity of Baptism, and of water in its sacramental conferral. Other than the citations above, Trent did not take up the long standing doctrine of the Church that while sacramental Baptism with water was the normal method of justification and entrance into the Church, non-sacramental martyrdom or desire for Baptism sufficed when Baptism with water was impossible before death.
The Council Fathers were aware of the words of our Lord Himself to the thief who hung beside Him on the cross, who received no water and was not a martyr: "This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise" (Luke xxiii: 43).
The non-sacramental Baptisms of blood and desire were taught by many of the great authorities of the Church:
St. Ambrose in On the death of Valentinian, 51.
St. Augustine in On Baptism and in The City of God, 13:7.
St. Thomas in the Summa III, Q. 66, A. 12; Q. 68, A. 2.
Pope Innocent II, Denzinger #388 (#741 in newer editions).
Pope innocent III, Denzinger #413 (#788).
That the desire for Baptism may be "implicit" is taught by Pope Pius IX in Singulari quadem Denzinger #1646-1648 and in Quanto conficiamur moerore Denzinger #1677 (#2865).
Pope Pius X in his Catechism (section on Baptism).
It is sometimes objected that Trent spoke of "justification" and not "salvation," leaving something missing. This objection, if it were valid (it is not) would repudiate not only Baptism of Desire, but also the salvation of infants who died after Baptism with water. In the normal scheme of things there is not only a difference between justification and salvation; there is also a fair amount of time between the two. One is born in original sin, receives the gift of faith, repents, desires baptism, is baptized (probably falls from grace, repents, confesses and is absolved -- this step may be repeated!), grows in grace and good works, perseveres in grace, ultimately dying in grace and receiving salvation. (Purgatory may intervene between death and Heaven.)
As Trent pointed out, "A person who has the Catholic Faith can attain the state of Justification if that person receives the Sacraments or has the resolve to receive them." In the case of the non-baptized person with the use of reason, he has passed through the steps before Baptism and intends to receive the Sacrament. In the case of one who sins after Baptism, he has repented, has contrition because his sin offends God, and intends to make a sacramental Confession. In both cases, the individual is justified by his cooperation with God's graces and intent to receive the appropriate Sacrament. Yet, in both cases the person must still receive the Sacrament before going on in the life of the Church.
Christ instituted Baptism and Penance; it is His intent that we receive them. Through His operation the graces of these Sacraments never fail to be effective (we can rely on Him and not our subjective reactions to Him). And, as outward signs, the Sacraments give a public character to our membership in the Body of Christ or our reunion with It.
Justification is not salvation. It is the state in which the "original Justice" of Adam is restored in a person.2 While not conveying the preternatural graces of Adam, Justification makes us radically holy and capable of doing the things necessary to salvation, including the reception of the Sacraments. Being in the state of Justice means the possession of God's created grace, which goes by the various names of justifying, habitual, or sanctifying grace.
Under normal circumstances God expects those who have been justified to receive the Sacraments in question. Of course, the justified person wants to cooperate with God's will in the matter.
The question of baptism of desire arises in the case of one who has been justified, as Trent says, by the "resolve" to receive the Sacrament -- but whose life is cut short before it is possible to do so. Such a person is in the state of grace. To quote Trent, he has been translated "to the state of grace and of the adoption of the sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior." (Session Six, Chapter IV) To deny this possibility is to deny the efficacy of God's grace.
Both before and after Trent it has been the teaching of the Church that such a person is taken to heaven, receiving a non-sacramental baptism of desire. Trent did not deal with the matter explicitly because there was no need to do so, the belief being already firmly established, and because it was concerned with refuting the claims of the Protestants about how things should be done in the normal approach to salvation.
Of the Popes mentioned above, all, with the possible exception of Innocent II, have said something to the effect that "there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church." Yet all of them, and some times in the next breath, have expressed the possibility of Baptism of Desire. There is no conflict between the two concepts. Perhaps they have not defined the exact mechanism by which this can be, but, again, theological formulations usually come about only in response to some need. While Baptism of Desire does not of itself confer membership in the Church Militant, the catechumen has been justified by his faith in what the Church has taught him, and has placed himself under Its jurisdiction. He is not "outside the Catholic Church," and, indeed, the reason that his Baptism was postponed is usually because the Church authorities to whom he is subject require a period of training and testing.
One can be said to have received Baptism of Desire only after dying in the state of God's justifying grace. Baptism of Desire is not a substitute for normal Baptism where it is possible, and a person surviving a near-fatal illness must seek Sacramental Baptism. Only Sacramental Baptism imparts the "character" on the soul that make it capable of receiving the other Sacraments.3 The Sacraments of the Living (Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders, and Matrimony) cannot be received by desire because all of them refer to something external to the recipient. Baptism and Penance, called the Sacraments of the Dead, can be received by desire because they refer to internal faculties of the soul -- Baptism to the intellect, being the Sacrament of faith; and Penance to the will, being the Sacrament of repentance, presuming faith.
Perhaps the most controversial statements about Baptism of desire are found in Pope Pius IX's concept of "implicit desire," in which even the pagan who attempts to keep the natural law to the best of his ability is said to desire Baptism implicitly (if he is invincibly ignorant of the need to be a member of the Catholic Church, even if he has never heard of Baptism). The nature of Pope Pius' pronouncements (referenced above) is such that the concept of "implicit desire" ought to be respected by the faithful but remains a proper object for discussion by theologians.4 We can only hope that the current state of theological disorganization will some day be resolved, so that such discussion will, once again, be trustworthy and useful.
An underlying presumption of Baptism of Desire (a fortiori if the desire is "implicit") is that the person unable to receive normal Baptism ardently desires to please God in the belief and practice of the Catholic Faith (or as best he knows how through natural reason in the case of "implicit" desire) -- it is sometimes referred to as Baptism of Flame. One is not saved by mere ignorance of the truth, because, in some measure, the truth can always be found through natural reason and the graces which God extends to men. Even in the state of nature man can approximate to a knowledge of God, the seeking of good, and the avoidance of evil -- but this requires effort and sincerity on the part of the individual.
Author's note: The text in color was added to the original to clarify points about which additional questions have been received.
1. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III: Q. 66, A. 11.