Friday, May 17, 2019

St. Ambrose on Baptism of Desire

On May 15, 392, the young Western Roman Emperor Valentinian II was found dead in the imperial residence at Vienne in southern Gaul. It is said he was hanged using his own handkerchief.

Though emperor in name, Valentinian found himself at the mercy of his general, Arbogast, who held the prominent position of magister militum in the west. The hostility between Arbogast and Valentinian was well known. The 6th century historian Zosimus wrote of a famous public incident between the two when Valentinian attempted to remove Arbogast from command:

At length Valentinian, no longer able to submit to his correction, when Arbogastes was approaching him as he sat on the imperial throne, looked sternly upon him, and presented him with a writing, by which he dismissed him from his command. Arbogastes, having read it, replied, "You neither gave me the command, nor can deprive me of it;" and having said this, tore the writing to pieces, threw it down, and retired. From that period their hatred was no longer kept to themselves, but appeared in public. [Zosimus, New History, Book IV]
When Valentinian was found hanged in his bedchamber shortly thereafter, it was rumored that foul play was involved carried out by imperial eunuchs sympathetic to Arbogast. At any rate, few believed it was an actual suicide. St. Ambrose of Milan, who knew the young Valentinian, bitterly lamented his passing. In a letter to Valentinian's father. Emperor Theodosius, he wrote:

I am filled, I confess, with bitter grief, not only because the death of Valentinian has been premature, but also because, having been trained in the faith and moulded by your teaching, he had conceived such devotion towards our God, and was so tenderly attached to myself, as to love one whom he had before persecuted, and to esteem as his father the man whom he had before repulsed as his enemy. [Ambrose of Milan, Letter 51]

St. Ambrose also delivered the funeral oration for the slain prince. The issue was tricky because Valentinian had died without baptism. He had intended to receive baptism from the hand of St. Ambrose in person but circumstance for some time delayed these plans from coming to fruition. Were the Catholic faithful to despair of his salvation, since he died without the sacrament of regeneration? In his funeral oration St. Ambrose says no, for the desire for the sacrament has granted Valentinian the grace he required:
But I hear that you grieve because he did not receive the sacrament of baptism. Tell me: What else is in your power other than the desire, the request? But he even had this desire for a long time, that, when he should come into Italy, he would be initiated, and recently he signified a desire to be baptized by me, and for this reason above all others he thought that I ought to be summoned. Has he not, then, the grace which he desired; has he not the grace which he requested? And because he asked, he received, and therefore is it said: 'By whatsover death the just man shall be overtaken, his soul shall be at rest.’ (Wisdom 4:7) [Taken from Deferrari: "On Emperor Valentinian" in Funeral Orations by Saint Gregory Nazianzen and Saint Ambrose of Milan]

St. Ambrose's teaching here would become a fundamental text in the Church's teaching of baptism of desire; St. Thomas Aquinas quotes St. Ambrose's oration in his own affirmation of baptism of desire: "A man can obtain salvation without being actually baptized, on account of his desire for Baptism, which desire is the outcome of "faith that worketh by charity," whereby God, Whose power is not tied to visible sacraments, sanctifies man inwardly. Hence Ambrose says of Valentinian, who died while yet a catechumen: "I lost him whom I was to regenerate: but he did not lose the grace he prayed for" (STh III. Q. 68. Art. 2)

Just a reminder that the idea of baptism of desire is not a modern one but has it roots in the earliest days of Christendom, having been affirmed in by not only St. Ambrose but St. Augustine and many others--and notice that Ambrose does not merely discuss it as a hypothetical possibility, but states it as a fact that it has happened in this case.

Kudos to the excellent blog Gloria Romanorum for bringing the story to my attention; they have a much more in depth article about it here.

Related: Baptism of Blood in St. Bede


Catholic Mission said...

Yes as a hypothetical case.Something hoped-for.
The popes and saints over the years mentioned the case of the unknown cathechumen who desired the baptism of water but died before he received it. It is hoped that he will be in Heaven.
Even Fr. Leonard Feeney accepted the case of the catechumen, his book the Bread of Life shows.
However for the popes and saints there were no visible and personally known cases of the baptism of desire. This is something obvious. Only God can know of such a case if it happened.
Fr. Leonard Feeney too said there were no literal cases of the baptism of desire. This is a given.
However the liberal theologians wrongly projected the baptism of desire etc as an exception to the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus.
So they imply that there are known cases of the baptism of desire for them to be exceptions. Invisible cases of course cannot be exceptions to EENS. So this is irrational.
-Lionel Andrades

Robert Semrad said...

Yes, Lionel, your reasoning is sound, since the only ones that can be produced to give credence to BoD are hypothetical ones, i.e., they do not exist. On the other hand, there are scores of real life historical testimonies of those who were miraculously Sacramentally Baptized, which testifies to the reality of the Dogma EENS, and this means that water baptism is the reality, while the desire for it is only the beginning of the completed Sacrament. One must have a desire to be Baptized Sacramentally, before he can be truly Baptized, else it is not a true Baptism...the desire is necessary as well as the water....real and natural water.

Olaus Ouisconsinensis said...

