The "Baptism of Desire" Heresy?

November 4, 2013 | 15 comments

Last week a gentleman who declared himself a Sedevacantist contacted me via email in an attempt to persuade me to his position. For those of you who are unaware of what a Sedevacantist is, it is essentially the belief that the current occupant of the Chair of Peter is not truly pope.

I have read several books on the subject, both pro and con, and while I do not consider myself an expert on the issue, I find most Sedevacantist arguments interesting but ultimately unconvincing.

The argument this particular gentleman was making involved his objection to Church teaching on baptism of desire, which he claims is “the very heresy which gave rise to false ecumenism and the Vatican II sect in the first place.”

This position arises from a rigorist view on the Church teaching of "extra ecclesiam nulla salus," or "outside the Church there is no salvation." It holds that one must be a card-carrying member of the Catholic Church without exception in order to be saved. A baptism of desire would, of course, be contrary to this position. Not all Sedevacantists hold to this rigorist view like the gentleman I had been corresponding with.

On baptism of desire, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:

"Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery." Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity (1260).

This appears to me to be a natural reflection of St. Paul’s teaching in his Letter to the Romans:

When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus (2:14-16).

In this context, the word “gentile” is used to refer to non-Hebrew people. I asked the gentleman I had been corresponding with what his opinion was of this verse and he responded with an answer he had found on a Sedevacantist website:

Romans 2:14-16 is reiterating the truth that the natural law is written on the heart of all men, so that all men know that certain things are against God’s law and that certain things are in accordance with the natural law of charity, etc.

As the Haydock Bible and Commentary correctly explains about this verse,

“these men are a law to themselves, and have it written in their hearts, as to the existence of a God, and their reason tells them, that many sins are unlawful: they may also do some actions that are morally good, as by giving alms to relieve the poor, honoring their parents, etc. not that these actions, morally good, will suffice for their justification of themselves, or make them deserve a supernatural reward in the kingdom of heaven; but God, out of His infinite mercy, will give them some supernatural graces” which if they continue to cooperate with they will get more graces and eventually be exposed to the Catholic Faith, which they must have to be saved.

At first glance I thought this answer would be difficult to refute until I looked up the quoted passage from the Haydock Bible Commentary:

Ver. 14-15. When the by nature, or naturally, that is, without having received any written law, these men are a law to themselves, and have it written in their hearts, as to the existence of a God, and their reason tells them, that many sins are unlawful: they may also do some actions that are morally good, as by giving alms to relieve the poor, honouring their parents, &c. not that these actions, morally good, will suffice for their justification of themselves, or make them deserve a supernatural reward in the kingdom of heaven; but God, out of his infinite mercy, will give them some supernatural graces, by which they come to know, and believe, that he will reward their souls for eternity. Such, says St. Chrysostom, were the dispositions of Melchisedech, Job, Cornelius the Centurion, &c.

To be fair, the answer from this particular Sedevacantists web site does make use of quotation marks to signify where the Haydock Commentary ends and their own opinion begins, but the way it is presented is misleading (at least it was to me until I looked it up). They replaced the last sentence of the commentary with their own words. I do not mean to imply that anyone purposefully altered the commentary to suit his position, but it is not so cut-and-dry as the answer would have you believe.

To put Romans 2:14-16 in context, I looked at what the Haydock Commentary had to say about the preceding verse:

Ver. 12. Whosoever have sinned without the law. That is, without the written law of Moses, against their reason and conscience, &c. And also those who being Jews, have sinned under this written law, shall be judged, even with greater severity, for having transgressed against the known law.

The last sentence is telling. If it is true that Jews who knew and understood the “known law” would be judged with greater severity, then it is also true that the Gentiles who “do not have the law” will be judged less severely because of their ignorance. There can be no greater severity without something less severe.

I realize some Catholics use this as an excuse to be more inclusive than the text may allow, but Church teaching on this from the Catechism and Vatican II hardly strikes me as anything new, and certainly not heretical. As Pius IX explains:

Here, too, our beloved sons and venerable brothers, it is again necessary to mention and censure a very grave error entrapping some Catholics who believe that it is possible to arrive at eternal salvation although living in error and alienated from the true faith and Catholic unity. Such belief is certainly opposed to Catholic teaching. 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 (On Promotion of False Doctrines).

And so we arrive full circle at what the Catechism says about baptism of desire:

Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.

Jon Sorensen is the Director of External Activities for Catholic Answers. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 3D Animation and Visual Communications, he worked in the automotive industry producing television commercials, corporate videos, and print advertising campaigns. Jon has been with Catholic...

