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Kay wrote:

Hi, guys —

I'm a 9th grader and (although I'm not Catholic) for school I'm writing a paper on how Catholics view Baptism. My teacher gave me a few handouts but I can't seem to find an answer to what Catholics believe happens to infants that have not been baptized.

  • I know that CCC 1283 of the Catholic Catechism says that we can trust in God's Mercy and to pray for their salvation but I was wondering if there are any other places that you can point me to for more reasoning behind this belief?

In Brief

1283 With respect to children who have died without Baptism, the liturgy of the Church invites us to trust in God's mercy and to pray for their salvation.

Also, from what I've been reading, it seems like Baptism plays a big role in salvation, almost more than faith.

  • Is this true, or is it just my way of reading it with a different perspective?


Sorry for all the questions.


  { Do other sources address unbaptized infants and does Baptism play a bigger role than faith? }

Bob replied:


You're doing a great job on your assignment; you're obviously a bright kid. This may be a longer answer than you wanted, but bear with me.

Baptism is the normative way of entering into the covenant family of God, because Jesus said

5 Truly, truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. (John 3:5)

This has always been understood as Baptism. The rule and practice, in essence, replaced the Old Testament rite of entry into the Covenant that the Jews kept, namely, circumcision. In the Old Testament, children (males) were welcomed into the covenant people of God through this ritual. For females it was not necessary for they were considered part of the household of the males (it was a patriarchal society). Jesus didn't eliminate all rituals in His way, but rather enhanced or replaced the Old Testament rituals. You will see that relating to all the Sacraments.

When Peter got up and preached in Jerusalem at the beginning of the Apostles ministry he proclaimed,

38 Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 This promise belongs to you and to your children and to all who are far off, to all whom the Lord our God will call to Himself. (Acts 2:38-39)

So Peter indicated that this new way that Jesus gave them, started with repentance and Baptism, and it extended to all family members. That would have included infants and babies, just as the Old Testament did. He would have been selling an inferior product if it excluded children, for that was always part of the Covenant that the Jews understood. It would not have gone over well if they were left out, and it would not have been in character with the Old Testament Covenant, knowing that God had spent hundreds, if not thousands, of years preparing the Jewish people for this new Covenant, which was to be even better than the old one.

The Old Testament: "I will be your God and you will be my people."

The New Testament: "I will be your father, you will be my children."
(I'm basically creating the second phrase to capture the essence of the New Testament).

We got an upgrade. Jesus said,

I no longer call you servants, but friends . . . (John 15:15)

and elsewhere John said,

"See what love the Father has for us, that we should be called children of God. And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1).

Baptism was the new and improved rite of entry into the covenant for it came with the gift of the Holy Spirit. It really did more than leave a mark on the flesh; it left a mark on the soul. We become God's children, a spiritual adoption (cf. 1 John 3).

In the Early Church it became evident that there were some issues/circumstances that weren't really talked about with Jesus and needed to be figured out.

  • For example, what happens if my child dies before baptism?
  • What happens if someone has converted (has repented) but dies before Baptism? (Many in the Early Church were martyred in such circumstances.)
  • The Church knew God wanted to save everyone (cf. 1 Timothy 4) but if He made Baptism a requirement, what happens in its absence?

Soon it was realized that God, who is the Law-Maker can do as He pleases. If he wants to save someone, He is not obstructed by some rule that He made — He can satisfy His own requirements any way He pleases. He could qualify the Baptism by the desire for Baptism, in other words, someone who intended to be baptized but was unable to be baptized is not at fault and therefore God will give his soul whatever he/she needed so that Baptism would have been fulfilled. This idea was soon called Baptism by Desire. Likewise, others came up with Baptism by Blood for those who were martyred before water Baptism.

The issue of children still perplexed the Early Church because in the other cases there was at least faith; they were old enough to repent and be on the way consciously. Children on the other hand, weren't old enough to make a conscious choice so some Church Fathers thought,

  • surely God would not blame the child, as though he were responsible for rejecting the offer of salvation
  • nor has the child merited salvation by any act of faith, or Baptism

so they speculated that there could be this state of neither damnation or beatitude (the direct vision of God in total salvation). They called it Limbo. This was supposedly a happiness, but not the salvation of the Blessed.

The concept of Limbo, although for centuries was popularly held, was never a doctrine of the Church. It is flawed. It is tied to a legalistic interpretation of salvation and presumes that God has no work around for the problem of Baptism. Frankly, we don't know how God saves every soul other than that Jesus died for them. It is a gift. If God wants to save someone, he can. Only He knows if a soul will accept or reject His Love. We would wager that most babies would embrace the one who made them so that is why we as the Church, entrust them to the Mercy of God. Even Paul alludes to God saving non-believers:

10 To this end we labor and strive, because we have set our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe. (1 Timothy 4:10)

So in the end, we baptize because Jesus told us to, and the promise includes all ages, because in a family, the faith of the parents stands in for the child until they are old enough to make their own decisions. Our faith is a family affair, just as it was for the Jews in the Old Testament.

Lastly, the devil has sought to destroy God's work, and he definitely threatens us with the loss of salvation when we buy into his rebellion, but the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ is just that, a gift, available to anyone who does not reject it.

  • Can God give the gift to anyone he pleases?
    • People who are incapable of making an act of faith?, Yes.
    • The severely mentally disabled?, Yes.
    • The ignorant?, Yes.
    • Infants?, Yes.
    • Those who die in the womb?, Yes.

There are no limitations on God, only on our understanding of how He does it all. What we don't fully understand, we entrust to His Mercy. We can rely on the principle that God wants to save everyone and very little stands in His way, but there is always the danger that sin and rejection of God's gift can cause destruction of the soul.

Sadly, for many fundamentalists, there doesn't seem to be the possibility of salvation for infants or the unborn or any of the class of persons who can't make an act of faith: (accepting Jesus to be their personal Lord and Savior.) I have seen a debate between a prominent Catholic apologist and a prominent Fundamentalist — who would not answer publicly as to what happens to a child of a Christian couple who dies before the age of reason and to the ability of that child to make a profession of faith. I found his silence to be cowardly. They hold that all who don't make this definitive act of faith are damned. (The Bible doesn't give an answer, so he figures he doesn't have to.)

There is no consolation for the Christian parents; but since they hold that God's justice damns all those who do not explicitly accept Jesus as Savior, and the Bible doesn't explain any other circumstance, God must be just. But really they have a cold-hearted and legalistic view of God. We don't see Him or His justice that way; His mercy abounds in ways we can't even imagine.

The Catholic view holds that anyone who is open to God, seeks him, loves, and does not try and impede His grace can be saved. So even non-Catholics, or even non-Christians . . . really anyone, can be saved. It's up to God. We will not put him in a box but we will be obedient to what He commanded us to do and follow His way and bring that to others. Those who turn away from the truth put their own souls at peril. There are also those who are ignorant, but not knowingly so, who reject things on the surface because they don't truly understand them (i.e., someone who doesn't become Catholic because he thinks it is messed up, but doesn't really know it.)

I hope you have a little better picture now of what we hold to be true.

For resources try the Catholic encyclopedia, any relevant books by Scott Hahn, and google things like limbo and then go to Wikipedia and look at the end notes for their sources.

You will find many good leads.


Bob Kirby

Eric replied:

Kay —

For a citable document for your research, consider:

This is not technically binding Church teaching but it's close enough for a high school class.


Kay replied:

Hi guys,

Thank you all so much!

The information really helped me and I think/hope I have a better understanding of your beliefs.


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