Baptism and the Baptism of Desire


By Raymond Taouk


What is the Church's teaching on the Necessity of Baptism?

It is by baptism that we are incorporated into the mystical body of Christ. However, what makes one a member of the Church primarily in a certain sense is faith, since even amongst the damned souls in hell there are those who have the baptismal character and yet are not members of the Church in any sense of the term. While the sacraments give a visible dimension to the faith, as an external profession of the Church, it is nevertheless true to state that faith is a more fundamental requirement for Church membership for those on earth.[1] For that reason the Church teaches that, “Baptism of water is really necessary by necessity of means, but extrinsically only, according to the positive will of God. But what is necessary only extrinsically can be supplied through something else; it was altogether fitting that this would be supplied through charity or perfect contrition, which are the best depositions". [2] 

While for infants, baptism is the sole means of salvation, (as they cannot make an act of faith, which requires the use of reason), yet it may be rightly affirmed ask if  “regardless of the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation, are there not other means [than that of water] of providing for it? The Fathers [of the Church] admit to baptism of blood or martyrdom, and in a certain measure the baptism of desire, as a means of replacing the baptism of water."[3]

Fr. Marin-Sola states in his theological treaties on the sacraments: “Certain heretics have affirmed that no adult can be saved without receiving baptism itself before he dies, however much he would burn with desire for it, and that it would do him no good unless he were washed with water. Baius (in a proposition condemned by Pope V) also taught that charity was not always joined to the remission of sins.” He continues on to state “Against the second part (baptism of blood) there are hardly any adversaries, save for a few theologians who disagree over the manner in which martyrdom achieves its effect.” [4]

The great theologian and doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus Liguori (1691-1787) teaches the same saying:  “But baptism of desire is perfect conversion to God by contrition or love of God above all things accompanied by an explicit or implicit desire for true Baptism of water, the place of which it takes as to the remission of guilt, but not as to the impression of the [baptismal] character or as to the removal of all debt of punishment. It is called “of wind␅ [flaminis] because it takes place by the impulse of the Holy Ghost Who is called a wind [flamen]. Now it is de fide that men are also saved by Baptism of desire, by virtue of the Canon Apostolicam De Presbytero Non Baptizato and the Council of Trent, Session 6, Chapter 4, where it is said that no one can be saved “without the laver of regeneration or the desire for it.”-    Moral Theology Book 6.

Is this the constant teaching of the Church?

This doctrine has been taught by doctors of the Church throughout her history from the earliest days down to recent times: "the Doctrine that Baptism of Water may be replaced by the Baptism of desire or by Baptism of Blood is not, as is some times supposed, a recent development of doctrine, it is taught for instance by St. Gregory Nazianzen in a sermon preached in 381,[5] where mention is made of the Baptism of water, of Martyrdom and of tears. It must be observed that we do not hold that there are three kinds of Baptism, for in the creed read in the Mass, we confess one Baptism for the remission of sins, the actual reception of which, however, may be replaced in either of the two ways mentioned." [6] 

Baptism of desire is not the sacrament of baptism and yet applying the term “baptism” to the baptism of blood and baptism of desire has been a practice of the Church for centuries. Even if it is not a baptism in the strict sense, it nevertheless is a baptism in the analogical sense. Just as receiving the Eucharist by making a spiritual “Communion” is not a true Communion, but given the name “Spiritual Communion” in the analogical sense. In both cases, no one is denying the primary term. On the same point, St. Albert the Great says that the baptism of blood and the baptism of desire can only be called baptism when water baptism is lacking.[7]

In this sense, "Baptisms of desire" and "Baptism of blood" are not sacraments, but simply fulfill the requirements when the sacrament cannot be received due to extraordinary circumstances. Thus, one speaks metaphorically of "different Baptisms" yet they all obtain the same sanctifying grace. In fact, Our Lord Himself spoke of different Baptisms during His public ministry. There was "the Baptism wherewith I am to be baptized" (Lk. 12:50), referring to a Baptism of blood, which was His crucifixion. Describing the descent of the Holy Ghost on Pentecost, he says "For John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost, not many days hence" (Act. 1:5).

