By Timothy S. Flanders
This article as a podcast:
Water Baptism is Necessary for Salvation
The necessity of water Baptism is presented in stark terms by our Lord:
Amen, amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God (Jn. iii. 5).
From this derives the constant teaching of the Church that water Baptism is necessary for salvation. This teaching is affirmed as recently as the New Catechism, which references this verse when it says “The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary” (CCC 1257) and
The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments (CCC 1257).
Baptism is the Most Necessary, Therefore it is the Most Accessible
Since it is necessary, God also ordained that it be the easiest Sacrament to receive both because of its matter (water) and its minister (anyone). This is summed up by St. Thomas:
It is due to the mercy of Him Who will have all men to be saved (I Tim. ii. 4) that in those things which are necessary for salvation, man can easily find the remedy. Now the most necessary among all the sacraments is Baptism, which is man’s regeneration unto spiritual life: since for children there is no substitute, while adults cannot otherwise than by Baptism receive a full remission both of guilt and of its punishment. Consequently, lest man should have to go without so necessary a remedy, it was ordained, both that the matter of Baptism should be something common that is easily obtainable by all, i.e. water; and that the minister of Baptism should be anyone, even not in orders, lest from lack of being baptized, man should suffer loss of his salvation (III q67 a3).
Thus since water Baptism is necessary for salvation, God instituted this Sacrament with the most common and readily available substance in daily life—water. Not only this, but anyone is able to validly baptize, even a layman or woman, and even a heretic or pagan.
It is a Sin to Unreasonably Delay Baptism
Given what is said above, the Catechism of the Council of Trent declares that delaying baptism is a sin:
Baptism Of Infants Should Not Be Delayed
The faithful are earnestly to be exhorted to take care that their children be brought to the church, as soon as it can be done with safety, to receive solemn Baptism. Since infant children have no other means of salvation except Baptism, we may easily understand how grievously those persons sin who permit them to remain without the grace of the Sacrament longer than necessity may require, particularly at an age so tender as to be exposed to numberless dangers of death (Roman Catechism 2.1).
Thus have recent popes Leo XIII and St. John Paul II admonished parents to not delay baptism. Thus the current code of canon law states:
Parents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks; as soon as possible after the birth or even before it, they are to go to the pastor to request the sacrament for their child and to be prepared properly for it.
An infant in danger of death is to be baptized without delay (Can. 867 §1, 2).
A reasonable delay of “the first few weeks” is permitted so that the solemnity can be arranged to be celebrated by the priest. However, because of the necessity of this sacrament for salvation, in danger of death, the solemnity of the priest is dispensed and a layman or woman should perform the baptism immediately.
Justice and Charity
These provisions illustrate the principle virtues which bind the faithful regarding baptism. Justice is the virtue by which a man gives to another what is his due right. Charity is a higher virtue which simply wills the good of another for the sake of God, not in regards to any rights.
Now it is the right of the priest to celebrate the Sacraments, as he has been ordained for this purpose by God. However, because of the necessity of baptism and the higher duty of charity, in a time of necessity the priest’s right according to justice yields to the obligation of charity. In other words, it is a greater duty by charity to baptize a child in grave need than to protect the right of the priest by justice to baptize. The need of the child to be baptized is greater than the need of the priest to baptize. Thus parents are obliged to not delay baptism and, if there is no way for the priest to baptize (i.e. the child is likely to die), the parents themselves must baptize.
Thus in our time when priests are not available to baptize, the parents must baptize the child since the sacrament cannot be delayed in favor of a priest’s right, which could be delayed indefinitely. Make every effort to have the priest baptize, but in the case that he cannot, the child must still be baptized.
Doesn’t Baptism of Desire Suffice?
Fr. Spirago explains the context of the baptism of desire or blood:
If baptism by water is impossible, it may be replaced by the baptism of desire, or by the baptism of blood, as in the case of those who suffer martyrdom for the faith of Christ (Catechism Explained, Baptism).
The context in which these extraordinary means of baptism have been recognized by the Church is always in the context of water Baptism. The two examples referenced by Thomas from the Fathers is instructive about the extraordinary nature of these.
Regarding Baptism of Desire, the example is given when the Emperor Valentinian II was traveling to Milan in order to be baptized, he was assasinated. The Church recognized in this case that he had received the grace of baptism in an extraordinary case, since he was exerting the will to be baptized by water.
The other case is a catechumen preparing for water baptism who suffers martyrdom for Christ before he is able to be baptized. This is the “Baptism of Blood” or “Baptism of Fire” wherein the Church celebrates as martyrs those catechumens who died without baptism, since martyrdom “contains all the sacramental virtue of Baptism” (III q68 a2).
From these examples it should be self-evident that the Sacramental grace of baptism without water is exceedingly rare and extraordinary. Hence the stark words given at the beginning regarding the necessity of being “born again of water.” It is Jesus Christ Himself who made such an absolute statement.
The New Catechism elaborates that we do not utterly despair of salvation for unbaptized pagans with invincible ignorance, nor of unbaptized children who die. Nevertheless the Catechism continues, quoting our Lord Let the children come to me, do not hinder them, and concludes “All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism“ (CCC 1261).
Such hope for extraordinary graces are founded on God’s mercy, since it is true that “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments” (CCC 1257). Nevertheless this is an uncertain hope. This is because God has not revealed these mysteries to us, nor can we say with any certainty that this child or that man will receive an extra-sacramental grace of baptism. But we can say with certainty that performing a valid baptism will confer the grace, because God has promised it and revealed it and commanded it. Therefore it is exceedingly foolish to hope in an extraordinary, rare and uncertain grace that God has not promised, instead of receiving the ordinary grace He has provided for our salvation. “The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude” (CCC 1257). Therefore charity obliges parents to baptize their child who cannot be baptized by a priest within “the first few weeks.” Whenever a priest becomes available, the ordinary solemnities of the ceremony can be supplied.
How to Perform a Lay Baptism
A valid baptism can be performed by anyone intending what the Church intends, pouring water three times on the child’s head and saying this formula:
“[Name], I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
When you make contact with the priest at your parish, you will need to inform him of the private baptism and exactly how it was performed so that he can confirm it was valid. A lay baptism can only be performed in a case of necessity, when the child is in danger of death or the priest is not available to perform the Sacrament himself within a reasonable delay.
Timothy S. Flanders