No Salvation Without Baptism?
Jesus said: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). Some Christians take these words literally to mean no baptism, no salvation. The Catholic Church does not take such an extreme view, but please explain how it can get around Christ’s very clear utterance that baptism is the only way to eternal life. Penny
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1257) acknowledges that the Church does not know of any means other than baptism that assures entry into eternal happiness. It adds this important qualification: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”
This is a significant observation.
When the Roman emperors rounded up Christian groups and persecuted them to death, there was often no opportunity to find water to baptise group members who had not yet received the sacrament. The unbaptised were martyred along with the baptised, and the Church recognised their courage as martyrs for Christ’s sake, including them among the saints. This came to be called baptism of blood.
Baptism is the formal rite of initiation into membership of the People of God and is the foundation stone of all our sacramental and spiritual life and its development.
But where there is faith in Christ and a desire to be united with him in his Church, there is also the “implied desire for baptism”. In other words, even before formal baptism into Church membership, it is possible to be saved because God is not bound by his sacraments. The truth remains: baptism into the Church is necessary for salvation
How can the desire for baptism be implied if someone has never heard of it or of Christ or of his Church?
This problem dominated theological thought especially when voyages of discovery beyond the shores of the then-known world revealed that there were immense populations living in utter ignorance of the Church.
St Paul wrote that God desires that all men should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4).
Vatican II added that, since Christ died for all, and since all are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all, in a way known to God, the possibility of sharing in the triumph of God’s kingdom (The Church in the Modern World, 22).
The truth remains: baptism into the Church is necessary for salvation. Those who are ignorant of the Gospel and the Church but seek to do the will of God in accordance with their understanding of it, can be saved. The presumption here is that they would have desired baptism explicitly if they had known of its necessity. This is known as baptism of desire.