Concerning the necessity of the sacraments for salvation Peter Lombard (1160 AD) points out that, “God did not bind his power by the Sacraments.”[8] In other words, God is not bound by the sacraments to draw men to heaven (Cf. Job 33:15-18). St. Thomas Aquinas affirms the same as he points out “It belongs to the excellence of Christ power, that He (Christ) could bestow the sacramental effect without conferring the exterior sacrament.”[9] 

In fact if we turn to the authority of the Church Fathers we also find that their unanimity on the point gives us a sure certitude for this teaching since  “the unanimity of the Fathers (Consensus Patrum), in matters of faith and morals, begets complete certainty and commands assent, because they, as a body, bear witness to the teaching and belief of the infallible Church, representing the Church herself. So the authority of the Fathers is binding only when they all agree upon a question of faith and morals. The consensus, however, need not be absolute; a moral agreement suffices, as, for instance, when some of the greatest Fathers testify to a doctrine of the Church, and the rest, though quite aware of it, do not positively oppose it.” [10]

What does it mean to belong to the Church by desire’ or ‘longing’?

St. Thomas Aquinas states that" a man may, without Baptism of Water, receive the sacramental effect from Christ's Passion, in so far as he is conformed to Christ by suffering for Him. Hence, it is written (Apoc. 7:14): "These are they who are come out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb." In like manner a man receives the effect of Baptism by the power of the Holy Ghost, not only without Baptism of Water, but also without Baptism of Blood: forasmuch as his heart is moved by the Holy Ghost to believe in and love God and to repent of his sins: wherefore this is also called Baptism of Repentance. Of this, it is written (Is. 4:4): "If the Lord shall wash away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall wash away the blood of Jerusalem out of the midst thereof, by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning." Thus, therefore, each of these other Baptisms is called Baptism, forasmuch as it takes the place of Baptism. Wherefore Augustine says (De Unico Baptismo Parvulorum iv): "The Blessed Cyprian argues with considerable reason from the thief to whom, though not baptized, it was said: 'Today shall you be with Me in Paradise' that suffering can take the place of Baptism. Having weighed this in my mind again and again, I perceive that not only can suffering for the name of Christ supply for what was lacking in Baptism, but even faith and conversion of heart, if perchance on account of the stress of the times the celebration of the mystery of Baptism is not practicable." [11] He also states "Secondly, the sacrament of Baptism may be wanting to anyone in reality but not in desire: for instance, when a man wishes to be baptized, but by some ill-chance he is forestalled by death before receiving Baptism. Moreover, such a man can obtain salvation without being actually baptized, on account of his desire for Baptism, which desire is the outcome of "faith that works 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." [12]

What do you mean by an implicit desire?

By an implicit desire we mean that it requires some supernatural faith, but with invincible ignorance of the Church as St. Paul put it "He that comes to God must believe he is; and is a rewarder of them that seek him"  (Heb 11:6). Although the Church dose not judge the subjective dispositions of individuals is able to affirm this teaching based on the words of Christ, "Every one therefore that shall confess me before men, I will also confess him before my heavenly father" (Matt 10:32). This implicit faith also implies a detestation of sin (Acts 2:38) and a will to obey God (James 2:17, 2:24 -6, Jn 14:15, 1 Cor 13:2) as sin and the obstinacy to God are both incompatible to the state of grace which is essential to salvation.

By an implicit faith in God the Church does not mean a mere knowledge of God (as can be derived from reason alone) but a supernatural knowledge which is accompanied by a supernatural act of faith (Heb 11:16, Rom 5:1-5, Rom 10:13). In declaring that baptism may be had by desire or by blood, we can clearly see just how necessary it is to be baptized, since if one does not even have the efficacious desire to be baptized then he cannot be saved! This alone shows us the reality of the number of the damned since even an implicit desire for baptism requires a supernatural faith in God.

