The Councils of Florence and Trent, St. Thomas, & Baptism of Desire

The Councils of Florence and Trent,
St. Thomas, & Baptism of Desire

By Matt1618


Some argue that the Council of Florence and the Council of Trent teaching on the absolute necessity of water baptism for salvation allow no exceptions. Here are two urls that have addressed the Council of Trent’s teaching on the issue: Matt’s Opening Statement and here: The Council of Trent and Baptism of Desire. In this article, I will look at the issue from another angle, including a look at St. Thomas' influence on the issue of the desire for water baptism and salvation. On the issue of Cantate Domino, of the Council of Florence, which has an important decree that speaks of the necessity of the Church for salvation, I have written (as one of three de fide decrees) at the following url: An Examination of the Three De Fide Decrees. I don’t want to repeat here what I did there. Instead, I do want to focus on the meaning of the Council of Florence, which preceded the Council of Trent, on the issue of water baptism. I will look at the Council of Trent's relation to Florence on the issue as well, and the Thomistic influence apparent on both. As we look at this issue of whether the desire for water baptism is sufficient not only for justification but also salvation, the issue I first want to look at is what is the meaning of the Council of Florence, and the necessity of water baptism? Some who follow the theology of Father Feeney on the absolute necessity of water baptism (which allows no exceptions on the issue of salvation for those who have desire for water baptism but who do not actually receive it) say that the Council of Florence and the Council of Trent not only ignored St. Thomas’ teaching on the issue but in effect repudiated him. St. Thomas taught that one can be saved through the desire for water baptism, that one will receive salvation if he is not actually water baptized, as long as he had the intention to be water baptized. The critics also accuse him of being utterly inconsistent. The reason I want to go into St. Thomas’ teaching on the issue is because both the Council of Trent, and also the Council of Florence, specifically draws from St. Thomas’ teaching on the issue, as we will see.

St. Thomas Aquinas has had a huge effect on the issue we are going to address in this file. Some on the issue who hold to the no exception Father Feeney position, argue that St. Thomas was repudiated by the Councils of Trent and Florence. For example, Thomas Hutchinson, after quoting Florence (as I will), in Desire and Deception: Is the Church Necessary?, p. 47, writes about this: “There is no question here of Baptism of Desire, of God not being bound to the Sacraments… The Pope and Council Fathers passed non-Thomist decrees. There is no hint of ambiguity. ”

Before I specifically address the issue, I do believe that those who hold to the Father Feeney position do not take into consideration how statements can be reconciled, and create artificial distinctions because they refuse to take into consideration context, and the breadth of theology laid out in magisterial writings. This outlook colors their critiques of Church Fathers. There are sometimes Church Fathers, for example, who made statements on the necessity of baptism. On the other hand, these same Fathers will grant that if they intended to be baptized but died before they actually were baptized, they would attain salvation. The Feeneyite view would say that the Church Fathers are contradictory and are to be ignored, because they don't have their view on baptism of desire. However, the Church Fathers who made these statements did not feel that they were contradictory. A fuller theology needs to be able to make the parts fit the whole. We don’t say that the parts cancel each other out. In the same way the Magisterium makes important statements on the necessity of baptism while at the same time affirming that the desire for baptism is salvific. These truths are complementary. Both ideas express important truths that do not exclude each other. In Catholic theology, there are many truths, that are not to be pitted against each other, but are complementary truths that give us a fuller understanding of divine revelation. The Catholic Church, and its Magisterium understands this very point.

For example, Jesus teaches absolutely that one must eat his flesh and drink his blood to attain everlasting life. He says this in John 6:51-58. He teaches it in more absolute terms (6 times) than he did about the necessity of being born of water and Spirit to enter the kingdom of heaven (Jn 3:5), where he stated it only one time. However, the Church recognizes that not all people absolutely must eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood to actually partake of eternal life. For example, the Council of Trent condemned the idea that children must eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life. (Council of Trent, Session 21, canon 4). Those Catholics in Japan who survived, but did not have priests from the 17th century until the 19th century (because of the massacre of Catholics in Japan in the 17th century), but remained Catholics, and baptized their children, were not condemned to hell because they did not eat Christ’s flesh and blood during this time. Although the Eucharist is absolutely important, the Church recognizes de fide that the words of John 6 do not absolutely exclude those who either as children or adults did not partake of Christ’s flesh and blood from salvation. Likewise, Jesus speaks of the absolute necessity of believing in him for eternal life (Jn 3:16). However, the Church infallibly recognizes that those baptized children who are unable to believe will inherit the kingdom of heaven, even without personally believing. Does that contradict John 3:16? It does not. Even the Feeneyites will acknowledge these exceptions, without believing that these exceptions do away with the importance of the Eucharist or belief (Although I have run into one, who directly contradicting the Council of Trent, session 21, canon 4, actually argues that John 6:51-58 mandates that in order to enter heaven, even children are required to eat the Eucharist). This same principle applies for those who have heard of the necessity of baptism, but die before actually receiving it. Nevertheless, the Feeneyite will not acknowledge this exception. However, the view that baptism of desire is not sufficient for salvation is based on an errant reading of both the Council of Florence and the Council of Trent.

