Baptism of Desire and the Council of Trent
An Open Letter to Br. André MICM
We present a brief summary of why the teaching of the Council of Trent is not contrary to the doctrine of baptism of desire. Feeneyites tend to misuse Trent more than any other source to deny the doctrine so it is important to be clear about why they are wrong about it.
This is an open letter to Br. André who is the prior of the “Feeneyite” Saint Benedict Center in New Hampshire and the nominated successor of the present head of that group. I challenge André to address these issues publicly and to link to this essay from his reply so that his readers can read both sides; I will link to his reply from this essay.
It will be observed that I have avoided going into any personal issues and I implore André to focus purely on the theological issues without any ad hominem distractions. The issue here is purely whether the teaching of the Council of Trent supports their denial of baptism of desire as they have long given Catholics to believe.
21st August 2006
Trent must be read carefully and it is read preferably with reference to the teaching of Aquinas
It will suffice for us to read Trent carefully and logically in order to see how the Feeneyites misrepresent its teaching.
But it is very helpful to read Trent with reference to the teaching of Aquinas. His Summa Theologica was placed on the altar at Trent alongside the Bible. We shall see that Trent’s teaching on baptism of desire is quite in keeping with his.
In particular, we will need to understand what Trent meant when it said that a sacrament is “necessary for salvation”.
The necessity of the sacraments
Trent told us that baptism is “necessary for salvation”. Aquinas explains that it is necessary “at least in desire”.
“Objection: the sacrament of Baptism is necessary for salvation. Now that is necessary “without which something cannot be” (Aristotle’s Metaphysics V). Therefore it seems that none can obtain salvation without Baptism. Reply: THE SACRAMENT OF BAPTISM IS SAID TO BE NECESSARY FOR SALVATION IN SO FAR AS THERE CAN BE NO SALVATION FOR MAN UNLESS HE AT LEAST HAVE IT IN DESIRE WHICH, WITH GOD, COUNTS FOR THE DEED.” (Summa Theologica 3, 68, 2)
That is, a sacrament that is “necessary for salvation” may be received unto salvation “actually or in desire”.
“Moreover, the SACRAMENTS of grace are ordained in order that man may receive the infusion of grace, and before HE RECEIVES THEM, EITHER ACTUALLY OR IN HIS DESIRE, he does not receive grace. This is evident in the case of Baptism, and applies to penance likewise.” (Summa Theologica, Supplement 6, 1)
Trent used the phrase “necessary for salvation” about the sacrament of penance too and we all admit that one can be saved by desiring to confess if one has perfect contrition and cannot actually confess.
Trent: “And this SACRAMENT OF PENANCE is, for those who have fallen after baptism, NECESSARY FOR SALVATION, AS BAPTISM ITSELF IS for those who have not as yet been regenerated.” (Denz. 895)
This alone is sufficient to refute Feeneyites when they claim that it is proof that no one can be saved without water baptism simply because Trent said that baptism is “necessary for salvation”.
Sacraments received through desire
Although the sacrament of penance is “necessary for salvation”, it may be received unto salvation “in desire” as well as “actually”.
Trent: “Whence it is to be taught, that the penitence of a Christian, after his fall, is very different from that at (his) baptism; and that therein are included not only a cessation from sins, and a detestation thereof, or, a contrite and humble heart, but also THE SACRAMENTAL CONFESSION OF THE SAID SINS, AT LEAST IN DESIRE [saltem in voto], and to be made in its season, and sacerdotal absolution and likewise satisfaction by fasts, alms, prayers, and the other pious exercises of a spiritual life; not indeed for the eternal punishment,-which is, together with the guilt, REMITTED, EITHER BY THE SACRAMENT, OR BY THE DESIRE OF THE SACRAMENT,-but for the temporal punishment, which, as the sacred writings teach, is not always wholly remitted, as is done in baptism.” (Denz 807)
Trent: “The Synod teaches moreover, that, although it sometimes happen that this CONTRITION IS PERFECT through charity, and reconciles man with God BEFORE THIS SACRAMENT BE ACTUALLY RECEIVED, the said reconciliation, nevertheless, is not to be ascribed to that contrition, independently of THE DESIRE OF THE SACRAMENT which is included therein.” (Denz. 898)
Aquinas likewise, as we have seen.
“Moreover, the SACRAMENTS of grace are ordained in order that man may receive the infusion of grace, and before HE RECEIVES THEM, EITHER ACTUALLY OR IN HIS DESIRE, he does not receive grace. This is evident in the case of Baptism, and applies to PENANCE likewise.” (Summa Theologica, Supplement 6, 1)
Trent told us that the sacrament of the Eucharist can be received in desire, too.