Thus, there is need of explicit faith in some article of faith. In the implicit desire of baptism, the act of Faith and hope must be explicit while it suffices for the desire of baptism itself to be implicit since he who desires the whole desires necessarily every part of that whole. For example if a Pagan is touched by the Martyrdom of some Catholic and then openly declares himself to believe in the God of this Christian who was put to death and in turn is himself put to death. He would have an explicit faith in Christ yet knowing little about Christ or the Sacraments. Our Lord has promised: "Every one that confess me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in Heaven." St. Augustine points out that these words are as universal in their scope and import as those in which our lord taught the general necessity of baptism of water. Hence he deduces the consequence that the remission of sins is secured by death for Christ, as certainly as by the sacrament of Baptism. [13]

St. Thomas States, "some have received the invisible sanctification without visible sacraments, and to their profit; but though it is possible to have the visible sanctification, consisting in a visible sacrament, without the invisible sanctification, it will be to no profit." Since, therefore, the sacrament of Baptism pertains to the visible sanctification; it seems that a man can obtain salvation without the sacrament of Baptism, by means of the invisible sanctification”.[14]

Further the Catechism of Pope St. Pius X states that "The absence of Baptism can be supplied by martyrdom, which is called Baptism of Blood, or by an act of perfect love of God, or of contrition, along with the desire, at least IMPLICIT OF BAPTISM, and this is called Baptism of Desire".

It is for this reason that the Council of Trent teaches: "the state of grace cannot be had except through the laver of regeneration or a desire for it". [15]

The word “Votum” (as used by the Council of Trent) is not some superficial wish. That is not the meaning of the word at all. In fact, we must keep in mind that the very nature of faith means that it cannot be totally implicit as it is necessary to know and believe something divinely revealed with a supernatural faith. Laboring under invincible ignorance does not prevent a person from being converted to God by contrition or by an act of perfect Charity. In this act of contrition or perfect act of charity must be contained either an explicit or implicit desire to receive baptism by water according as the notion of baptism is or is not present to the mind of the Person who has turned his heart and mind to God.

St. Alphonsus Liguori in his commentary on the Works of the Council of Trent, openly states regarding the sacrament of Baptism that" Who can deny that the act of perfect love of God, which is sufficient for justification, includes an implicit desire of Baptism, of Penance, and of the Eucharist. He who wishes the whole wishes the every part of that whole and all the means necessary for its attainment. In order to be justified without baptism, an infidel must love God above all things, and must have an universal will to observe all the divine precepts, among which the first is to receive baptism: and therefore in order to be justified it is necessary for him to have at least an implicit desire of that sacrament." [16]

St. Augustine also distinguishes between the sacrament of Baptism and the turning of the heart to God. He teaches that if either of these conditions cannot be secured, the other will be sufficient. A baptized Child is saved, without turning its heart to God, should it die before coming to the age of reason, and a man who turns his heart to God is saved without water baptism, provided he in no way despise the sacrament. [17]

Although those who obtain the state of grace by means of the baptism of Blood or Desire, are members of the Church, but they do not have “social membership” here on earth unless baptized with water, since they do not have the character[18] of baptism which is imprinted on the soul in the baptism of water. However, it is essential to maintain that we have only one baptism (Eph. 4:4-5) as in all cases it is baptism we are referring to and not another type of sacrament. While it is true to say that they do not receive the character of baptism, it is also true to affirm that they do not receive the total remission of temporal punishments due to sin.

In any case, there is no Baptism of desire without the supernatural virtue of faith and a certain explicit knowledge of the essential points of faith. Since the nature of faith means that is impossible, that it be completely implicit since faith is a supernatural light to the intelligence. 

What does Scripture say on this issue?

In Sacred Scripture Our Lord alludes frequently to the internal dispositions, which must precede the outward manifestation of faith. In verses John 3:3-8, Christ speaks of Baptism five times but Baptism of water only once. For instance, He mentions the man "who is born of the spirit" (6, 8). St. Thomas Aquinas discussed the verse concerning Baptism by water (Jn 3:5) in the following context:

As it is written (I King 16:7), "Man sees those things that appear, but the Lord beholds the heart." Now a man who desires to be "born again of water and the Holy Ghost" by Baptism, is regenerated in the heart, though not in body: thus the Apostle says (Rom. 2:29) that "The circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not of men but God."