Here I want to focus most especially on the Council of Florence, on whether any exceptions are allowed for those who desire water baptism, but die before receiving it, can achieve not only justification (which the Feeneyite will allow for), but also salvation.

Our first look will be at the relevant parts of the Council Decree on baptism.

Denzinger 696 Holy baptism, which is the gateway to the spiritual life, holds the first place among all the sacraments; through it we are made members of Christ and of the body of the Church. And since death entered into the universe through the first man, "unless we are born of water and the Spirit, we cannot," as the Truth says, "enter into the kingdom of heaven" (cf. John 3:5). The matter of this sacrament is real and natural water; it makes no difference whether cold or warm. The form is: I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Yet we do not deny that through these words: Such a (this) servant of Christ is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Holy Ghost * or: Such a one is baptized by my hands in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, a true baptism is administered since the principal causes, from which baptism has its power is the Holy Trinity; the instrumental cause, however, is the minister, who bestows the sacrament externally; if the act which is performed through the minister himself, is expressed with the invocation of the Holy Trinity, the sacrament is effected. The minister of this sacrament is a priest, who is competent by office to baptize. In case of necessity, however, not only a priest or a deacon, but even a layman or a woman, yes even a pagan and a heretic can baptize, so long as he preserves the form of the Church and has the intention of doing as the Church does. The effect of this sacrament is the remission of every sin, original and actual, also of every punishment which is due to the sin itself. Therefore, no satisfaction must be enjoined for past sins upon those who immediately attain to the kingdom of heaven and the vision of God.

Here, we see of the importance and necessity of baptism, to be made members of the body of the Church. It then quotes John 3:5 as the way to enter life with Christ. Here Jesus says that unless one is born of water and Spirit we can not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The ultimate result, thus, according to Florence is entering the Kingdom of Heaven. The Council of Trent verifies the Council of Florence’s meaning by saying that ultimately, through being born of water and Spirit one enters the Kingdom of Heaven, canon 2, of the canons on baptism. However, it is noteworthy that the Council of Trent, which by no means meant to contradict the Council of Florence, in Session 6, amplifies the meaning of John 3:5. When speaking of justification, the Council of Trent, like Florence, quotes John 3:5. Trent says:

And this translation, since the promulgation of the Gospel, cannot be effected...without the laver of regeneration, OR THE DESIRE THEREOF, as it is written; unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.”

Notice that the desire for baptism makes one enter the kingdom of heaven, just as Florence does when it references baptism. There is no question of there being subdivisions in the effect of baptism or those who truly desire it. Nothing about, ‘well, if one is justified that is one category, but one needs the water to get into another category (salvation).’ Florence does not make such categories. The end result is entrance into the kingdom of heaven, according to Trent, whose end result is salvation. Now in the first specific part of Florence that I have quoted, there is no mention of desire, for or against. There is no mention of, “Well, if one truly desires water baptism, but dies before receiving it, he can not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Nevertheless, when the Feeneyite (Those who agree with Father Feeney) quotes Florence, that is the assumption behind their quotation. We do know by Trent, that by this desire, one is ready to enter the kingdom of heaven. We do admit, at least in this section of Florence there is no mention of desire, or intent, one way or another. That is for later in Florence.

