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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Salvation, Christ & the Unborn


If Original sin affects all mankind and the only way to cleanse it is through baptism, would not that then imply that those not baptized carry Original sin and are forbidden from entering heaven? Following that train of thought, if the Catholic Church believes that unborn children are in fact alive human persons does that then imply that babies which pass away as a result of stillbirth cannot enter heaven since they are unbaptized and still carry Original sin?

On a related note, if I as a Christian believe that life begins with “sentience” or “personhood” as opposed to consummation, can I still consider myself a good Christian, particularly if I support a woman’s right to abortion during the first trimester (when the child is not alive at all)?


Strictly speaking, Original sin is not a voluntary sin but is a moral corruption that is contracted. It is a child’s state of the soul before Christian baptism. We inherit a fallen nature from Adam. Separated from God, we cannot save ourselves and we are left devoid of the original grace and holiness that our first parents enjoyed. Sin breached our friendship with God. The redemptive work of Christ restores this relationship. The sacraments, beginning with baptism, bring the paschal mystery of Christ to bear upon our souls. We have a fallen nature and suffer from concupiscence. Baptism brings spiritual regeneration; however, while there is forgiveness for Original sin, the effects have yet to be undone.

The question you ask is essentially this: can a person be saved apart from baptism and faith in Christ?

The Second Vatican Council teaches that everything necessary for our salvation “subsists” in the Catholic Church. This speaks to her membership but we are also reminded, as in the Good Friday liturgy, that the Church prays for Protestants, Atheists, Jews, Moslems and others. We would only do so if we thought that such intercession might be heard by God. The Orthodox Christians have authentic sacraments and are a “church” albeit defective. The Protestants are ecclesial communities that love the Lord and possess baptism, the Scriptures and so much more as an inheritance from Catholicism. These are saving elements.

The necessity of baptism emerges in the words of Christ (John 3:5 & Mark 16:16). He tells his apostles to go out to the entire world and to baptize with water in the name of the Trinity (Matthew 28:19-20).

Your question really references those who are not Christian and thus not baptized. Vatican II made reference to the plight of non-Christians (Jews, Moslems and seekers of “the unknown God.” Lumen Gentium 16:

“Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience those too may achieve eternal salvation.”

Lumen Gentium 14 states:

“[Jesus] explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door. Hence, they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it, or to remain in it.”

Note the qualification. Those who KNOW that the Catholic Church is the true Church and who still refuse to enter it bring dire judgment upon themselves. But, most that do not join do not have this insight. Ignorance may be an important factor. The Church is bound to proclaim the Gospel and to dispense the sacraments. The Church is the great sacrament of encounter with the saving Christ. This is what we know and this is what Jesus has entrusted to us.

Nevertheless, God can save whomever he wills and is not necessarily restricted to the sacraments. That is why we do not condemn or judge those outside the strict or juridical confines of the Catholic Church. The truth remains that none are saved apart from Christ and none are saved apart from his mystical body, the Catholic Church. We as Catholics do not believe that once saved one is always saved. Instead of such a view of “blessed assurance,” Catholics believe that with baptism we are called to a faith that is lived out in obedience and charity. If this saving faith be sustained then we have every right to hope for our ultimate salvation. In other words, faith can sour, people can commit mortal sin, and even baptized Catholics can go to hell. It should be mentioned that the Church has also accepted two extraordinary cases of baptism outside the normative formula: baptism by blood and baptism of desire. They are technically not baptism but make possible similar effects and saving grace.

The early Church would know several centuries of harsh persecution. It was the age of martyrs. Catechumens preparing to enter the faith were sometimes tortured and executed by the Roman authorities. The Church always embraced them as her children since they died to uphold the faith and surrendered themselves with Jesus. This was baptism by blood (see Matthew 10:32 & Luke 9:23-24).

