The three baptisms by Fr. Joseph Pfeiffer
Originally featured in the March 1998 issue of The Angelus magazine.
"unless one is baptized with the baptism of water "in re," "in actuality," that one will necessarily be damned (i.e., deprived of the beatific vision).
The proponents of this doctrine are followers of the teaching of the famous American Jesuit, Fr. Leonard Feeney, who cites the dogma Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus ( Outside the Church there is no salvation) against anyone who would claim the existence of three baptisms.
How necessary is the sacrament of baptism? What are the so-called "three baptisms"? Is this distinction of baptisms a novel distinction designed by the liberals to destroy in the minds of men any thought that the Catholic Church is absolutely necessary for salvation? Is this distinction truly contrary to the dogma Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus?
Such questions are often posed by the followers of Fr. Feeney, questions that they claim point to only one "true" answer, summarized in the following conclusion, taken from Fr. Feeney himself in his 1952 book, Bread of Life, where he states on p.25:
It is now: Baptism of Water, or damnation! If you do not desire that Water, you cannot be justified. And if you do not get it, you cannot be saved.
The necessity of baptism
Did not Our Lord Himself say that "unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" [Jn. 3:5]? How necessary is it to be baptized, according to the saints and the Church’s teaching? The Council of Trent teaches in the following de fide canons:
Can. 4. If anyone shall say that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary for salvation, but are superfluous, and that although all are not necessary for every individual, without them or without the desire for them through faith alone men obtain from God the grace of justification; let him be anathema (On the Sacraments in General, Dz. 847, emphasis added).
Can. 5. If anyone saith that baptism is optional, that is, not necessary unto salvation; let him be anathema (On the Sacrament of Baptism, Dz. 861.).
From the above teaching of Trent, which is a canonization of the teaching of St. Thomas on the necessity of baptism, it is de fide that baptism is necessary in a double way, by a necessity of precept, and more importantly, by a necessity of means. A thing is necessary for salvation by a necessity of precept, when it obliges because of the command of a superior. If the command is not known, or too difficult to fulfill, one is not obliged to fulfill it. In such a way, Sunday Mass attendance is necessary for salvation. Infants are not obliged to attend Mass, and even adults, if they are ill or a great distance from Mass, are not obliged to attend.
He that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him and will manifest myself in him...we will come to him and make our abode with him. (Jn. 14:21-23)
In these words a description of the justification of a sinner is given as being a translation from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam to the state of grace and of the "adoption of sons" [Rom.8:15] of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ our Savior; and this translation after the promulgation of the Gospel cannot be effected except through the laver of regeneration or a desire for it as it is written: "Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." [Jn. 3:5] (Dz. 796, emphasis added)
Baptism of desire and blood
Since the baptism of water is so necessary as an indispensable means, what are the three baptisms? Some claim that they are a liberal phenomenon found "dogmatized" in the Baltimore Catechism and endorsed only by liberal theologians and modernists who use this distinction to take away the need for water, and the Church. The baptism of water is the first baptism. What are the other two?
The baptism of desire (flaminis) is described by the Church Doctor St. Robert Bellarmine - in accordance with St. Thomas’s definition of the same - as follows:
Perfect conversion and penitence is rightly called baptism of desire, and in necessity at least, it supplies for the baptism of water. It is to be noted that any conversion whatsoever cannot be called baptism of desire; but only perfect conversion, which includes true contrition and charity, and at the same time a desire or vowed intention of baptism (De Sacramento Baptismi, Liber I cap. VI).
St. Alphonsus Ligouri defines the baptism of blood (sanguinis) as:
Desire is a splendid diabolical word with which to confuse people. Up until recent times, even the most ambitious of the theologians of the Church never dared to use it in connection with baptism except in a study of the nature of justification, which still left the problem of salvation unsolved - salvation by "Baptism of Desire" (p. 39).
On the Triple Baptism. There is a triple baptism, the river, the flame and the blood. The river in water, the flame in penance, the blood in martyrdom [author’s translation].
We adduce only the opinions and words of the Fathers and not our own; for we are not wiser than our fathers... Believe me, it will be difficult to separate me from these two pillars, by which I refer to Augustine and Ambrose. I confess that with them I am either right or wrong in believing that people can be saved by faith alone and the desire to receive the sacrament, even if untimely death or some insuperable force keep them from fulfilling their pious desire (Letter 77, 1, 8).
All of these manuals (99.9% of which are written in Latin), like St. Bernard, quote the authority of Ambrose and Augustine, both saints and Fathers of the Church. They usually quote at least several other saintly authorities, as well as a few popes of the past two millennia in defense of the doctrine that there truly is a triple distinction of baptism, that this distinction is a Catholic distinction, that it is the constant teaching of the Church. The saints and Catholic theologians of the past millennium who write on the topic of the triple baptism are in agreement with Sts. Bernard, Ambrose, Augustine, including the Angelic Doctor himself, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Common Doctor of the Church. St. Thomas (d. 1274) wrote in support of the Fathers’ and Doctors’ teaching that there are three modes of baptism, in the Tertia Pars (Q. 66, A. 11; Q. 68, A. 2) of the Summa Theologica. Concerning this great work of St. Thomas, Pope Leo XIII in Aeterni Patris writes:
The Fathers of Trent made it part of the order of the conclave to lay upon the altar, together with the code of Sacred Scripture and the decrees of the Supreme Pontiffs, the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, whence to seek counsel, reason and inspiration.
Such is the teaching of the above saints. One would think, however, from reading some of the recent works of the followers of Fr. Feeney that the doctrine of the baptism of desire was held as an obscure opinion amongst some misguided Catholic theologians and saints - saints who got it wrong in deference to St. Thomas, who believed the doctrine only in deference to St. Augustine, who held it because he once heard a sermon of St. Ambrose, "On the Death of Valentinian" in which the saint states that the unbaptized 20-year-old emperor, who was murdered in the Alps while on his way to be baptized by Ambrose, had saved his soul because of his ardent desire for baptism and his supernatural virtue. In that sermon written by St. Ambrose, he writes:
But I hear that you mourn, because he did not receive the sacrament of baptism ... Does he not have the grace that he desired; does he not have what he asked for? Certainly what he asked for, he received. And hence it says ‘But the just man, if he be prevented with death, shall be in rest’ [Wis. 4:7] (PL 16, 1374).
We respond that, since there should be a distinction between the one baptizing and the one baptized, as is clearly gathered from the words of the Lord, when He says to the Apostles: "Go, baptize all nations in the name etc.," the Jew mentioned must be baptized again by another, that it may be shown that he who is baptized is one person, and he who baptizes another ... If, however, such a one had died immediately, he would have rushed to his heavenly home without delay because of the faith of the sacrament, although not because of the sacrament of faith (Dz. 413, emphasis added).