The principle I referred to earlier, that one statement does not necessarily cancel out other statements of the same Council, applies here. The same goes with St. Thomas Aquinas. In reference to St. Thomas, what is written above on the necessity of baptism reflects what he wrote in Summa Theologica, Part III, Section 65:

A thing may be so necessary that, without it, the end cannot be attained... In this way the Sacrament of Baptism is necessary to the individual, SIMPLY AND ABSOLUTELY." (Summa Theologica, III, Ques.65, Art.4). Here, St. Thomas speaks of the necessity of the Sacrament (and even sounding more determinative than Florence), and indeed cites John 3:5 in support of the necessity of baptism, and even an absolute necessity. However, even in this section where he writes this, he specifically sends readers to the following, in III ST,, Quest 68, Article 2, The sacrament of Baptism may be wanting to anyone in reality but not in desire: for instance, when a man wishes to be baptized, but by some ill-chance he is forestalled by death before receiving Baptism. And such a man can obtain salvation without being actually baptized, on account of his desire for Baptism, which desire is the outcome of "faith that worketh by charity," whereby God, Whose power is not tied to visible sacraments, sanctifies man inwardly. Hence Ambrose says of Valentinian, who died while yet a catechumen: "I lost him whom I was to regenerate: but he did not lose the grace he prayed for." Both of those statements fit. St. Thomas is a doctor of the Church, and is not so foolish to contradict himself in the very same section of the same Summa!!! Yet opponents claim that he is so foolish. This same principle applies to Florence.

In the section stated above in Florence, just as Florence does not speak for or against the desire for baptism (yet), even the phrase that St. Thomas uses that baptism is absolutely necessary does not speak for or against baptism of desire being sufficient for salvation. The same principle applies that we saw to Jesus’ words, as well as the Magisterium’s words: Stating truths of one thing, does not always exclude other relevant statements of the Magisterium, as we will see both in another section of Florence, but also as I have shown in the Council of Trent.

Next we go to another part of the Council of Florence that deals with baptism:

Denzinger 712 - It firmly believes, professes, and teaches that the matter pertaining to the law of the Old Testament, of the Mosaic law, which are divided into ceremonies, sacred rites, sacrifices, and sacraments, because they were established to signify something in the future, although they were suited to the divine worship at that time, after our Lord's coming had been signified by them, ceased, and the sacraments of the New Testament began; and that whoever, even after the passion, placed hope in these matters of the law and submitted himself to them as necessary for salvation, as if faith in Christ could not save without them, sinned mortally. Yet it does not deny that after the passion of Christ up to the promulgation of the Gospel they could have been observed until they were believed to be in no way necessary for salvation; but after the promulgation of the Gospel it asserts that they cannot be observed without the loss of eternal salvation. All, therefore, who after that time observe circumcision and the Sabbath and the other requirements of the law, it declares alien to the Christian faith and not in the least fit to participate in eternal salvation, unless someday they recover from these errors. Therefore, it commands all who glory in the name of Christian, at whatever time, before or after baptism' to cease entirely from circumcision, since, whether or not one places hope in it, it cannot be observed at all without the loss of eternal salvation. Regarding children, indeed, because of danger of death, which can often take place, when no help can be brought to them by another remedy than through the sacrament of baptism, through which they are snatched from the domination of the Devil and adopted among the sons of God, it advises that holy baptism ought not to be deferred for forty or eighty days, or any time according to the observance of certain people, but it should be conferred as soon as it can be done conveniently, but so that, when danger of death is imminent, they be baptized in the form of the Church, early without delay, even by a layman or woman, if a priest should be lacking, just as is contained more fully in the decree of the Armenians [[n.. 696].

In this section the Council shows the relation of the sacraments to the Old Covenant’s rituals. The Old Covenant’s sacrifices only point forward to Christ’s sacrifice, and ceased with Christ’s coming. Next, what pertains to our discussion here, is that we get language concerning the need to baptize children, as there is no other remedy, besides baptism. It is important to note that the Council does say that there is no remedy for children, but does not say that there is no other remedy for adults. For those who argue that Florence argues against baptism of desire, why is there no mention of ‘no remedy for adults.’? If in fact that there is no baptism of desire for adults, why is there absolutely no mention of a lack of remedy for adults at the same time that there is a mention of no remedy for children? In fact, Florence is quoting and alluding to St. Thomas’ analysis of the issue.

Here are the Doctor’s words, in Summa Theologica, Question 68, Article 3:

I answer that, In this matter we must make a distinction and see whether those who are to be baptized are children or adults. For if they be children, Baptism should not be deferred. First, because in them we do not look for better instruction or fuller conversion. Secondly, because of the danger of death, for no other remedy is available for them besides the sacrament of Baptism. On the other hand, adults have a remedy in the mere desire for Baptism, as stated above (A[2]). (The reference that St. Thomas alludes to is the quotation that I referred to earlier which shows that the desire for baptism is salvific).

