I’ve given a (very basic) scriptural explication of the Sacrament of Baptism; I’ve asked the question of why many Protestant Christians reject the sacramentality and efficacy of Baptism, if not the importance and necessity of Baptism altogether; and all the while I’ve been promising that there’s a message of love and hope buried somewhere in what seems so far to be mostly grousing. This is it. I have a lot I want to cover here — I hope I actually get to the hope this time, while maintaining a reasonable length — but I will certainly do my best.
One Baptism: An Enduring Mark of Christian Unity
St. Paul asserted firmly that we are are “one body” in Christ, baptized together into His Body by “one baptism.” He was writing in the context of division and infighting within the Church of his time, especially the Church at Corinth; he wrote to remind the believers there that they were all One in Christ through their Baptism into Him, each a part of His Body with his or her own vocation to fulfill. Although Paul could not have foreseen the sad state of our schism today, the Spirit certainly did: Paul’s words are perhaps more piercingly relevant today than they were then (1 Corinthians 12:12-13):
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
He might as well have been addressing directly, I think, today’s Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox. Paul again wrote (Ephesians 4:5):
I therefore . . . urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, . . . eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches, in accordance with this scriptural teaching and with the Nicene Creed, that there is “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” She accepts baptisms given by even Protestant communities as valid sacraments — even if the Protestants reject Baptism’s sacramentality. I, having been baptized as a Protestant, didn’t have to be baptized again when I entered the Church.
The thrust of that is this: In the Church’s eyes, I had already been baptized into the Body of Christ. The Church believes that all Christians who are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19) are truly baptized into the One Body of Christ — that even through our schism, the unity of His Body persists. Baptism is the “sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn.” It is the “foundation of communion among all Christians” (CCC 1271; Second Vatican Council, 1964, Unitatis redintegratio §§2, 3).
So what about people who aren’t baptized? Are they condemned?
Not necessarily. As the Catechism puts succinctly, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but He himself is not bound by His sacraments” (CCC 1257).
The Church recognizes a few exceptions in particular: First, what it calls the Baptism of blood: The Church believes that those believers who suffer death for the sake of the faith are baptized by blood and by their death for and with Christ (CCC 1258).
The desire or intention for Baptism can also bring the fruits of Baptism without actually receiving the Sacrament, if one meets death before one can. Catechumens especially who die before their Baptism, repentant for their sins and fully intending to receive the Sacrament, can be assured of their salvation, the Church believes (CCC 1259).
The Church also holds out hope for those who die never knowing the Gospel or the necessity of Baptism, but who strove for God’s truth to the best of their knowledge, ability, and opportunity, and who lived their lives in pursuit of charity and righteousness — that they can be saved, too (CCC 1260).
And most of all, in the hope of which I’ve been speaking, I firmly believe that those Christians of our separated brethren whose communities have wandered from apostolic teaching, who neglect the Sacrament of Baptism and never emphasize its necessity as Christ taught, still have the opportunity to be saved, in God’s infinite mercy. For those who love the Lord, who strive to embrace and live the Gospel, who bear the Spirit’s fruit, but through no fault of their own, are not led to Baptism — I believe and hope in their salvation. If they had but known their need for Baptism, they certainly would have sought it, and God embraces that, the Church believes.
In the end, the core truth of Catholic teaching about the Sacrament of Baptism is that it is not a legalistic requirement, a “work” that one has to do to win favor with God, but the means for our salvation provided by the Lord, a gift given by a merciful God who loves us infinitely. The Church is the “vessel of salvation,” but to be saved, one has to first get on the boat. Just so, Baptism is the door to our death and rebirth in Christ; the sharing in His Death and Resurrection, by which He washes away our sins; the way we receive His grace and salvation. And it is offered and extended to all who seek Him. But first one has to get in the water.