Trent: “Now as to the use of this holy SACRAMENT [of the Eucharist], the Fathers have rightly and wisely distinguished THREE WAYS OF RECEIVING IT. For they have taught that some receive it SACRAMENTALLY ONLY, to wit sinners; OTHERS SPIRITUALLY ONLY, those to wit who EATING IN DESIRE [voto] that heavenly bread which is set before them, are, by a lively faith which worketh by charity, made sensible of the fruit and usefulness thereof; whereas the third (class) receive it both SACRAMENTALLY AND SPIRITUALLY, and these are they who so prove and prepare themselves beforehand, as to approach to this divine table clothed with the wedding garment.” (Denz. 881)
Trent: “In another way one may eat Christ spiritually, as He is under the sacramental species, inasmuch as a man believes in Christ, WHILE DESIRING TO RECEIVE THIS SACRAMENT; and this is NOT MERELY TO EAT CHRIST SPIRITUALLY, BUT LIKEWISE TO EAT THIS SACRAMENT.” (Summa Theologica 3, 80, 2)
Moreover, Trent can be read to tell us that baptism too, may be received “in desire”.
Trent: “And this translation [to the state of justification], since the promulgation of the Gospel, cannot be EFFECTED, WITHOUT THE LAVER OF REGENERATION, AT LEAST IN THE DESIRE THEREOF [aut eius voto], as it is written; “unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.”” (Denz. 796)
That sentence is usually translated as “baptism or its desire”, though either translation is literal and makes the point. The Latin “aut” means simply “at least” as well as “or”, and the ablative “eius voto” can mean “(in/ by)” its desire. We feel this is a fair reading, because it is literal, it is just what Trent said about the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist and it is the teaching of Aquinas as we have just seen, which Trent reflected throughout its discussions of the sacraments.
Regardless of which reading one follows, it is generally admitted that one can receive the grace of baptism through desire, which is the forgiveness of sins and the infusion of the grace of justification with God. That is what is meant by “receive in desire” in any case.
Feeneyites are wont to reply that even so none can be saved without water baptism because one is added to the Church – outside of which no one is saved – only through the baptismal character that is impressed on the soul only in water baptism; but Trent never said that and, as we shall see soon, it rather taught that one is incorporated into the Church through the grace of justification.
We can see the concept of implicit desire at Trent too.
Aquinas tells us that baptism can be received “in desire” when the desire is “implicit”.
“Man receives the forgiveness of sins before baptism in so far as he has BAPTISM IN 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 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 3, 69, 4)
He gave the definition of “implicit” as when something is “contained” in something else.
“Properly speaking, that is called IMPLICIT in which many things are CONTAINED AS IN ONE, and that is called explicit in which each of the things is considered in itself.” (Of Truth 14, 11)
We can see Trent employ this definition of implicit desire with reference to the reception of the sacrament of confession through desire.
Trent: “The Synod teaches moreover, that, although it sometimes happen that this CONTRITION IS PERFECT THROUGH CHARITY, and reconciles man with God BEFORE THIS SACRAMENT BE ACTUALLY RECEIVED, the said reconciliation, nevertheless, is not to be ascribed to that contrition, independently of THE DESIRE [voto] OF THE SACRAMENT WHICH IS INCLUDED THEREIN.” (Denz. 898)
The desire for the sacrament is “included” in the perfect contrition of charity.
When Trent said that the sacrament may be received through desire, that does not exclude the possibility that the desire may be implicit. So there is no reason to conclude that the desire cannot be implicit in the case of baptism too just because Trent said that there must be a desire, as Feeneyites are wont to claim.
Moreover, when Trent said that we can be justified by baptism “or the desire thereof” (aut ejus voto) it practically used a phrase used by Aquinas to indicate that infants may receive the Eucharist unto salvation through the desire of the Church.
“This sacrament [of the Eucharist] has, of itself, the power of bestowing grace; nor does anyone possess grace before receiving this sacrament except from some DESIRE THEREOF [ipsius voto]; from his own desire, as in the case of the adult, OR FROM THE CHURCH'S DESIRE IN THE CASE OF CHILDREN.” (Summa Theologica III, 79, 1)
If we go just by what Trent said, there is no reason to believe that the desire of baptism even has to be personal and cannot be vicarious in the desire of the Church. Trent did not say that it can be vicarious but the possibility is not excluded by what it said.
We are happy to use both readings of Trent for baptism regarding “at least through desire” and “or the desire thereof” because both are literal readings, Aquinas discusses the sacraments in both sets of terms and Trent reflects his use of these sets throughout.
The telling point here is that Trent said nothing that excludes any of this or that supports the Feeneyites denial of baptism of desire, be it explicit, implicit or vicarious.
Necessity of sacramental matter
Nor is it contrary to the doctrine of baptism of desire that Trent said that water is “necessary” for baptism.
That does not alter the fact that it doesn’t mean that no one can be saved without actual reception of a sacrament just because Trent said that it is “necessary for salvation”. We have demonstrated that above with reference to the sacrament of penance.
Moreover, there is no reason to conclude from the necessity of matter to a sacrament that baptism may not be received in desire. We may see this from that Trent said that the confession of sins individually is “necessary” for penance, yet as we have seen, it may be received in desire as well as in act.
