One of the fundamental doctrines of Roman Catholicism is baptismal regeneration. The Roman church teaches that water administered in conjunction with the recitation of the trinitarian baptism formula actually cleanses a soul (in Catholicism, usually an infant) of all original sin and by which a person is alleged to be “born again.”
“Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1213
The Roman church teaches that baptism is absolutely essential for salvation. However, accommodations were made for two distinct cases:
- In the case of individuals who had been martyred, but had not yet been baptized, the Roman church made an exception and declared that those individuals had experienced a “baptism of blood,” that their bloody death had served as a legitimate baptism.
- Then there was the case of individuals who had been studying/preparing to be baptized and enter the church, but died before they could be baptized. The church declared that such persons were covered by “baptism of desire” (baptismus flaminis).
For 1500 years, the Catholic church taught that only people who were physically baptized as well as those two exceptions – unbaptized people who died as Catholic martyrs or people who died while desiring Catholic baptism – could possibly merit Heaven. But as modernism entered into the Catholic church in the 20th-century, the second accommodation began to be understood much more broadly among Catholic theologians and prelates. The notion that baptized Protestants could also merit Heaven was increasingly accepted by Catholic leadership and along with that accommodation came the belief that Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and those of other religions could also merit Heaven. The argument was that “good-hearted” people of those religions would desire Catholic baptism if they understood its importance, so, theoretically, they would also be covered by “baptism of desire.” These further accommodations were made official at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) via the declarations, “Unitatis redintegratio” and “Nostra aetate.” Pope Francis has since stated, although without a formal declaration to this point, that even “good” and “moral” atheists are covered by “baptism of desire.” Catholicism now upholds an impossible dichotomy; that a person MUST be baptized to possibly attain Heaven, and that a person needn’t be baptized to possibly attain Heaven if they don’t understand baptism’s significance.
Not all Catholics accepted this new, modernist-universalist understanding. Jesuit priest, Leonard E. Feeney (1897-1978), had been a very popular author and apologist for Roman Catholicism in the United States for twenty-years. However, he ran afoul of modern-leaning prelates, especially archbishop, Richard James Cushing of Boston where Feeney lived, when, in the 1940s, he began to publicly oppose this evolving new interpretation of “baptism of desire.” Feeney strongly defended the traditional, literal Catholic teaching of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church there is no salvation). Interestingly, it was Robert F. Kennedy, a young, Harvard undergraduate at the time, who led the campaign to censure Feeney. For his very public obstinacy, Feeney was formally excommunicated from the church in 1953, but was reinstated in 1972 in his old age and declining health.
The new Vatican II accommodations to Protestants and other religionists took many years to spread through the church and become accepted. I can vividly remember a specific incident while attending Bishop Kearney Catholic High School in Rochester in the early 1970s. Irish Christian Brother, John “Cookie” Gilchrist, was teaching our religion class and reiterated the traditional Catholic teaching that only baptized Catholics had a chance of meriting Heaven. One of my classmates, Dennis Kennelly, strongly challenged Gilchrist, stating that a Protestant friend of his was a “good person” and had as much of a chance at Heaven as anyone else. Gilchrist’s face turned scarlet as he struggled to control his anger. He insisted that the church taught that only baptized Catholics could possibly merit Heaven. Amazingly, the Catholic religious instructor was not aware of the Vatican II ecumenical reforms ten years after the fact!!!
Many conservative and traditionalist Catholics believe, as Jesuit Feeney did, that the RCC deviated into error at Vatican II by declaring that non-Catholics could also merit Heaven. However, neither the traditional Catholic teaching on baptism or the modern one are the genuine Gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone.
I intend to continue studying the Feeney controversy. To see the interesting Wiki article on Leonard Feeney, click here.