I sympathize with the "Feeneyite" opinion that God provides water Baptism to all who are saved, though I acknowledge it is not the dogma of the Church. I personally don't see how this opinion can be ruled out because it's impossible to know whether any person died and was judged without receiving water Baptism. That said, since the time of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, I think that all orthodox theologians who were aware of their teaching accepted it. Does that make it a dogma? I don't know.

It seems to me that the core dogmas are these:

1.) God demands nothing that is impossible.

2.) The election of a just soul cannot be thwarted by an accident.

3.) The apparent lack of sacramental Baptism by certain martyrs and catechumens should not cause us to deny or doubt their salvation. The inference is not allowed.

As everyone knows, very few people assert all of the requirements for the Baptism of Desire that St. Ambrose did. It's gotten much, much more nebulous, to the point that people allege implicit desire for Baptism in the absence of the overt desire that St. Ambrose cites in the case of his emperor.

The broad latitude of Baptism of Desire in the 1940s prompted Fr. Feeney and his associates to assert the absolute necessity of Faith and Church membership. They also opined on the absolute necessity of water Baptism, I think in part because of Our Lord's saying, "Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit . . ." It seems weird to allow exceptions to the literal requirement of water but not the Spirit. It also seems odd for a sacramental religion that insists on the physical reality of the sacraments to then allow mere desire to be sufficient for salvation. This seems like a first step away from "salvation through Incarnation," with the circumstances of history and this physical world treated as mere accidents that don't matter in the face of human wishes. The picture seems "neater" if God does in fact arrange history to meet the conditions He has required, instead of requiring conditions He then knows He needs to make exceptions for.

If we accept that accidents can prevent a person from receiving water Baptism, soon we accept that accidents can prevent a person from having explicit Faith. But if God intervenes supernaturally to ensure that the elect have explicit Faith (as St. Thomas affirms of the ignorant native, to whom God sends either a missionary or an angel), then He can also intervene supernaturally for the water Baptism. The one is just as easy as the other.

But no one seems to require, absolutely, that all Christians who have fallen into mortal sin must receive sacramental absolution. All, including the most die-hard "Feeneyites" seem to accept that a mere desire for absolution suffices in its absence, and the Council Trent draws very clear parallels between the necessity of Baptism and Penance. The disciples of Fr. Feeney also seem (?) to have abandoned his claim that those who never received the Eucharist in life lack something in the afterlife.

But I've long since descended into minutiae. Suffice it to say, the Church should formally define the *limits* of Baptism of Desire, because the theory has remained nebulous and has tended toward latitudinarianism. Fr. Feeney's position (all of the elect actually receive water Baptism), even if true, doesn't seem to be in the Deposit of Faith. But what is in the Deposit of Faith, other than the If/Then proposition, "If any of the elect have not yet been sacramentally baptized at the time of their particular judgment, then desire for sacramental Baptism suffices for the purposes of salvation," I don't know. Thank you for your patience in reading this.

Anonymous said...

There was a young saint, canonized, who was but a catechumen, when she was martyred by a mob in Rome. She is in the martyrology.

It is unfortunate that I cannot remember her name, nor give a citation. But, for whatever it may be worth, I did confirm it at one point, and will return with a citation, if possible.

God does not command the impossible, and His Mercy is infinite. So baptism of water, desire, or blood are all within His Providence.

Better we should worry about those who proudly reject Him, rather than those who humbly seek Him.

Boniface said...


He does not say it was hypothetically possible in the case of Valentinian; he simply states it as a fact that it did happen.


The reality of the sacrament of the sacramental grace of regeneration, which can be conferred without the sense perceptible sign of water. Someone who has attained baptism of desire (known only to God) has been fully and completely baptized, not incompletely, just like someone who has their sins forgiven because of an act of perfect contrition outside confession is still completely forgiven. Obviously desire for baptism is required; that's the whole point. Also, the fact that some people have received miraculous water baptism is not enough to build a teaching that *everyone* who desires baptism will always get water baptism.


Obviously God does not command the impossible, as we know. But to extrapolate from that the notion that therefore all those who desire sacramental baptism with water will always obtain it (and ergo, those who did not attain it must have not really desired it) seems a huge and ridiculous stretch--like saying anyone who really wants to confess will somehow always have miraculous access to a confessor. I don't think it's even within the realm of responsible speculation to assert that God's providence will work things out that way, but that's just my opinion.

Obviously the latitude moderns assign to baptism of desire has become so broad so as to, in many cases, make it meaningless. I sympathize with people who criticize the concept as having too broad an application today.

c matt said...

Question: Would this apply in the case of miscarriage? Say a Catholic couple that fully intends to baptize their child upon birth (as soon as practicable thereafter), but the child miscarries prior to birth?

Boniface said...


While a child can be baptized with the faith and desire of his parents, I have only ever heard of baptism of desire being invoked where the individual themselves expressed the desire.

Konstantin said...

"Someone who has attained baptism of desire (known only to God) has been fully and completely baptized, not incompletely, just like someone who has their sins forgiven because of an act of perfect contrition outside confession is still completely forgiven."

Boniface, as far as I know there is a difference between the effects of BoD and sacramental Baptism. BoD of itself does not remit the temporal punishment of sin and it does not confer the sacramental character. The person desiring baptism isn't a visible member of the Church, either, and BoD does not suffice for the reception of the other sacraments. And BoD must always go hand in hand with perfect love and contrition, whereas sacramental baptism only requires imperfect contrition.