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The “Baptism of Desire” Heresy?

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 Gentiles…do 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.

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