The primacy of the spirit is nowhere more plainly expressed than when Cornelius, a Roman centurion, is received into the Church. Note the sequence of events:

"While Peter was yet speaking these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them that heard the word. And the faithful of the circumcision, who came with Peter, were astonished, for that the grace of the Holy Ghost was poured out upon the Gentiles also.... And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ" (Act. 10:44-48).

Our Lord also stated, "Everyone that shall confess me before men, I will also confess before My Father in Heaven" (Mt. 10:32). This was later taken by many saints as a reference to Baptism of blood in place of water, as undergone by the catechumen martyrs.

Our Lord also declares; “Unless[19] you eat my flesh and drink my blood you shall not enter into the kingdom of Heaven” (John 6:8). Now if we affirm that someone who dies in the state of grace without receiving the Eucharist will be saved we would obviously have to qualify the statement of Our Lord by adding "at least in desire".[20]  

What is more is that St. Paul clearly states that by the state of Justification (being in the state of grace) we are made sons of God  “Being justified therefore by faith, let us have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access through faith into this grace wherein we stand: and glory in the hope of the glory of the sons of God” ( Romans 5:1). 

Now St. Paul also affirms “And if sons, heirs also; heirs indeed of God and joint heirs with Christ” - Romans 5:17 (See also Titus 3:7).  Hence, it clearly follows that if we die justified we indeed shall attain to the reward of the just, which is eternal life.

Doesn't this go against the Dogma "No Salvation outside the Church"?

No. The Dogma "No Salvation outside the Church" is an objective judgment based on the words of Christ and Church teaching. The Church however by means of this does not propose to judge the internal dispositions of individuals as this judgment is reserved to God alone for the Church does not Judge the internals or the dead for that matter, she judges objective facts. With this in mind, we must further affirm that even if we distinguish the visible, structural elements of the Church from the spiritual life of grace flowing in her members (body and soul of the Church) they only designate differently the same Church.[21] We must affirm this fact since we must never forget that there is no belonging to the soul of the Church if one refuses to belong to its body[22]. Since what is meant by "the Body of the Church" is simply the visible Society of the Roman Catholic Church, while by the term "the Soul of the Church" we are simply referring to the supernatural bonds of faith, hope and Charity.

The Church is necessary for all for salvation. This necessity is not only one of precept[23] but also of means (either as a cause or condition without which one cannot be saved) and this at least in desire. Disobedience to this command would forestall salvation.

As regards those who belong to the Church St. Augustine points out that, "When we speak of within and without in relation to the Church, it is the position of the heart that we must consider, not that of the body . . . All who are within in heart are saved in the unity of the ark" (Baptism 5:28:39). Yet we must keep in mind that no one who positively repudiates the Church can be said to belong to the Church in any sense. As St. Cyprian put it: "he will not have God for his Father who would not have the Church for his mother."

Pope Pius XII exclaimed the same when he stated, "those who do not belong to the visible Body of the Catholic Church . . . we ask each and every one of them to correspond to the interior movements of grace, and to seek to withdraw from that state in which they cannot be sure of their salvation. For even though by an unconscious desire and longing they have a certain relationship with the Mystical Body of the Redeemer, they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in he Catholic Church. Therefore may they enter into Catholic unity and, joined with us in the one, organic Body of Jesus Christ, may they together with us run on to the one Head in the society of glorious love".[24]

Further more St. Robert Bellarmine in his work" De Ecclesia Militante" states "there are those who belong to the soul [of the Church] and not the body, as [are] catechumens or the excommunicated, if indeed they have charity [state of grace], which can happen." Again he also affirms that "Catechumens however if not in re at least in voto are in the Church and are therefore able to be saved."[25]

While such persons are said to belong to the Soul of the Church it's important to keep in mind that no body can be said to belong to the soul of the Church if he does not at least desire to belong to the body of the Church.