St. Thomas clearly says that there is no remedy for child except baptism. What does Florence say? Florence says that for children there is no other remedy for children except baptism. The language is obviously borrowed from St. Thomas. However, look at the rest of the sentence of St. Thomas. He writes that adults have a remedy in the mere desire for Baptism, as stated above. True, the Council of Florence does not directly quote this part of St. Thomas. However, the inferences are quite clear. Florence plainly shows that though there is no remedy for children, there are remedies for adults. If there was no remedy at all for adults, why did the Council of Florence directly draw from a section of St. Thomas (on the fact of there being no remedy for children) which shows that there is a remedy for adults? And why did Florence use the very term remedy that St. Thomas did? Florence definitely uses language similar to St. Thomas on the issue of children and remedy for baptism. If the Council drew such language from St. Thomas, but meant exactly the opposite of what he meant (that desire is a remedy for adults) in reference to baptism, it would have been incumbent upon the Council to so state that just as children have no remedy except baptism, the same applies to adults. No such statement comes from this Council or any other Council after this. Thus, the clear implication is that there is a remedy for baptism for adults, as St. Thomas himself states.

St. Thomas Aquinas, the Council of Trent
and the Immaculate Conception

Some will admit that St. Thomas did teach that the desire for baptism would suffice for salvation. However, the critics will say, saints are not infallible, but can be ignored because the Magisterium infallibly ruled against him. They easily label a doctor of the Church as inconsistent in approximately the same section of the Summa. They will next often cite his writing on the Immaculate Conception, where he disagrees with the idea that Mary was immaculately conceived. Of course they are accurate that St. Thomas is not above the Magisterium and is not infallible. However, speculation in reference to Mary and the immaculate conception was allowed six centuries before its definition. In addition, in Pope Pius IX’ definition of the Immaculate Conception St. Thomas was never referenced in one way or another. Also, St. Thomas wrote the Summa after the first EENS decree was issued, in 1215 AD. Thus, if the EENS decree implied being against baptism of desire, then St. Thomas’ view is heretical. Also, as we approach Florence and Trent we see that not only is St. Thomas not ignored on baptism of desire, but he is quoted from in support of the Magisterium!!! We have seen that in Florence. Not only that, but St. Thomas’ writings on the Summa was standard reading in the seminaries for hundreds of years after the Councils of Florence and Trent, and there is no hint from anybody who ever suggested that St. Thomas was wrong on the specific issue of baptism and baptism of desire. The Council of Trent uses the same word ‘desire’ in session six, chapter 4 of justification that St. Thomas does as well.

In one section of a book, Father Feeney and the Truth About Salvation, p. 68, by Bro. Robert Mary, He admits that the great Doctor taught the salvific efficacy of the desire for baptism. He writes: "The Great Council of Trent, passing in silence over the theories of Saint Thomas and others, defined infallibly that the sacrament of Baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation. Regarding justification, the Council defined that an ardent votum for the sacrament could suffice". Of course, as I referred to earlier, the Council of Trent itself verifies that justification is all that is necessary for salvation, as is shown in the following urls: The Council of Trent and Baptism of Desire and here: Matt’s Opening Statement.

Bro. Mary, in his book, p. 67, writes that:

In the official documents of the Councils, and in the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas and other theologians, the Latin phrase used was “baptismus in voto.” The primary meaning of the Latin noun “votum” is “vow.” Therefore, a proper translation of the phrase should be “baptism in vow,” or “in solemn promise.” In more facile English idiom, it means “a deliberate solemn intention to receive the sacrament of Baptism.” If Saint Thomas and the Council of Trent had intended to convey the meaning of “desire,” as we understand it in English, they would have used the Latin Noun “desiderium.” We see that “desire is a very weak translation which betrays the true meaning of the Latin texts.

Ironically, this same author, who on the very next page argues that St. Thomas is ignored by the Council of Trent, admits that the same terminology is used by the Council of Trent and St. Thomas Aquinas. As I am no expert in Latin, I can not argue with the terminology, although it really doesn’t seem to effect the argument much at all. My first thought would be why all the English translations had exactly the translation given us, ‘desire’ instead of ‘true vow’. Were all the translators wrong? If this translation somehow effected the question, why has there been no English translation since that time that thought ‘true vow’ should be the true translation. In any case, if one uses the term true desire, OR true vow, to receive baptism, the Council of Trent still verifies, however that terminology is translated, as salvific. That is, without the actual reception of water. And Bro. Mary, who argues on the one hand that St. Thomas is ignored, in the very previous page argues that St. Thomas’ terminology on the issue is the very same as the Council of Trent!!! That makes a good case for seeing what the Doctor meant. And as we have seen, the doctor clearly teaches the salvific value of baptism of desire, as does the Council of Trent, as has been argued in the urls I previously gave.