Trent: “From the institution of the sacrament of Penance as already explained, the universal Church has always understood, that THE ENTIRE CONFESSION OF SINS WAS ALSO INSTITUTED BY THE LORD, AND IS OF DIVINE LAW NECESSARY for all who have fallen after baptism; because that our Lord Jesus Christ, when about to ascend from earth to heaven, left priests His own vicars, as presidents and judges, unto whom all the mortal crimes, into which the faithful of Christ may have fallen, should be carried, in order that, in accordance with the power of the keys, they may pronounce the sentence of forgiveness or retention of sins. For it is manifest, that PRIESTS COULD NOT HAVE EXERCISED THIS JUDGMENT without knowledge of the cause; neither indeed could they have observed equity in enjoining punishments, if the said faithful should have declared their sins in general only, and not rather SPECIFICALLY, AND ONE BY ONE. Whence it is gathered that ALL MORTAL SINS, of which, after a diligent examination of themselves, they are conscious, MUST be by penitents enumerated in confession. [...] But, whereas all mortal sins, even those of thought, render men children of wrath, and enemies of God, it is NECESSARY TO SEEK ALSO FOR THE PARDON OF THEM ALL from God, with an open and humble confession. Wherefore, while the faithful of Christ are careful to confess all the sins which occur to their memory, they without doubt lay them all bare before the mercy of God to be pardoned.” (Denz. 899)
Feeneyites are wont to claim that baptism and its matter have some necessity over and above that of penance and its matter for those who have fallen, but Trent did not say that.
Incorporation into the Church through desire
As we mentioned above, Feeneyites are wont to argue that none can be saved without water baptism because baptism is the entrance to the Church. But it is the teaching of Trent that we are incorporated into the Church through the grace that is received in baptism, which is also received through desire.
A man is united perfectly with Christ, and becomes a living member of His Mystical Body, when he receives the habitual graces of faith, hope and charity in justification. If a man were to lose his justification through sin, and yet retain the virtue of faith, he would remain imperfectly united with Christ as a ‘dead’ member in the order of grace. And so St. Thomas.
“Nevertheless, there are some, viz. mortal, sins from which they are free who are MEMBERS OF CHRIST BY THE ACTUAL UNION OF CHARITY; but such as are tainted with these sins are not members of Christ actually, but potentially; except, perhaps, IMPERFECTLY, BY FORMLESS FAITH [i.e. without hope and charity added to it,] WHICH UNITES TO GOD, RELATIVELY BUT NOT SIMPLY, viz. so that man partake of the life of grace. For, as is written (James 2:20): “Faith without works is dead.” Yet such as these receive from Christ a certain vital act, i.e. to believe, as if a lifeless limb were moved by a man to some extent.” (Summa Theologica 3, 8, 3)
Trent: “Whence, man, through Jesus Christ, in whom he is ingrafted, receives, IN THE SAID JUSTIFICATION, together with the remission of sins, all these gifts infused at once, faith, hope, and charity. For FAITH, UNLESS HOPE AND CHARITY BE ADDED THERETO, NEITHER UNITES A MAN PERFECTLY WITH CHRIST, NOR MAKES HIM A LIVING MEMBER OF HIS BODY.” (Denz. 800)
Again, Trent told us that Christ is, to the justified without distinction, the “head” to the “members” and the “vine” to the “branches”, which clearly indicates that the justified are members of the Mystical Body.
Trent: “For, whereas Jesus Christ Himself continually infuses his virtue into THE JUSTIFIED, AS THE HEAD INTO THE MEMBERS, AND THE VINE INTO THE BRANCHES, and this virtue always precedes and accompanies and follows their good works […]” (Denz. 809)
Again, Trent spoke of the justified without distinction, as “members” of Christ.
Trent: “If any one saith, that the good works of ONE THAT IS JUSTIFIED are in such manner the gifts of God, as that they are not also the good merits of the same justified; or, that THE SAME JUSTIFIED, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, WHOSE LIVING MEMBER HE IS, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life,-if so be, however, that he depart in grace,-and also an increase of glory; let him be anathema.” (Denz. 842)
“We must needs say that in some way [that is, instrumentally,] the sacraments of the New Law cause grace. For it is evident that through the sacraments of the New Law man is incorporated with Christ: thus the Apostle says of Baptism (Gal. 3:27): “As many of you as have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ.” And MAN IS MADE A MEMBER OF CHRIST THROUGH GRACE ALONE.” (Summa Theologica 3, 62, 1)
Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor
“The study of philosophy and theology and the teaching of these sciences to their students must be accurately carried out by Professors (in seminaries etc.) according to the arguments, doctrine, and principles of St. Thomas which they are inviolately to hold.” (1917 Code of Canon Law, 1366, 2)
Pope Pius X: “The reason is that the capital theses in the philosophy of St. Thomas are not to be placed in the category of opinions capable of being debated one way or another, but are to be considered as the foundations upon which the whole science of natural and divine things is based; if such principles are once removed or in any way impaired, it must necessarily follow that students of the sacred sciences will ultimately fail to perceive so much as the meaning of the words in which the dogmas of divine revelation are proposed by the magistracy of the church.” (Doctoris Angelici)