Ultimately, to understand this dogma we must primarily understand primarily that when the Church declares it to an infallible to truth that "There is no Salvation outside the Church", she (the Church) is making an "Objective" judgment. She is not making a "Subjective" Judgment! She judges from the facts and hence she does not seek to judge the individual dispositions of men. This is for God alone. She judges from the facts. These facts are that those who separate themselves from the Church or those who are not part of her have not communion with her and with this knowledge and the Truths of the gospel she can unhesitatingly declare with Christ (her divine founder) that those who reject the Church reject salvation (Matt 18:17). The Church does not claim to judge each individual person, but errors. Hence, those who hold to these errors and die in them cannot be saved. This is precisely how this dogma is to be understood.

St. Thomas Aquinas when speaking of the salvation of infidels states that “Granted that everyone is bound to believe something explicitly, no untenable conclusion follows even if someone is brought up in the forest or among wild beasts. For it pertains to divine providence to furnish everyone with what is necessary for salvation, provided that of  his part there is no hindrance. Thus, if someone so brought up followed the direction of natural reason in seeking good and avoiding evil, we must most certainly hold that God would either reveal to him through internal inspiration what had to be believed, (in which case a desire for baptism would still be necessary) or would send some preacher of the faith to him as he sent Peter to Cornelius (Acts 10:20).” [26]

In dealing with the same issue St. Bonaventure states that “God obliges no one to do the impossible and therefore it must be admitted that the baptism of desire without the baptism of water is sufficient, provided the person in question has the will to receive the baptism of water, but is prevented from doing so before he dies." [27]

As early as 1713 Clement XI condemned in his dogmatic Bull "Unigenitus" the proposition of the Jensenist Quesnel that affirmed that “no grace is given outside the Church” just as Alexander VIII has already condemned in 1690 the Jansenistic proposition of Arnauld that “Pagans, Jews, heretics, and other people of the sort, receive no influx [of grace] whatsoever from Jesus Christ”.

A dilemma that we pose for those who deny this teaching (baptism of desire) is that when Pope Boniface VIII declared that there "Outside the Church there is no salvation nor remission of sins"[28]. We all agree that a person can be justified outside the Church. However, this justification means remission of sins, because it puts one in the state of grace. Thus, if we are to take this Bull rigorously as the Feeneyites wish[29], then we must say also that there can be no justification/remission of sins before entrance in the Church/water Baptism. How is it that such persons will often admit that one can be justified before baptism of water and then at the same time declare that such justified persons are still totally outside the Church and are not members of the Church in any sense of the word? This goes directly against the words of Pope Boniface VIII who made it clear that "Outside the Church is no salvation nor remission of sins". This must obviously mean that those who are justified without water baptisms are indeed members in some sense of the term or else one could never admit that a person could be justified (have the remission of their sins) before baptism (by water).

It is only with a proper understanding of the faith that we are able to put the Church's teaching on this issue in its proper context, without avoiding excess or defect. For that same reason, it is worth noting that the Church has always condemned the following as errors opposed to the faith:[30]

First error: "Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true." (Proposition XV).

Second error that: "Man may, in the observance of any religion whatever, find the way of eternal salvation and arrive at eternal salvation." (Proposition XVI).

Third error: "Good hope at least is to be entertained of the eternal salvation of all those who are not at all in the true Church of Christ." (Proposition XVII).

Fourth error: "Protestantism is nothing more than another form of the same true Christian religion, in which form it is given to please God equally as in the Catholic Church." (Proposition XVIII).


While it might seem insignificant to have given an in-depth analysis to this question on baptism. Yet like in all questions of controversy, the elaboration of the truth on any given point of doctrine is essential for a clear understand of what we are required to believe as Catholics.