There are important similarities again between the Council of Trent’s Catechism, which had the approval of the Sainted Pius V, and all the Council Fathers, and was the guide to all Catholics for centuries, and that of St. Thomas’ view on the issue. What did the Catechism teach on this very issue? First, The Catechism says:

“On adults, however, the Church has not been accustomed to confer the Sacrament of baptism at once, but has ordained that it be deferred for a certain time. The delay is not attended with the same danger as in the case of infants, which we have already mentioned; should any unforeseen accident make it impossible for adults to be washed in the salutary waters, their intention and determination to receive Baptism and their repentance for past sins, will avail them to grace and righteousness.”

Notice that the Church does not rush to baptize people. It clearly says that one who is prevented by accident from receiving baptism will, by their desire result in grace and righteousness, whose end result is obviously heaven. Honest Feeneyites are reduced to saying that this Catechism teaches heresy, although others will argue that it really doesn’t mean heaven, and try to get out of the plain meanin of the Catechims’ words. As the Ecclesian Militans site notes, this Catechism was the guiding light for centuries after the Council, was promulgated and signed for by an infallibly Sainted Pope (Pope Pius V) and taught to all seminarians (alongside Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica) on this issue. We have no record of any Pope or one Council Father anywhere ever saying that this Catechism taught heresy on the matter and contradicted Trent’s decrees.

But what about the authority of Trent’s Catechism? Can’t it be ignored? Actually, a person who I engaged in a debate on the issue of baptism of desire, in his own web site says:

It was ordered by the Council of Trent, edited under St. Charles Borromeo, and published by decree of Pope St. Pius V (1566). Pope Leo XIII recommended two books for all seminarians: St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica and The Catechism of the Council of Trent. ... Originally designed to supply parish priests with an official book of instruction for the faithful... this book is simply but authoritatively written and easily understood by all. A remarkable and brilliant work, this guiding light for 400 years….” Ecclesia Militant Web Site, Bookstore – Promo for ‘Catechism of the Council of Trent.

The Catechism has authority for all. How could it be an authority, if in its explication of teaching on the issues of baptism and justification was directly contrary to its own decrees? In any case, notice that history records alongside the promotion of the catechism, St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa. We have already seen that St. Thomas likewise approves of the salvific efficacy of baptism of desire. St. Thomas’ view on desire relates to Catechumens who desire baptism but who are studying the faith, and are cut short by death. This reflects the Council of Trent. He also says that catechumens would die in God’s grace (though he wrote that they may go to purgatory, before they go to heaven, not something alluded to in the Catechism). The important part is that he allows salvation for catechumens. We see that the Council of Trent Catechism allows for the salvation of Catechumens, similar to St. Thomas. Remember, the author of the two books I referred to said that St. Thomas was repudiated, or at least ignored.

In the Summa, three objection are given, which sound very much could have been written by Father Feeney (except for objection 2, which allowed for blood baptism). Any who have read the Summa realizes that first there is a hypothetical objection stated, and St. Thomas then responds to that objection. In his response to those objections he gives reasons why baptism of desire is salvific (and he uses the term ‘baptism of desire’).

In sum, we see that the Council of Florence borrows words from St. Thomas Aquinas on the salvific efficacy of baptism of desire. The Council of Florence, though not specifically using the words ‘baptism of desire’ borrows language specifically from the Summa which teaches that, and makes very plain inferences on the issue. Just looking at one part of Florence does not cancel out another part of Florence, which makes these implications. The theology of the Church makes all the parts fit. We have also seen that the Council of Trent also used language that was in agreement with St. Thomas Aquinas. While at the same time stressing the necessity of baptism, Trent explicitly used language that even Bro. Mary, an advocate of the Father Feeney position, acknowledges is similar to St. Thomas. The Catechism of the Council of Trent is in agreement with St. Thomas on the salvific efficacy of the desire for baptism. The new Catholic Catechism alludes to St. Thomas Aquinas’ quote on the issue of the Sacraments: “God, Whose power is not tied to visible sacraments, sanctifies man inwardly." (See CCC 1257) When the current Catechism referred to St. Thomas, it is reflecting a tradition (on this very issue) that goes back more than half a millenium. St. Thomas’ view on the issue is thus not only not repudiated, but has been positively affirmed by the Magisterium for this half a millenium: Baptism of Desire is salvific.

To see the Summa Theologica in the relevant sections mentioned above,please click here to see an appendix on St. Thomas Aquinas, Sections 65 and Section 68.


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