Comments by Members

#1  Kim Baker - Westminster, South Carolina

Thank you, Jon, for taking the time to research both sides of this issue and then to present it so accessibly and fairly. I appreciate your efforts and especially your generosity of spirit in acknowledging that the author(s) of the website in question may not have "purposefully altered the commentary." I have to confess that I probably couldn't be so magnanimous, although I know I should guard against the cynicism that results from all of the misinformation (deliberate and otherwise) that permeates our world today.

I am reminded of our first pope's admonition, which seems as relevant today as it was in his own time, and maybe even more so:

And consider the patience of our Lord as salvation, as our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, also wrote to you, speaking of these things as he does in all his letters. In them there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures. Therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, be on your guard not to be led into the error of the unprincipled and to fall from your own stability. But grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory now and to the day of eternity. (2 Peter 3:15-18)

As the passage from Pius IX implicitly reminds us, God alone knows the heart. If we invested as much time and effort "grow[ing] in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ" as we did worrying about the speck in our brothers' and sisters' eyes, we would do more to advance the Kingdom of God on earth than we can imagine.

May the peace of Christ be with us all.

November 5, 2013 at 7:03 am PST
#2  kenneth winsmann - katy, Texas

Great article! The S.V. In question couldn't be more wrong on baptism of desire. It has been taught consistently for ages now. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that even some SV accept baptism of desire as being a part of Tradition. We have to remember that these people are essentially protestants now and so they are doomed to splinter with disagreements amongst themselves as time goes on.

My problem is that the post V2 Church has USED baptism of desire as a framework for a quasi universalism that teaches that their sect can actually be a MEANS of salvation. (Unitatis Redintegratio) Cardinal Kasper (speaking as the head the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity under the saintly JP2) teaches us that Pius XI's "ecumenism of return" (by which non-Catholics are expected to return to unity with the Catholic Church by becoming Catholics) "no longer applies after Vatican II." "Today," he says, "we no longer understand ecumenism in the sense of a return, by which the others would 'be converted' and return to being 'catholics.' This was expressly abandoned by Vatican II." On another occasion, he explained: "The old concept of the ecumenism of return has today been replaced by that of a common journey which directs Christians toward the goal of ecclesial communion understood as unity in reconciled diversity." Baptism of desire has been made a pillar of this new ecumenism which Traditional Catholics have always found obscene. The SV has simply misdiagnosed the problem.

I think that it is *possible* for one to be saved through invincible ignorance and an implicit desire for baptism but that there are no such people in the world. Or if there ever have been any they are exceedingly rare cases. This is not a very lovey dovey way of seeing things but it is, in my view, the most faithful to scripture and Tradition.

November 5, 2013 at 9:30 am PST
#3  Kim Baker - Westminster, South Carolina

Hi, Kenneth. I'm with you (if I understand you correctly) on rejecting an ecumenism that has as its basis "reconciled diversity" -- a phrase which strikes me as a bit of a happy-clappy, feel-good diversion rather than a worthwhile, substantive goal. Too often, "reconcile" becomes a synonym for "compromise."

I respectfully disagree, however, that those who know the Lord in an incomplete way (that is, a non-Catholic way) are somehow automatically destined for damnation. Rather, I believe they pay the price now, so to speak, in settling for a far less rich, full, awe-inspiring faith journey. As Catholics, we have access to an almost unlimited treasure of richness in our sacraments, our sacramentals, our latitude to engage in approved personal devotions, our saints and heroes of the Faith, and so on. Those who are not in full communion with the Church are missing out on so many blessings -- and yet, I believe in the Divine Mercy of Christ and in the saving reach of His sacrificial Death. He alone (in unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit) knows the scope of that reach.

I share your concern for preserving the uniquely Catholic combination of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. No doubt, the latter in particular has suffered greatly in the post-Vatican II years. I'm cautiously hopeful that we're seeing some corrective efforts, and I pray that those efforts will bear great fruit. As a product of post-Vatican II catechism (or should I say "victim"?), I find myself now, in my fifties, more captivated than ever by the adventure of our Faith and life in Christ. Nonetheless, the pre-Vatican II church had its own problems, and I find it helpful to recall that once in awhile.

Great food for thought in your post, and if I've misunderstood you, please forgive and clarify, if you would. I'm quite interested in this subject, having a number of friends and family members who are non-Catholic (or formerly Catholic) Christians.

November 5, 2013 at 11:04 am PST
#4  Jon Sorensen - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

I must admit to ignorance regarding Cardinal Kasper's statements, but I will look in to it.

I do disagree that UR teaches a quasi-universalism, though (please correct me if I am misunderstanding your comment, Kenneth). It appears to me the Church was drawing distinctions between ecumenism and evangelization, and that the ultimate goal is to lead "separated brethren" back to the Catholic Church. I would cite the following paragraph from UR:

"This is the way that, when the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion have been gradually overcome, all Christians will at last, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, be gathered into the one and only Church in that unity which Christ bestowed on His Church from the beginning. We believe that this unity subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time.