This teaching of the Church far from taking away the obligation to be baptized or to enter the Church rather affirms to us not only the necessity for entering the Church but also the necessity for baptism. It shows us the real implications for willfully neglecting to receive baptism and enter the Church, which is the sole ark of Salvation. Even if the Church teaches that it is possible to attain salvation by of the "baptism of desire" or "Baptism of Blood", she is not teaching that it is the ordinary means of salvation for anyone. It would only be by a moral miracle that a person could be saved in such a manner, since what is by definition beyond the ordinary is extraordinary. There is no question of individuals being saved by their own efforts, without God's grace, and therefore outside the Church. On the contrary, it is stated that because these individuals are holding to the true teaching of Christ that they are joined invisibly to the Church. Thus, strictly speaking, one does not say "non-Catholics may be saved" or "Protestants can go to heaven." There are no non-Catholics in the Church and there are no non-Catholics in heaven. The only souls in heaven are those who have joined themselves to the Church in fact or desire.


[1] Cf. Summa Theologica III Q. 8. Art 3

[2] AD. TANQUEREY, A Manual of Dogmatic Theology, Vol II, 1959, Pg. 229

[3] Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique, Section on Baptism - Bapteme d'apres les peres Grecs et Latins.

[4] De Sacramentis, (BAC, 1954), 69.

[5] Orat. 39, In Sancta Lumina, 17; P.G. 35; 356

[6] Outlines of Dogmatic Theology, Sylvester J. Hunter, S.J. (London, Longmans Green & Co) 1896, Vol III, No. 696, Pg. 228

[7] Opera Omnia Tomus XXVI, pp.35-40, See also De Baptismo Q.I, art. 7, De Divisione Baptismo

[8] DTC Col. 537

[9] Summa Theologica III, Q. 64, Art. 3. He also states elsewhere “God did not bind his power to the sacraments, so as to be unable to bestow the sacramental effect without conferring the sacrament’ – Ibid, Art. 7. 

[10] Manual of Patrology, by Rev. Bernard Schid, O.S. B, Herder Book Co., 1917, Pg.  31.

[11] - Summa Theologica, III, q 66. a 11

[12] Cf. Summa Theologica III, q68, a 2

[13] De Civitate Dei, 13,7.

[14] Summa Theologica III, q68, a 2

[15] DzB 796.

[16] St. Alphonsus Liguori on the Council of Trent, 1846, Pg. 128 -129 (published by James Duffy, Dublin, 10 Wellington Quay).

[17] De Baptismo, IV.25,32.

[18] St. Thomas states (Cf. Summa Theologica, III, Q63) that the purpose of the Character is to depute/ordain us for the Public worship of God in this life, since in the next life it will have no purpose as such even though it shall not be blotted out as the Council of Trent points out (Dz 852). This Character is a spiritual power or potency by which we participate in the priesthood of Christ, either actively (as is the case for priests) or passively (as is the case for the faithful) so that we may render public worship to God as members of Catholic Church. Yet this does not prevent an individual by means of virtue or religion of rendering private worship to God and directing their acts God as desiring to be united to God and his Church.

[19] Note that in both John 3:5 and John 6:8 the same Latin word “nisi” is used for unless/except.

[20] St. Thomas Aquinas points this out when dealing with the question of the Eucharist and its necessity for salvation - (Summa Theologica, III, Q73, Art. 3).

[21] Cf. Mystici Corporis # 62f, #1063f, Satis Cognitum #543.

[22] Billot, De Eccl. Pg323

[23] 1 Thess. 5:12-13, Heb. 13:7, 17; Matt. 16:15-18; 10:14, Luke 10:16, Acts 20:28

[24] Mystici Corporis 103

[25] De Ecclesia Militante, Lib. III, Cap. 3

[26] De Veritate, Q14, Art. 11 ad 1.  

[27] St. Bonaventure, In Sent. IV, d.4,P.2,a.I,q.I.

[28] Bull Unam Sanctum, 1302 Feen

[29] “Feeneyites” – The Followers of Fr. Feeney, who denied the Church’s teaching on the Baptism of desire and blood. His followers deny the possibility to anyone who has not received baptism by water to enter the kingdom of heaven, without exception.

[30] Pius IX: Principal errors concerning the Church, Syllabus, Dec. 8, 1884