By Juliet Mattingly, Benedictine College
One in every four pregnancies end in miscarrige. One in every 160 pregnancies end in stillbirth. And every day, countless babies lose their lives to abortion. In vitro fertilization leads to countless more deaths as ‘extra’ embryos are left to die in liquid nitrogen or given to science for experimentation. Each of these little ones, despite being alive for just a short while, has a beautiful story and a beautiful soul. There is an increasing awareness of the reality of the loss of life, and more and more people are turning to the Church to ask what happens to these children after they die. After all, they never had the chance to take a breath, let alone be baptized.
Throughout Church history, many ideas have been put forth to answer this question. The possibility that infants are deprived of the beatific vision has been regarded as highly likely throughout Church history. However, because this conclusion leads to a deep grief from parents who never had the chance to baptize their children, as well as a skepticism from those who believe that if God is truly just and merciful, he surely would welcome these children into Heaven, priests have turned to higher authorities in the Church, asking that this question be reevaluated. For theologians and priests alike, one of the most tedious aspects of handling this topic is balancing God’s will that all of His children return to Him with the necessity of Baptism to be freed from original sin and united with God’s grace.
In October of 2004, Pope John Paul II assigned the International Theological Commission, a group of theologians appointed to study doctrinal issues, the study of this debate due to the rise in the general awareness of the issue. “This document deals with the hope that Christians can have for the salvation of unbaptised infants who die. It indicates how such a hope has developed in recent decades and what its grounds are, so as to enable an account of that hope to be given” (1). For this issue, they studied concepts such as Limbo and many other ideas put forth by theologians throughout Church history. Pope Benedict XVI approved the document titled The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Died Without Being Baptized for publication on January 19, 2007. The Council studied the teachings of the Church in the context of Sacred Scripture and what has been historically held true.
The Bible, while not offering any explicit answers on the topic, clearly outlines two things. The first is that God wills for all of his children to be saved. Second is that, because of original sin and general human sinfulness, baptism is required to receive salvation. “The latter seems to limit the extension of God’s universal salvific will” (10). Clarification of this conflict falls to a reflection on how tradition – the Church Fathers, the magisterium, and theologians – deal with the issue.
The thoughts of the Catholic Church on the salvation of infants who die before being baptized have been rather sporadic throughout history. The Greek Fathers did not discuss the topic very much. At most, they believe that these children do not go to Hell, however they don’t have an answer for where they do go. The Latin Fathers, on the other hand, dealt with this issue a great deal. “St. Augustine addressed the question because Pelagius was teaching that [all] infants could be saved without Baptism” (15). In arguing the necessity of infant baptism due to original sin, Augustine stated that infants who die without baptism would go to Hell. He explains that the infants going to Hell would not be an injustice, as no one deserves to go to Heaven. However, he also says that the infants would only receive the lightest of punishments because they were unable to choose another path. Thomas Aquinas adds that these infants cannot even know what they are being deprived of, as Baptism gives the seed to begin to understand the beatific vision. This allowed for Augustine’s views to be more acceptable because it did not conflict with the idea of a merciful God. The discussion picked up speed again just before the First Vatican Council. While the topic was discussed at length at the First and Second Vatican Councils, there was no definitive statement put forth on the matter. However, Vatican II laid out many paths to help with the discernment surrounding this question, such as acknowledging the deep mystery of God’s mercy.
After examining the arguments, the International Theological Commission concludes that although it is undeniable that unbaptised infants cannot participate in the beatific vision without being cleansed from Original Sin, we can trust in God’s mercy and his desire to give all of His children an opportunity to come home to Him. In other words, we have a reasonable hope that unbaptised children are welcomed into Heaven. One of the points that the ITC draws from to conclude this is the teaching that sacramental Baptism is not the only form of Baptism. Baptism by blood and baptism by desire are both taught as alternatives to traditional Baptism. “Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament” (CCC 1258). Although sacramental Baptism is best, God’s mercy extends beyond the limits of the sacrament. An early example of the acceptance of baptism by blood is the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, when King Herod killed hundreds of children in hopes of killing Jesus. The International Theological Commission connects baptism of blood and the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents to those little ones who are lost to abortion. “Just as those who took the lives of the Holy Innocents were motivated by fear and selfishness, so the lives particularly of unborn babies today are often endangered by the fear or selfishness of others” (86). The Catechism of the Catholic Church states on desire for baptism, “For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament.” Parents who are intending to baptise their children may have a sort of ‘stand in’ desire for their children in the same way that parents are able to baptise their children as infants. Even if all of this did not apply, however, God’s ability to bestow His grace is not limited by the sacraments. “The need for the sacrament is not absolute. What is absolute is humanity’s need for the Ursakrament which is Christ himself” (82). With the Blessed Virgin Mary, God bestowed unmerited blessings during her Immaculate Conception. In the same way, it is entirely possible that God, in his abundant mercy, “simply acts to give the gift of salvation to unbaptised infants by analogy with the gift of salvation given sacramentally to baptized infants” (87).
In conclusion, the Commission restates an encouragement towards hope. “The many factors that we have considered above give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptised infants who die will be saved and enjoy the Beatific Vision. We emphasise that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge” (102). Although we cannot know for sure that these children are in Heaven, we can trust that God has His children wherever is best for them and hope that we will get the chance to meet these children in Heaven someday.
I began seeking my own answers to this question in the fall of 2018, shortly after my miscarriage. I lost my beautiful baby girl, Gianna Rose, and although I firmly believed that she was in Heaven, I wanted extra reassurance from the Church. What I expected to be a quick and painless cross-reference turned into a lot of fear and anger.
As much as I don’t like to admit it, the first time I read through the document, I was furious. How could there be even a possibility that God wouldn’t welcome my daughter with open arms? I loved her enough to do anything for her. Shouldn’t God, who surely loved her more than I could hope to, readily welcome her into Heaven?
That was the answer to my pain. God loves my daughter more than I could ever hope to. If He took her from this earth before I had the opportunity to baptise her, then that was the best plan for her little life. If she isn’t allowed into Heaven, then that is because God has her where He knows is best. Ultimately, one of the best things I can do for my little Gianna is to trust God and trust in his love for both me and her.
I still firmly believe that my baby girl is in Heaven, along with the rest of the children who died before they were able to be baptised. After all, the Church offers me reassurances such as baptism by desire. But if I turn out to be wrong in the end, I still trust that God loves my daughter and has given her what is best.
“We shall find our little ones again up above.” – St. Zelie Martin