I assume "it" in the last sentence refers to the conversion of people not in full union with the Church, but I'm open to correction on that.

November 5, 2013 at 11:22 am PST
#5  kenneth winsmann - katy, Texas


I do not personally hold to the same optomistic view that you seem to have adopted for our seperated brothers and sisters. One of the first things I remember thinking when I converted to the RCC was "Dang.... salvation is pretty darn difficult over here". To think that many protestants will never commit a grave sin knowingly and with full consent of the will in their lifetime just isnt reasonable. Where will they go for absolution? Are we to posit some kind of "confession of desire" as a proverbial mop up crew for anyone that might have slipped up after their baptism? Baptism of desire is nothing new but the way in which certain (most) theologians are applying it these days leads inevitably to universalism or at least a quasi-universalism where narrow is the road to hell and broad and wide the gates of heaven. Baptism of desire throughout history was mainly applied to those who were going through the "RCIA" of the past (which used to last for years). Invincible ignorance to small children under the age of reason and the mentally handicapped. Being skeptical as I am of these post V2 "trends" I am inclined to side with the greats saints of history who didnt see very much of a reason to be optomistic for those outside the Church. There should be a GREAT sense of urgency for your non catholic friends. The normative means of salvation is NOT ignorance.... but conversion and obedience to Gods Word.

November 5, 2013 at 3:56 pm PST
#6  kenneth winsmann - katy, Texas


Woops! I think we had a misunderstanding. I was saying that UR teaches that heretical sects and schismatic communities are a MEANS of salvation. This line is notoriosly difficult to reconcile with Tradition and is the subject of much controversy. Coincidently, you happened upon another controversial paragraph where UR teaches that Christian unity "subsists in" in Catholic Church. This notion of "imperfect communion" with Rome seems to be foreign to our theology up until very recently. Lets compare current teaching with the magesterium of the past...

"Sustained by this hope, and roused and urged by the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave His life for the whole human race, We cannot refrain Ourselves, the occasion of the future Council, from addressing Our Apostolic and paternal words to all those who, whilst they acknowledge the same Jesus Christ as the Redeemer, and glory in the name of Christian, yet do not profess the true faith of Christ, nor hold to and follow the Communion of the Catholic Church. ... Now, whoever will carefully examine and reflect upon the condition of the various religious societies, divided among themselves, and separated from the Catholic Church, which, from the days of our Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles has never ceased to exercise, by its lawful pastors, and still continues to exercise, the divine power committed to it by this same Lord; cannot fail to satisfy himself that neither any one of these societies by itself, nor all of them together, can in any manner constitute and be that One Catholic Church which Christ our Lord built, and established, and willed should continue; and that they cannot in any way be said to be branches or parts of that Church, since they are visibly cut off from Catholic unity. For, whereas such societies are destitute of that living authority established by God, which especially teaches men what is of Faith, and what the rule of morals, and directs and guides them in all those things which pertain to eternal salvation, so they have continually varied in their doctrines, and this change and variation is ceaselessly going on among them. Everyone must perfectly understand, and clearly and evidently see, that such a state of things is directly opposed to the nature of the Church instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ; for in that Church truth must always continue firm and ever inaccessible to all change, as a deposit given to that Church to be guarded in its integrity, for the guardianship of which the presence and aid of the Holy Ghost have been promised to the Church forever" (Pope Pius IX, Iam Vos Omnes, 13 September 1868).

“But certainly, I need not say what the nature of this society is, and whither it is tending; this is easily understood from the articles of the newspaper entitled THE UNION REVIEW, and from that very page on which members are invited and listed. Indeed, formed and directed by Protestants, it is animated by that spirit which expressly avows for example, that the three Christian communions, Roman Catholic, Greekschismatic, and Anglican, however separated and divided from one another, nevertheless with equal right claim for themselves the name Catholic. ... [T]he society itself indicates to all its members the prayers to be recited, and to the priests the sacrifices to be celebrated according to its own intention: namely, that the said three Christian communions, inasmuch as they, as it is alleged, together now constitute the Catholic Church, may at some time or other unite to form one body. . . .For, it is wholly in this: that it supposes the true Church of Jesus Christ to be composed partly of the Roman Church scattered and propagated throughout the whole world, partly, indeed, of the schism of Photius, and of the Anglican heresy, to which, as well as to the Roman Church, 'there is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism' [cf. Eph. 4:5]. Surely nothing should be preferable to a Catholic man than that schisms and dissensions among Christians be torn out by the roots and that all Christians be 'careful to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace' [Eph. 4:3]. . . . But, that the faithful of Christ and the clergy should pray for Christian unity under the leadership of heretics, and, what is worse, according to an intention, polluted and infected as much as possible with heresy, can in no way be tolerated. The true Church of Jesus Christ was established by divine authority, and is known by a fourfold mark, which we assert in the Creed must be believed; and each one of these marks so clings to the others that it cannot be separated from them; hence it happens that that Church which truly is, and is called Catholic should at the same time shine with the prerogatives of unity, sanctity, and apostolic succession. Therefore, the Catholic Church alone is conspicuous and perfect in the unity of the whole world and of all nations, particularly in that unity whose beginning, root, and unfailing origin are that supreme authority and ‘higher principality’ of blessed Peter, the prince of the Apostles, and of his successors in the Roman Chair. No other Church is Catholic except the one which, founded on the one Peter, grows into one ‘body compacted and fitly joined together’ [Eph. 4:16] in the unity of faith and charity” (Holy Office under Pope Pius IX, 16 September 1864: Denz. 1686).