Somewhat controversial among certain authorities in the Church is baptism of desire. A basic truth has to be properly nuanced. Christ gives us a universal call to salvation. He desires that all would be saved. Nevertheless, this must be distinguished from the heretical position that all people are saved in actuality. This would signify a false religious indifferentism or universalism. Hell is real. Not all will be saved. I would refrain from entering the debate as to whether more people will be in heaven or hell. I would leave such matters entirely to divine providence. Like the late Frank Sheed, we can pray that the devil is lonely. The saving effects of the paschal mystery of Christ (his passion, death and resurrection) cannot be contained by human history or locked into any one place. The very created order of the universe has changed. Thus, so the argument goes, even those who have not heard the Gospel may yet be saved. Gaudium et Spes 1260 states:

“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.”

The missionary mandate remains. We cannot trust that one might somehow find their way into heaven without the explicit help of the Church. Further, Christ alone is the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one is saved apart from Christ. He is the only bridge to the heavenly Father. Pope Benedict XVI was wrongly criticized by the Jewish community when he reiterated the Catholic teaching that Jews in heaven will have to acknowledge Jesus as their Lord and Savior— the true Messiah. Upon this point, the late Cardinal-priest Avery Dulles even corrected the USCCB document on relations with the Jews, our elder brothers and sisters called by God. There are not two covenants. There is one covenant and it has been fulfilled by Christ.

We should never water-down the importance of baptism and the graces we receive. There can be all sorts of speculation about how others might be saved, but we can have certainty in the efficacy of Christian faith and the sacraments, beginning with baptism. If we really care about others then we will never be silent in proclaiming the lordship of Christ and his desire for us to be in unity with his new People of God.

If babies should die without baptism, we entrust them to divine mercy. In days gone by we spoke about the possibility of limbo, a scholastic theory about a place of natural happiness but ignorance of God. The universal catechism says nothing about limbo. Our Lord called the children to himself. He says the kingdom belongs to “such as these” (Mark 10:14). We are also reminded of the Holy Innocents martyred in Christ’s stead. They are counted as saints. Maybe all children as reflections of the Christ Child share in their reward? The Church urges parents not to delay in having their children baptized. Jesus just never explicitly speaks about the urgency to baptize babies. Of course, the Bible tells us that whole households were converted to the Lord and baptized in the early Church. This no doubt included babies. The faith of parents was seen to suffice. We are connected. We are a family. Ours is both a personal and a communal faith. The universal catechism states:

“As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. … All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism” (CCC #1261).

Turning to the subject of abortion and miscarriage…

Catholics believe that the incarnation began at the annunciation with the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. We also believe that Mary is the Immaculate Conception, preserved from sin from the very first moment of her existence in the womb of St. Ann. An argument for personhood based on sentience could arguably lead not only to abortion but infanticide and euthanasia. Indeed, a eugenics program might classify those with severe intellectual defects as non-sentient, and thus target them for mass extermination.

If sentience were defined as the age of reason, one could arguably terminate six year old children. I suspect you would not so loosely define it but the can of worms would still be opened. Catholicism would rather argue for personhood based upon the general humanity of the embryo. You are what you are throughout your developmental trajectory. Just as Jesus was God and man, as an embryo or even as a single-celled zygote, so we can speak about the humanity and personhood of all conceived of women. Everything genetically that will make us who we are (the whole organism) is present from the beginning— although immature. Even apart from religious teaching, Catholicism would philosophically renounce any argument for personhood based purely on current or immediate biological consciousness. Rejecting a stark mind/body dualism, we would stress the innate capacity to eventually develop into what we regard as a rational being. In other words, when it comes to people, “the tree is in the acorn.”

The Church would contend that if you support first trimester abortion, you are still involved with the murder of human beings. As for the religious element, we believe that those children have souls. No matter whether the physical life is terminated by therapeutic or spontaneous abortion (miscarriage), the child’s soul survives. We intercede as a Church for these children. The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen composed a prayer of spiritual adoption for children threatened with abortion. We earnestly try to save them. Failing that, we commend them to God. As for your personal question, think about it this way: can you kill children and still regard yourself as a good Christian? Could you even do so if there were the slightest chance that you were wrong in your opinion and the Church was right?