Anyways. The point is that the APPLICATION of Vatican 2 is still very crummy and my advice is to view any "advances" in our understanding of baptism by desire with a very skeptical eye. Better to err on the side of caution and assume all who are not under the Bishop of Rome are damned.

November 5, 2013 at 4:17 pm PST
#7  Greg Aitchison - Richfield, Minnesota

Awesome post, Jon.

This whole issue was a big stumbling block for me. I had some fundamentalist Protestant influence in college which led me to think the Catholic Church also taught that every non-Christian soul on the planet was damned to hell. I eventually left the Catholic Church because of this issue (and the Eucharist, and others) only to later actually read what the Church teaches and be blown away by the depth and brilliance of it all. Needless to say, I came back home to Catholicism a short time later. :)

Please keep up the great work!

November 5, 2013 at 9:53 pm PST
#8  Kim Baker - Westminster, South Carolina

Great testimony, Greg! God bless you. :)

Kenneth, many thoughts and words come to mind in response to your reply. We have to be careful about cherry-picking the Church teachings that validate us; the better way, it seems to me, is accepting that I may have incomplete understanding and profess, every time I pray the Creed, my allegiance to our beloved "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church." It's a journey, friend.

As to our non-Catholic (or formerly Catholic) friends and family members, Greg's testimony is a fine example of the Holy Spirit's capacity to work within us. Pray that the Lord will work His will and give us patience with His timeline. Urgency is a concept (it seems to me) that's more often indicative of a human fear than a divine imperative. I'm sure you won't agree, but thanks for listening and for working hard to defend the Faith as you see it. God bless us all. :)


November 6, 2013 at 5:41 am PST
#9  kenneth winsmann - katy, Texas

God bless you Kim! I'll be praying for you're family and friends

November 6, 2013 at 8:13 am PST
#10  Kim Baker - Westminster, South Carolina

Thanks, Kenneth! We all need all the prayers we can get, don't we? Will be praying for you too. :)

November 6, 2013 at 12:01 pm PST
#11  James D - Atlantic City, New Jersey

"If it is true that Jews who knew and understood the “known law” would be judged with greater severity, then it is also true that the Gentiles who “do not have the law” will be judged less severely because of their ignorance."

Does that mean that a sin, which is mortal for a Catholic, can be venial for a non-Catholic? For example, can fornication somehow be a venial sin for people?

January 14, 2015 at 2:46 pm PST
#12  William Zukowski - Denver, Colorado

James D,

Can one particular sin be counted as either mortal or venial, depending upon the circumstances? Yes.

Refer to the Catholic Catechism's paragraphs 1857-1862. For a sin to be mortal all three of the following conditions must be present:
1) the act is objectively of grave matter
2) the person committing the act knows it's of grave matter
3) the person freely and willfully consents to the act

...CCC 1862 "One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent."

If an act isn't of mortal nature, or if the person doesn't truly know it's of grave matter, or if the person is in some way forced against their will to perform that act - it may not be counted against them as a mortal sin.

January 24, 2015 at 9:46 am PST
#13  James D - Atlantic City, New Jersey

William, I believe the catechism. But are you suggesting that people generally don't know that consensual fornication is grave matter? And do they have to read the catechism or be otherwise told that to know it? What about contraception? What about murder-in-the-womb? There's a Natural Law for a reason.

January 27, 2015 at 8:19 am PST
#14  James D - Atlantic City, New Jersey

As for baptism of desire, please read "Baptism of Desire: Its Origin and Abandonment in the Thought of Saint Augustine" here:

January 27, 2015 at 10:22 am PST
#15  James D - Atlantic City, New Jersey

"It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity."

May it also be supposed that such persons actually received the sacrament of baptism, in ways known only to God?

January 27, 2015 at 10:42 am PST

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